Master Class: Color Your World
If your most daring decorating move was painting the living room greige, it may be time to give the neutrals a rest. Wallpaper and textile designer Nancy Wolff shares her tips for breaking out the paintbox
The founder of Loboloup, a New York-based design studio that specializes in distinctive handmade wallpaper, Nancy Wolff started her career in textile design. Over the course of 30 years, her iconic work has appeared on every imaginable surface, from pens to rugs, lampshades to backpacks, sheets to jigsaw puzzles. Wolff’s designs have been displayed at New York’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and included in the Society of Illustrators Original Art exhibit; her wallpaper is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum. We asked her to share her eye for color with anyone wanting to cast their home in a new light.
Q: How can someone learn to combine colors?
A: Full-time designers constantly work with color — we’re always experimenting, always coming upon color combinations that suddenly look fresh. So there’s a lot of inspiration out there. As a homeowner, go to Pinterest and design magazines, and hone in on what appeals to you color-wise.
Q: Are there any tried-and-true rules to follow, such as the 60-30-10 percent formula?
A: I don’t believe in rules, but if you’re uncomfortable without a guideline, that one is okay — doing 60 percent of a room in a neutral shade, then adding other colors in smaller amounts. But I honestly advise throwing out the rulebook and trying lots of things. You probably want to stick with neutrals for your big-ticket items, like a sofa; on the other hand, you could go crazy with a brilliant rug, and build the rest of the room in subdued layers.
Q: What do you think about a neutral space with one accent wall — impactful or gimmicky?
A: An accent wall can work if the color and design are integrated into the rest of the room. But so often, an accent wall just stops your eye cold. I can understand not wanting to commit to a whole room of pattern or color, but unless done correctly, an accent wall says, “I’m not willing to commit.” A large room completely decked out in wallpaper is something I love to see, but if you’re not convinced, give it a try on the walls of a smaller space.
Q: What can you get away with in a small area that won’t work in a large space such as a living room?
A: On an accent like a throw pillow — or even in a modest space like a powder room or a hallway — you can go bolder and bigger than in a room that you spend huge amounts of time in. That’s simply because you’re not going to get sick of it. In a powder room, especially, I love to see big, bold wallpaper on every wall. It adds depth and interest — there’s more to take in than blank walls. And it makes a small room look larger, as your eye is encouraged to travel around the space.
Q: What is your biggest pet peeve when you see color choices in interiors?
A: Boring. I hate when someone’s house looks like a hotel room. Beige on top of beige with all the wood tones matching — it’s as though the owners purchased everything the same day. I’d encourage them to mix things up: Add something with color, change up hard and soft surfaces with glass and tactile fabric, expand into different kinds of wood. Inject some of your personality into the space by highlighting art that you love or a collection you’ve amassed over the years. And put up some wallpaper!
Q: When do you know you’ve got too much color going on in a room—or is that impossible?
A: You’ve gone overboard when you don’t know where to look. You want to be comfortable in a room; when your senses are overpowered, you’ve gone too far. But as I said, I don’t believe in rules. If you’re working with a neutral backdrop, a lot of color can work. Think of decorating a room like building the layers of an outfit. The walls are one layer, the floor is another, the furniture a third. Then there are art and accessories. At some point you should know it’s time to stop.
Q: What works for a bedroom vs. a dining room?
A: A bedroom is where you’re going to sleep and relax, so you want something calming, not a riot of color. Nobody wants a red bedroom. Cool blues and greys are go-tos. I think the focus of the dining room should be the table — the food, the place settings, the linens. Choose wall treatments that are going to enhance the experience, not compete for attention. Stay away from graphic contrasts, metallics, and pulsating colors like vibrant turquoise. I see the perfect dining room wallpapered in a small repeating pattern in a color like pale sage, light salmon, or soft grey.
Q: Let’s say you’ve made a mistake with a big piece of custom furniture — a sofa that’s too red or too green, for example. Is there a way to tone that down?
A: You need to break up that big block of color. Unless you can train your dog to sit on it whenever you have people come over, use a throw or a few accent pillows. Slipcovers are a good last resort. Whatever you do, don’t try to introduce that color elsewhere in the room — you’ll just highlight your mistake. Word to the wise: Don’t drink when ordering custom furnishings.
Q: What looks old or stale right now?
A: As soon as anyone says it’s the color of the year, it’s curtains for that color.
Q: A lot of people with wood-and-stone mountain homes take a lumberjack approach to color — black watch tartans and classic red-and-black plaids. How would you suggest shaking it up?
A: To me, mountains are synonymous with lightness — how did everything get so dark? It’s natural to want to stay true to the environment, but all that stone and wood can be very cold. Not to mention the fact that you don’t want your home to look like your neighbor’s. If you want a plaid, go for one that nobody else has, in a softer, more sophisticated color scheme. Paint some of the wood to lighten it up. Whitewash or limewash the stone fireplace. Lighten up the mantle. Lay down a creamy wool rug in a three-dimensional weave. Make it warm and inviting, as opposed to hard and anonymous.
Q: How do you avoid making a color or wallpaper choice you’ll regret a year from now?
A: Don’t rush into anything. If you’re using paint, get small cans of the colors you’re considering, paint sample boards, and live with them for a while. You can do the same thing with wallpaper: Order a roll and see how it looks after a couple of weeks. Spend time thinking about it.
Q: Is a black-and-white color scheme a classic or a cop-out?
A: Black-and-white as an overall scheme has worked for as long as I’ve been alive. But like everything else, you need to mix it up: hard and soft textures, layers, shades of black and white. Then throw in a few bits of color. It’s hard to mess it up.
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