What do our colours choices for our homes say about us? Cassidy George explores the evolution of our favourite interiors hues – and what they can tell us.
“Colour is coming in and out of fashion all the time,” says author Kassia St Clair, when asked about the latest colour trends for interiors. Instagram, the never-ending, digital catwalk of design, has made it easier than ever for us to identify the hues du jour with hashtags, some of the most popular of which include #sagegreen and #blushpink. 2021 has also given new life to some of the most notorious hues from 1970s interiors, like #mustardyellow and #avocadogreen. But the popularity of certain shades in certain times is more than just a product of an ever-evolving trend cycle; it’s a reflection of who we are, our moment in time and most importantly – how we want to feel in the space that’s most precious to us. “We never pick a colour without a meaning,” colour psychologist Karen Haller tells BBC Culture. “We might not know why we’re doing it, and we’re typically about 20% conscious of the colour choices we make. But we are emotional beings, and we see colour before anything else.”
The evolution of interior design over the past 100 years is its own dynamic colour story, which mirrors the zeitgeist of each particular era. In the 1920s, the sleek and geometric Art Deco style emerged as a reaction to the feminine curves and organic hues of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movement, which preceded it. The interiors of cutting-edge skyscrapers and affluent homes started to glimmer with gold, silver and chrome accents, which made for a lively contrast with jet black and ivory. This “gilded” period of design was led by people like Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Eileen Gray, whose glass, mirror and lacquer-laden aesthetic was largely inspired by advancements in technology.
Eltham Palace in the UK is an example of classic 1930s Art Deco style – with plenty of gold and monochrome (Credit: Getty Images)
Meanwhile, professors Wassily Kandinsky and Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus school honed in on colour theory while advocating for a democratic approach to design, rooted in accessibility and functionality. The Bauhaus aesthetic was based on a muted and science-informed colour palette, with the occasional bold accent in primaries. With the coming of World War Two, the use of colour in interiors faded. “In a world of rationing, loss and hardship, [colour] came to be seen as unnecessary and frivolous. It was pushed to the sidelines as a luxury,” writes Haller in her book The Little Book of Colour. “[It] was considered a merely aesthetic, decorative afterthought – not as integral to design and certainly not to our wellbeing.” But as the war came to a close and the economy slowly recovered, the muddy greens and browns of the military era melted away, making way for a vibrant new period of optimism, options and product availability. Colour historian Patrick Baty writes in Anatomy of Colour: “The increased availability of new materials – plastic, PVC, linoleum and laminates – in a wide range of colours was a major factor behind the radical shift in interior design”. Synthetic pastel hues like carnation pink, aqua and pale yellow became popular interior choices in the post-war era, making their way into fitted kitchens, bathrooms and fabrics of the time.
In the 1950s, Mid-century Modernism, pioneered by designers like Charles and Ray Eames, lent itself to quirky pops of colour in product design and upholstery (like the seafoam-green Eames chair). David Harrison, the author of A Century of Colour in Design, cites George Nelson’s iconic Ball Clock, which features turquoise, lime-green and indigo details, as emblematic of the hues of the period: “Produced in Michigan in six shades the ball clock became most widely recognised in its multicoloured form, a symbol of the atomic era in which it was created.” Cherry red became a popular accent colour in interiors, as was the case with another iconic mid-century design, Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair. “There was a definite attempt to brighten things up and make things cheerful in the immediate post-war period,” Baty says.
The vibrant shades of the 1960s Artifort Tulip chair have added to its iconic design status (Credit: A Century of Colour in Design/ Thames & Hudson)
The Americana influence of the 50s eventually made way for the swinging and ultra-saturated 60s, when the UK established itself as the world’s hub of progressive design, fashion and popular culture. “By the 1960s, freedom of choice, experimentation and confidence in new synthetic materials were at a peak. The era embraced colour and pattern in clothing in a major way, and interiors were not far behind. There was an explosion in brightly coloured plastic chairs, tables, lights and other accessories in the home,” Harrison writes. Raucous colours like Jaffa orange, sunshine yellow and violet made their way into soft furnishings and the “space-age” furniture of the time, created by designers like Pierre Paulin (of the Tulip chair) and Eero Aarnio (of the Ball chair). Colour in the home became a bold declaration of identity in an era defined by individualism, experimentation and rebellion. “That explosion of self-expression, feminism and free love, which really transformed society, reflected very much in the design content and colour choices of the time,” Harrison says.
The garish 1980s birthed an array of antithetical design movements and trends
In the 1970s, cultural focus shifted from outer space to planet Earth. The bold shades of the 60s interiors became warmer and more organic, morphing into popular sister shades like burnt orange, mustard yellow and golden olive. The colours of 70s interiors, complete with their macrame, shag-pile carpet and conversation pits, mirrored a newfound sense of biophilia – or love of nature – both in politics and design. “Green became shorthand for nature,” St Clair writes in her book The Secret Lives of Colour, where she unpacks the story of avocado green, which is perhaps the most emblematic shade of the era. “As shoppers strove to appear sincerely concerned for the welfare of the world, the furthest reaches of consumer goods – clothing, kitchen appliances, baths, even cars, were colonised by this smoky yellow-green tint,” St Clair writes.
Colour reached an absurdist peak in interiors in the 1980s: a time defined by the deregulatory economics of Reagan and Thatcher and the sudden chicness of conspicuous consumption. This garish period birthed an array of antithetical design movements and trends. It gave us the experimental “anti-design” group, Memphis, who are known for their rule-breaking and childlike colour combinations (and love of graphic squiggles), as exemplified in one of their most famous designs: the 1980 Carlton Room divider. The 80s also gave us the floral queen Laura Ashley, known for her love of ruffles, lace and fabrics in saccharine pastels – and most notably, mauve. The “preppy” look, bolstered by lifestyle brands like Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis, became the aesthetic of the affluent and inspired more use of “rich” shades like hunter green and burgundy in the home.
Muted, earthy colours are re-emerging now, including smoky greens and mustard yellow (Credit: Farrow & Ball)
The 90s and early 2000s were the undoing of the colour craze, as minimalism suddenly became synonymous with contemporary. The pristine and ethereal environments in Scandinavian design became the new interior ideal, leading to flavourless colour palettes dominated by cream, beige, grey and their lovechild: greige. As the housing market bubble reached closer to its crash, and shows like the unscripted US TV series House Hunters became a commercial success, “beigeification” became an interior epidemic, reflecting the trepidation of a moment in time when homes were viewed more like assets than habitations. Soon, beige – which was in widespread use because it was assumed to be the least offensive of shades – transformed into one of the most. “It could be the colour concept of the bourgeoisie: conventional, sanctimonious and materialistic,” writes St Clair.
In recent years we’ve seen a more individualised and eclectic approach to interior colour palettes take hold. As the neutrality and caution of the 2000s fell out of favour, glamour and maximalism are back in interiors, leading to the frequent use of deep jewel tones, like emerald green, dark ruby, amethyst and sapphire, which also complement the 2010’s metallic of choice: copper. More daring use of colour has been aided by exposure to a variety of design styles and influences on platforms like Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram. The “anything goes” mentality, especially when coupled with social media algorithms and the fight for attention on our feeds has lent itself to dramatic, even theatrical use of colour in interiors. “It helps on Instagram to have a look that’s quite arresting,” St Clair says. “You’re being shown hundreds of images, so bright, saturated colours with vibrant contrast are what’s going to make you stop and look. People seem to be responding to those Crayola combinations.”
Colour trends come and go – rich, jewel-like hues are a favourite with maximalists (Credit: Homewings)
And of those eye-catching colour combinations, pink and green are proving an especially prominent, Pinterest-worthy pop. In addition to being natural compliments on the colour wheel, this union also combines two of the most prominent interior trends in recent years. A mid-decade, pop-cultural obsession with “millennial pink”, which is associated with youthful and progressive attitudes towards gender roles, feminism and beauty standards, has made its way into interiors, where soft pinks and rose golds are common accents. Homes have also become much greener lately in terms of wall colour, cabinetry, soft furnishings and an increased appreciation for houseplants; “it” plants, like the Fiddle-leaf Fig and Monstera, are some of the most popular accessories of the decade.
When it comes to choosing the scheme of your own home, colour decisions should never be made based on the tastes or opinions of others
Colour psychologist and researcher Eleftheria Karipidi says the enthusiasm for green in interiors is linked to the climate crisis and concern for the planet. “Sustainability has become a key consideration for people around the world, because of global warming. That’s being reflected in our choices at home,” Karipidi says. Widespread environmental awareness echoes the concerns of the 1970s, which explains why the era’s “eco-friendly” interior colours, like terracotta, mustard yellow and avocado green, have been recycled back into fashion.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the role of the home has changed dramatically in our lives, and different emotional needs lend themselves to different colour choices. Bright and bold hues have been exchanged for more soothing, organic shades. “Biophilia is big again. We’re seeing a lot of interiors that feature muted, earth colours, particularly blues and greens,” said Amy Brandhorst, head of design at Homewings. “It reflects our desire to create a calming space that’s a sanctuary from the chaos of the outside world.” The year’s most “Instagrammable” shades by UK house-paint brand Farrow & Ball – well-known for their tongue-in-cheek colour names like Dead Salmon, Arsenic, Sulking Room Pink and Drop Cloth – reflect Brandhorst’s statement. #HagueBlue, a “deep and dramatic blue” with green undertones, #StiffkeyBlue, “an inky navy” and #SapGreen, which they have deemed “a true reflection of nature,” are among the brand’s most popular hashtags in 2021.
Dusky pink paints are sought after at the moment – including Sulking Room Pink (Credit: Farrow & Ball)
Experts agree, however, that when it comes to choosing the scheme of your own home, colour decisions should never be made based on the tastes or opinions of others. As everyone reacts to colours differently, the most responsible decision is to disregard trends entirely. The shades you surround yourself with should be a matter of personal preference, rather than popularity. “At the core of every design concept is the user of the space,” says Brandhorst. “Who are they? How do they want to feel? How can colour, shape and texture improve their individual experience?”