If any universal truths can be mined out of the nightmare that was 2020, this year has, at the very least, taught us the importance of our surroundings. More than any other year in living memory, the past 12 months were defined by the countless hours we spent in some single spot, whether that setting was familiar (your walk-in-closet-size studio apartment), unfamiliar (your fiancée’s family home), or all too familiar (your childhood bedroom, where those Winnie the Pooh decals never seemed more out of place).
You know what? It might be high time to repaint some walls.
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Let’s operate on some generally shared, if not universally true, assumptions. For many of us, priorities have shifted, wallets are thinner, and we’d rather not invite painters or designers into our homes while vaccine rollout runs at a trickle. If you’re going to be indoors for the long haul, DIYing a brand-new wall color is an attainable way to breathe new life into your home—ideally with no- or low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints, especially if your space isn’t well ventilated.
“Paint is still the cheapest, quickest way to change a room. It’s the easiest way to create impact,” says Rayman Boozer, principal designer and founder of Apartment 48 in NoHo. Boozer would know. In 1997, when he was still an upstart design consultant, a fortuitous project for a Time Out New York editor led to that publication crowning him New York’s “color guru.” The moniker became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for Boozer, who has since color-consulted for scores of private and corporate clients. Whether he’s designing a Manhattan loft or a boardroom for Vox Media, Boozer’s work is unified by a penchant for bold, declarative hues—royal purples pinging off rich grays, blue-greens and chartreuse nestling together like a peacock’s plumage.
“I’m not afraid of taking risks with color. My biggest color conundrum is when I have clients who don’t want color, because my go-to is something bright and happy,” he says. Boozer points to a practical application of bright hues during shelter-in-place. Imagine, for a moment, the space you work in. Do you often find yourself gazing out the window? At a time when many of us are sighing longingly at the outside world, Boozer believes it’s imperative to choose a color that refocuses attention back inside the space. For example: if you have a sunny, plant-filled room but still find yourself staring covetously at the big oak outside your window, try a leafy green hue that plays up the solarium vibe.
Nor should you be spooked by space constraints: You can create a whole world of dimension in even the most cramped, overstuffed room by painting just one wall or accenting with a gutsy hue. “I always tell my staff I like colorful wallpaper because it keeps people inside the apartment. Otherwise they look right out the window, which just makes the space feel smaller,” Boozer says.
Of course, what makes a color engaging is all in the eye of the beholder. Parents in particular typically find themselves on the tamer side of their children’s color preferences. Say you’re repainting and your kid is keen on a garish bedroom hue that doesn’t work with the rest of your place. What then?
“A small child doesn’t have any reference for color, so of course they’re going to pick the brightest color they can think of,” Boozer says. “The best thing I’ve come up with is to paint a dado or chair rail with the brighter color. Then, above it, you paint a lighter, softer color”—Boozer is a big fan of Benjamin Moore’s Windmill Wings—“or just keep it white. It works great, because the child’s preferred color is on their level, at their height.”
But when it comes to the COVID-19 era, Chicago-based design writer Jude Stewart suggests throwing caution to the wind and simply letting your tyke have her way. After all, it’s her space too—even if your daughter’s zest for Pikachu Yellow makes you cringe.
“I’m now speaking as a parent, but projects you can do together that give your kid a sense of agency are huge,” Stewart says. “It’s their room, and you can close the door. Plus, if it makes the kid want to curl up and read, then that frees up the rest of the house from getting colonized by the child—which, speaking from experience, often happens.”
If technicolor hues aren’t your thing in any context, there’s still an entire universe between bland and utterly eye-popping. Stewart suggests that sheltering painters venture outside their comfort zone rather than instinctively gravitating to inoffensive hues. Case in point: A few years ago, Stewart toured a series of staged apartments that were all painted the same “sad default gray.” It made her realize how much social conformity is coded in “safe” colors.
“It was the gray, an ‘upper-middle-class gray,’ ” Stewart remembers. “What a non-choice! It made me feel like I’m not a person. Just because it affirms some vision of how much one can afford doesn’t mean it’s beautiful or attractive.”
On the other hand, it’s certainly possible to go “too wacky, too early,” In her 2013 book Roy G. Biv: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, Stewart recalls the time she hastily painted her living room Little Angel yellow, charmed by its appearance on a paint chip. But after swathing the entire room in that color, she writes, “the oppressive cheerfulness clamped down on you like a migraine.”
“Sometimes we want to be creative but don’t give ourselves enough time to let that idea develop. You have to live with it, let yourself live with it,” she says.
Never has that been more possible than during shelter-in-place. With more time in the home, prospective painters can slow down the process and select colors more deliberately. Stewart recommends painting large swatches and mulling over the colors for weeks, even months, to see how well you get along together.
By giving it time, you’ll also be more aware of how the paint holds up throughout the day. “A room changes all day long as the light changes. The same paint color you like at the brightest point of the day might feel oppressive at the end of the day,” Stewart says. “That’s the sort of thing we can notice now, whereas before, if you left the house at 8:30 and got back at 5:30, you might not have dialed in to that too much.” (An additional tip from Stewart: If your space is wanting for natural light to begin with, redo your window trimmings in semigloss. Its gentle, unobtrusive sheen will reflect more natural light into your room.)
The bottom line: While quarantine feels like forever, paint is not. Why not take a relatively inexpensive risk? “Over the years, I’ve gotten really good at choosing colors just based on some bad choices and experimenting,” Boozer says. “You can live with something for a week, decide it was a mistake, then just paint over it. All you have is time. We aren’t going anywhere for a while.”