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Over to the Dark Side

So you have a space that has little or no natural light. What to do? Complain to all that will listen, ignore the situation, paint it white? No, no, NO! That's the MOST common mistake. Tune in to hear how to handle a dark room so that it does not end up a room ignored or reviled with Architectural Color Consultants Amy Woolf & Amy Krane.



Ep 12: Over to the Dark Side


Krane: Welcome to Let’s Talk Color.


Woolf: I’m Amy Woolf, principal designer at Amy Woolf Color and Design.


Krane: And I’m Amy Krane founding designer at Amy Krane Color. We’re both professional color experts who specialize in architectural color. We met while training and years later the conversation is still going strong.


Woolf: We both live our lives immersed in color and design. We often agree, but sometimes we don’t because color is personal. Color truths, however, are universal.


Krane: In each episode we’ll unravel the mystery of choosing color for your home or business, both inside and out.

Welcome back to another episode of Let's talk Paint Color. This is Amy Krane, owner of Amy Krane Color, and I'm here with my friend and colleague, Amy Woolf.


Woolf: Yes, hello.


Krane: Owner of Amy Woolf Color and Design.


Today we're going to tackle a subject which really bothers many home owners, and I think we'll begin with what people really get wrong about rooms that are dark. How they approach it incorrectly. I think we're in agreement about one really major thing here, and so Amy... Why don't you dive in and tell everybody what they always get wrong.


Woolf: I think one of the things that we certainly have heard year after year, consult after consult, is that the client will show us a room that is inherently dark, and they will ask to make it lighter with white paint or another light color. They ask "Can we make this inherently dark room brighter and lighter with a light color paint?" The analogy I often use which I think drives the message home, is that if you take an inherently dark room, whether it just doesn't have a lot of exposure, maybe a Northern Exposure, and you paint it white, what you're basically going to have is something that looks like the color of dish water. You know it's gonna die. And so what I generally suggest is, let's just embrace what is. Let's take that inherently dark room, fill it with some kind of a rich, deep, dark, moody, interesting color and make a little jewel box out of it. Just get with the reality and run with it so...


Krane: Yeah, I agree completely. I think that it's sort of a natural inclination for people to say "It's dark, let's put white in it, or a super light color." I think what they're not understanding, understandably, is that color is reflected light. So when you see a green wall it's green because it's absorbing almost all of the other colors in the visible spectrum, but it is reflecting green. So for this reflection to happen there needs to be light in the room. Without light to reflect color and lightness, you're not going to have a light room. Lightness and brightness are actually subjective perceptions, and the counter-point to them is luminance, which is the intensity of life reflected off of a surface into the observer’s eye. That's measured in something called L-R-V or Light Reflectance Value. And that is a number that you can find out about the paint color that you're using. So the higher the number, the closer to full reflectance or white and the lower the number, the closer to black. So getting back to where we started, if you want a room to feel brighter and it's inherently dark, you might have more success going with a color that has a similar LRV but isn't white, so it won't look like dish water. Like yellow! And okay, if you don't like yellow, that's fine. Don't go yellow. But you can use LRV, that number, to get a sense of how much light that color is going to reflect. But I agree, Amy. Embrace is the big word here. It's reality. That room is dark. It's dark. So I always say my big word is distract, or three words, distract with drama. Distract with drama, so people aren't noticing or dwelling on the fact it's a really dark room. So how do we create drama? We get drama from color. And we create drama from pattern. So I'm with you. Let's put some color in the room, even dark colors.


So what kind of rooms do you like putting a darker color into when it's a naturally dark room? What types of room ? What do you take into consideration?


Woolf: So I have what I consider my big four, and this is what I share with clients when we're looking for places to either go dark, or bold and splash out a little bit, get a little more adventurous. And those are foyers, powder rooms, laundry rooms, and guest rooms. That's partially driven by function because we don't spend a lot of time in any of those four spaces. So particularly when a client is a little timid about going bold I tell them these are the rooms where we come and go. It creates a dramatic... There we go, drama! You can load an entryway with a dark, bold or dramatic color, but it's a low commitment in terms of time, because you're just coming and going. We often see the foyer from all around the house, but it serves as an accent and not really like a living space. It's really a traffic space. A powder room is great because mostly that's a five-minute relationship, you're not in there too long. So let's go with it. Let's do something a little crazy in there. Guest rooms, of course, are fun because you don't have to live in them. It's just a fun place to play, to experiment. And then laundry rooms, of course, because I think laundry should be made as fun as possible, however possible. Sometimes that means color. A vivid turquoise or coral or something. Maybe not a dark color, but certainly a bold color for a laundry room.


Krane: Oh, I agree. I totally agree with you. I was gonna say," laundry room, I just wouldn't go dark because you really want to see the stains and the dirt on the clothing.”


Woolf: Yeah, I will say there was one project I did in Florida a number of years ago, and the laundry room was quite visible. This was in a single-story condo and the laundry room was quite visible from a lot of the passageways - the hallways. That door stayed open a lot, and my client had those really cool dark metallic laundry machines. Kind of like that gun metal color. So what I really wanted to do is settle the laundry machines down so that you wouldn't see them from the hallway so much. So in that space, yes, I agree with you. Functionally, we want to be able to see stains, but the more important function of the wall color in that space was to camouflage those laundry machines. So we loaded that.. Oh, pardon the pun, room with a dark smoky gun metal color on the walls so the washing machines just kind of disappeared.


Krane: That's great.


Woolf: So there's an exception to every rule.


Krane: Right. And you know what, by mentioning more of a bold color rather than a dark color, you did remind me that there is another kind of approach. It isn't going with a light color and isn't going with a dark color because that's scary to some people. But it's going with a higher Chroma color, a bolder color, more saturated, intense, colorful version of a color than you would put in a room with lots of natural light. The lack of natural light is going to really temper that color. You're not going to see it at its full velocity so it's really a great kind of room to put more color into- both from the standpoint of distraction and drama and also from the standpoint of it won't make it too loud. In a dark room it won't become overpowering because there isn't enough light for it to be overpowering. I would add to your list, dining room, because I think it's important to also be thinking about not only the function of the room, but what time of day that you use it. So, powder rooms share an attribute with dining rooms, believe it or not, and that's that the powder room often doesn’t have a window and therefore, it is illuminated by artificial light. And dining rooms generally, are used in the evening, so that it doesn't matter how much natural it gets because it's dark outside. So both are rooms that are being used when you're lighting with your light fixtures, and that should inform the kind of color that you use, you can go dark, you can go dramatic. It's different.


Woolf: So that's important too. I've also put interesting accent colors on dining room ceilings for a similar reason. I think that we can do a little more drama in a dining room. So strong color on the wall, or maybe a little interesting creative color on the ceiling as well, because you're right. And functionally, too. We need to see what we're eating, but it's not like we're doing hand work or checking laundry stains or cooking.


Krane: Right, right. That also speaks to how adequate your chandelier is, and if it's on dimmers... Everyone loves dimming. I'm really not a dimmer person. I just really like a lot of bright light but... the dining room is a room where I really think it's important to have your light fixture on a dimmer so you get that lighting just right for who's there, how many people are eating, the temperature, the mood, how you're decorating your table.... You know, the whole thing. So lighting is important. You know, I'm thinking about a recent client who is in Miami and she has an open plan home. It's a one floor house. There are three kids, she and her husband and there has been a lot of additions to the house so it was not at all the layout of a typical ranch. I mean, it's really kind of a strange floor plan now and there are these internal spaces in the middle that aren't near windows. They're in the middle of this big space and there are walls and partial walls that create these nooks. There was the this nook and the that nook. She had sent me her inspiration pictures and they were all bright white spaces with white walls and lots of light natural wood. It's a particular look that's been trending over the last whole bunch of years. And then she told me that she came to me because she tried to repaint it a few times herself, and the problem was even though she kind of wanted one color for the whole house, she wanted a different feeling in each space. But the bigger problem was, this is classic, what looked good here...didn't look good there. So we got into the...


Woolf: Oh, I see. Because the light exposure was different. Yeah, a color looked good on one wall and didn't look good on another wall...


Krane: Yes. Right. Because it was all open plan and you have to be so careful about where you make color changes. She wanted this kind of big open airy white-ish space, but she couldn't deal with the fact that the same color would look crappy in the breakfast room, part of the kitchen, versus the living room, or whatever. So first we went through the whole, "color is reflected light" thing. We're so used to looking at the paint color on the four walls of a room, be a white or any color, and understanding that in the corners it's darker and next to a window it is too. We just understand it. We don't think twice about it. But I think when people are out there trying to pick a new color, they're really examining how the color looks in each part of the space. They're looking for consistency that you can't really have... So anyway, what we did was a bunch of different... almost whites. They were warm. They were not bright whites, because she did have some really shadowy spaces. So we did a few different Sherwin whites. The trim and the ceilings were white flour. She wanted contrast with the walls. It's a really nice toned white, but bright. Then we did different almost-whites all over. We did Cotton white, we did Classic Light Buff. We did Kestrel white.


Woolf: I love Kestrel white.


Krane: So I gave her these and I said," this is really nuanced, so you may not walk from one room to the other and say, Wow, we just changed colors." That's how we approached it. It’s just a bunch of subtle shifts that come from the changes in colors and the changes in light. So that's a scenario where a client really insisted on having something white-ish, and we had to deal with the fact that some spaces were dark-ish.


Woolf: Good. I was really scared you were gonna tell me that you were putting in dark accent walls.


Krane: No, but you know what, Amy? We did have an accent wall in the dining room, and it was a light tan. It was Natural Linen. But I know you. I know you and I have very different propensity and tolerances for contrast between colors. My house... many rooms in my house are Simply White, and I have an accent wall that's Pacific Sea Teal, which has a really low LRV. It's probably under under 10. So again, close to zero which is black. So the room is high contrast. I like that.


Woolf: That is different. That wall is different. I always say that an accent wall requires an architectural justification, right?


Krane: Yes, that's my saying!


Woolf: And that wall, dear listeners, I will tell you, is sort of in the center of Amy's house. And all the rooms sort of flow around it. That wall holds a television and it sits almost like a sculptural presence.


Krane: It's a free-standing wall, on its own.


Woolf: And it's its own entity. And so in that case, that dark color, I love, it makes so much sense. It does exactly the right thing. And I will say if I can put a dark color behind a TV, I will always do that because what that's going to do is help absorb the TV and make it disappear. I mean, people are doing these things with TVs now, where the TV has art work on it and that's kind of cool because it looks like art... I've been fooled, I'm gonna confess. Well, once. I've only been fooled once, and then the next time I saw the TV in another client's home, I was like, "Oh, I know what you're up to here." But I do think for a regular traditional black hole in the wall TV that loading a color behind it that's really dark and is going to reduce the contrast and absorb it. It’s always a good thing. I think the same thing is true for bookcases that have a lot of stuff. When you want to lower the contrast (because it's visual contrast that draws your eye to things) and if you've got a book case, it's got an awful lot of stuff on it. You want to kind of settle it down. What comes to mind is a book case, one of my clients had that was filled with all the little arts and crafts projects her kids had made over the years, so it was very cute. It was really very heart felt. It was in her bedroom, but in order to sort of calm the visual noise down, we put a darker color behind all that stuff, so it reduced the contrast and kind of absorbed the clutter a little bit. It was lovely. Don't for one second think I don't love that teal wall......


Krane: Okay, thank goodness.


Woolf: I think it's amazing. I think it's completely amazing. And there's that functional thing. It's helping to hide the TV in plain view.


Krane: About bookcases. I had a client up in the capital region around Albany, and the husband was taking a room that was off the kitchen on one side, off the living room on the other... It must be the dining room... Yeah, it was a dining room. But with all the work at home during covid and all, he was turning it into his home office. It wasn't a super dark room but it wasn't super bright. The husband veered towards brighter colors. I had to kind of pull him back a little bit. I kept hearing what he had to say and giving him colors in that vein, but that were a little bit more tame than he was asking for. But the trim in that room was white and the ceiling was white. There were bookcases on one whole wall, and they were white. He wanted to keep it. But he wanted bright colors in there, so in the back of the book case we put Hale Orange.


Woolf: Love.


Krane: Which is a beautiful orange, but kind of deep also. The other three walls of the room, he wanted to be a bright color, and since the room wasn't so light I gave him a turquoise. It was definitely brighter than I would normally do, but it was on three walls, not four... The room was a little dark, so that was a situation where higher Chroma colors for a darker room worked...



Woolf: The last office that I did was also for a client's husband, and he is the son of an interior designer. He kind of hung to the side until it was time to pick the color for his office... Again, this is the room just off the kitchen too. He works from home. The room is a little on the dark side. There is a piano at one end, and we ended up going with Benjamin Moore's Claret from the Williamsburg collection which is sort of a pinky claret in color.


Krane: Wow. Bold for a guy.


Woolf: I'm really excited. So that'll be a fun... A fun project.


Krane: Hat’s off to a guy who embraces colors that might be stereotyped as feminine colors -which is just so silly. You know, pinks, reds, oranges… even purple.


Woolf: I did a bathroom here in Northampton last year and it was coral. During the pandemic. We did tile halfway up the walls, and so the coral was just a slice of coral in this bathroom. It was essentially a white bathroom with very dark charcoal accents and coral above the tile. It was just really gorgeous... And in that family.... I've done a bunch of projects for these folks over the years, and in that family, the husband is the lead designer. I also put orange in a powder room in a project in Baltimore. It was tiny, tiny, tiny with a sloped ceiling, and we just wrapped that whole room, every single bit of it was painted orange. So it was really great. I have a couple of favorite purples that I use in powder rooms, also from that Williamsburg collection. It's for when people love purple, but they're a little afraid. Powder rooms are just perfect for purple. How about that for some alliteration? So I love Carter Plum, which is a dark, rich, reddish plum purple. And then there's a color called Powell Smokehouse, that's kind of a smoky purple. It feels like a neutral with a strong purple undertone to it and it's just a really interesting dramatic color. Talk about going for the drama..... I've put that in libraries, music rooms, powder rooms. It's just... It's a great color. It's really, really kind of fun.


Krane: I thought of that other color I put in the man's home office on 3 walls. That turquoise is called Tidal Wave. It's a Benjamin Moore color. It's brighter than I would normally do if the room didn't have a lot of white in it and wasn't kind of dark... Another note... use warmer colors when it's a darker room. To help pump it up... Colors that are a yellow or orange, even if they’re not full blown yellow, full-blown orange. But colors that have those tones in them and come from those hue families, even if they're neutralized somewhat, are great for dark rooms. I just used a warm sort of sort of caramel, not exactly... It's an AF color (affinity), which I rarely use, and it's called Honeymoon. I used it in a sun room, so obviously it didn't have a natural light problem. But it came off of a kitchen dining area that was BM Lime white. So we were staying warm in that part of the house, and that worked really well. But getting back to embracing dark colors for dark rooms Amy. I know that you mentioned Randolph Gray offline. I mean, that is one of my favorite colors. I've used it on millwork in living rooms. I've done some incredible exteriors: a horse arena, and a barn, both in Randolph gray. I suggested it for shutters on a pink house. I think it is so fantastic. It's kind of in the world of millstone gray, which we both like - those really muted green gray colors that you're not sure if it's green or if it's grey or what it is. But it's so great. And black bean soup, if you want to talk about another warm dark color for a dark space. Brown! You know I was on Instagram yesterday, just schmoozing around and I saw a bedroom that another designer had designed and it had wallpaper that was sort of an off white background with a brown design on it, the trim in the room was brown, and a lot of the bedding was brown, and I just thought... No one uses it. They think of brown as being masculine or possibly outdated, and I think not enough Brown is used out there. There are beautiful browns and it's so appropriate for so many different kinds of spaces. Other good dark colors include rushing river, deep river, a few in Sherwin Williams - Jasper and Inkwell, Raisin and Cascades. How about you, Amy?


Woolf: That Randolph Gray you mentioned. I'm using that right now in a new construction project in Maine that I'm working on. The family entrance is a big mud room and then there's a small, basically a walk-through pantry that then emerges into a kitchen. And so we have this sort of tiny corridor, hallway type pantry, and again, here we have a small dark space, there's no lighting in. They'll be obviously electrical lighting, but no natural light. And I said, "Why don't we go with something really dramatic, something really bold." Again, interestingly, the husband in this project was asking for black somewhere... And this was my answer to black kitchen cabinets or a black Island. It was to use this Randolph Gray. So we are putting this on the island in the kitchen. But this pantry is gonna be Randolph Gray too because it's so inherently dark. It's gonna be like this little jewel box. I love doing dark colors where you come into the house and you get this dramatic entrance then you walk into the larger spaces, relatively speaking, where the colors are brighter. It creates this sense of enclosure in the smaller darker spaces, such that when you move into the larger brighter spaces, you get this really expansive somatic body experience of expansion. Like Frank Lloyd Wright did. If you've ever been to Falling Water... He employed this technique in his architecture where he would have a tiny, tiny, almost claustrophobic hallway. So you get what he considered compression, physical compression, from a small hallway. I'm using that dark color to create the physical compression. And then you move into the larger space that opens up with the bright color and that's the release. So it's compression and release. So I'm using the Randolph Gray then you emerge into this kitchen where things are lighter. I will say we're not using white in the kitchen. The cabinetry is going to be sort of a mid-tone gray, brown.


Krane:Love it.


Woolf: And then the dark Randolph Gray on the island. Countertops are gonna be light marble-like quartz. There will be lots and lots of tile from counter to ceiling, so there'll probably be little paint in this room. We're probably going to match the paint to the tile when we find the tile because that's turning out to be an exciting challenge. But anyway, that idea of compression and release. One of my first clients here when I came to Massachusetts, requested colors of Provence, and so she's got beautiful colors like rust and gold and yellow. Really lovely heart-warming colors, and I convinced her to paint her foyer really dark Navy Blue. And she literally called me three separate times before the painter showed up and said to me, "Tell me again why you want me to do it" because it was counter-intuitive. I mean, it's true. Just as we opened this show with this notion, it is counter-intuitive to paint a dark room dark. But I explained that there was just no way we were gonna make it light and bright. This was a front hall with a stairway and there were white spindles on the staircase going up. They just sparkled against the darker wall color. I often do darker gray in hallways on stair walls so that all that architectural detail of the stairs really shines. You put a white color there and then you've got the white spindles and they just kind of disappear. So anyway, we painted it Navy Blue. I think it was probably Van Deusen Blue, and she later told me it was the most talked about room in her house.


Krane: Yeah, yeah. They of little faith! It's hard to break points of view that you've held your whole life and humans gravitate towards light. Give two houses or two apartments that are identical but one has tons of natural light and one doesn't... Which are people gonna take? ... As humans, we are drawn towards light. Think about that seasonal light disorder that has to do with the lack of natural light in the winter. We want it. We want it so badly. We don't even understand why we want it, but it makes us feel good. So it is counter-intuitive to go dark in a dark space. But as we started this segment off, you can't make it light, so let's make it something else. Let's make it dramatic. Let's make it fun. Let's make it surprising. And you can do all of that with a dark color or a bolder, brighter color or a pattern... Wallpaper. Yay, wallpaper. Love it. Distract, distract.


Woolf: Yeah, distract with drama. I like that one. Yeah. Alright, well, this has been fun. I enjoy talking to you about color always, and dark colors and bold colors are certainly subject near and dear to our hearts. Dear listeners, until next time.


Krane: Thanks for spending a half hour with us as we talk about color for the built world.


Woolf: And if you would like to hear about something particular, go to Let's talk paint color dot com and send us a note. Let us know what you think and what you'd like to hear us talk about next... Take care.


Krane: And listeners, thanks so much for tuning in because we just found out that our podcast is in the top 10% of the three million podcasts that are produced around the world.


Woolf: Thank you for listening. We could not do that without our listeners. So thank you so much for being here. Yeah, until next time.


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