Colours in the home: A Beginners’ Guide

Project // Clayfield House, Bricklayer: Dea O’Neill Bricklaying, Photographer: Alicia Taylor, Product: GB Honed in Porcelain

Colour is an integral part of our lives – but do we really understand how it impacts us? Here, a colour expert shares her knowledge.

How did you take your coffee this morning? Your usual perfect shade of milky brown – not too pale, not too dark? And what about that banana you grabbed on the way out the door – you took the yellow one, right? Not the slightly green one?

These two small examples illustrate just how much colour is a part of our everyday lives. It informs even the most seemingly inconsequential decisions.

“Our response to colour,” says Karen Haller, author of the best-selling The Little Book of Colour, “is largely unconscious and yet we are influenced by colour every single waking moment.” In this sense, none of us are beginners when it comes to using colour. We’ve been using them all our lives whether we realise it or not.

But when it comes to making conscious decisions about how we use colour in our homes, many of us get overwhelmed by the sheer variety on offer and by the idea that there are rules one must follow in order to succeed.

Haller works in the field of applied colour psychology and understands the impact colour can have on us. “The first thing we see and respond to in a room is colour,” she explains. “We have an emotional reaction to it.” It’s no wonder then, that we should want to get colour “right” when it comes to our homes.

So what are the rules? “I prefer to use the word ‘guidelines’ rather than ‘rules’,” says Haller. “Yes, certain colours can elicit certain behaviours but there is no fixed prescription.”

And before you go rushing enthusiastically to a colour wheel, remember that it was designed for painters, not for interiors. “The whole idea of complementary colours is misunderstood,” says Haller. “When it comes to interiors, it’s not about creating optical contrasts, it’s about creating an atmosphere and an experience.”

Project // Il Duomo, Architect // WOWOWA Architecture, Builder // La Trobe Building Services, Product // Austral Bricks La Paloma in Miro, Photographer // Martina Gemmola

Colours that work well together and create a beautiful atmosphere are like a harmony. “Think of an autumnal tree,” suggests Haller. Imagine rust red, golden saffron, warm mustards and olive green all working together in harmony. “Then imagine adding a cold, blue-based magenta pink to the mix. It’s a jarring note. We cringe, grimace, tense up. That is the instinct we need to trust when choosing colour.”

Project//The Gallery, Builder// Thomas Archer Homes, Stylist// Aimee Stylist, Photographer// James Greer

Haller encourages people to look inside themselves rather than follow prescribed trends when they are considering colour choices for their homes. “I want people to come back to who they are. The job of a designer is to elicit what that is from a client.”

As children, we revel in colour and make confident decisions about what colours we want to use. Haller argues that a preoccupation with trends can undermine that instinctive confidence and pleasure.

And always remember context, she says. While a vivid red wall in an adult bedroom might be just what someone needs to provoke some passion or excitement in that setting, in a child’s room, red can be unsettling and discourage the calm needed for healthy sleep. “There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to colour.”

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