The Psychology of Color

Choosing a color isn’t just about personal taste — it’s about creating a mood.
Blue And White Striped Game Room

Blue And White Striped Game Room

Figure A

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According to color expert Kate Smith of Sensational Color, choosing colors for the home has everything to do with how you want a room to feel. “I usually tell people to close their eyes and imagine the room once it’s decorated,” Smith says. “How does it feel? What are you doing in there? Think about function and feeling, and that will lead you to a color scheme.” 

It helps to understand the way different colors speak to our brains — and our hearts:

Red

“Red can actually physically stimulate us,” Smith says. “It can increase our respiration and heart rate and make us feel more energized.” That has both good and bad connotations; red can be associated with anger, of course, but also with love. In the home, red makes a great accent color because of its ability to draw attention (think of a stop sign), but also works well as a bold wall color. America first fell in love with red living rooms thanks to the White House parlor known as the Red Room, and they’re still a smart design choice.

Bold Floral Wallpaper

Bold Floral Wallpaper

"I'm seeing more and more florals inspired by historic botanical books, especially in cotton prints and wallpapers," says interior designer Lori Dennis. "It's like chintz in a new way." This isn't Grandma's floral wallpaper: Think large-scale patterns, vibrant blooms and big, bold hues. Photo courtesy of Romo.

Photo by: Romo

Romo

Red Doors Beckon

Red Doors Beckon

The rich red color of the pocket doors hints at the stunning elegance of the dining room beyond.

Photo by: Eric Perry ©2014, Scripps Networks, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Eric Perry, 2014, Scripps Networks, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Orange

Orange is a high-energy color with a sense of fun, although it can be polarizing; people tend to love it or hate it. It’s usually a favorite of those who like to be known for their creativity and individuality. “In decorating, coppery oranges — both light and mid-tone—are really coming back into play,” Smith says. “Orange blends really nicely with neutrals, so definitely take a second look at it if you haven’t thought about it in a while. There are so many tones you can choose from, from pumpkin orange to terra cotta to peach.”

Vibrant Orange Sitting Room

Vibrant Orange Sitting Room

Two orange-tufted, high-back chairs sit against a window with white drapes. A blue throw is on the seat of one chair and a blue floral pillow is on the other chair. A small, white table is positioned between the chairs and used to display a lovely bouquet of orange tulips.

Decorating with Orange

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Take It Outside

Warm colors like orange give off an energy and intensity unmatched by their cooler cousins. Use these hues in spaces where you anticipate and want activity, like an outdoor living room.

Energetic Style

Contrary to popular belief, adding color to a room without a lot of natural light helps brighten the room and makes it feel larger. In this living room makeover, Kim Myles uses several colors, including a warm orange and lime green, to expand the space.

Functional Furnishings

If you're taking your first foray into orange, start with a few furnishings in a muted shade. For this makeover, designer Candice Olson adds a chaise lounge and ottoman in a deep autumn hue. Pillows in a similar tone pull color into the neutral sectional.

Balancing Hues

One of the best ways to show off a color is to combine it with its complementary hue. In this Moroccan design, Kim Myles uses orange and blue, which sit across from each other on the color wheel, to create a vibrant, energetic outdoor living space.

Orange Accents

Not quite ready to take the plunge into orange? Add pops of the hue with accessories. In this design, David Bromstad uses brightly colored orange pillows in different patterns to contrast the neutral furnishings.

Touches of Tangerine

Since orange is the color of the sun, it's only natural that it creates a bright and warm atmosphere. In this tropical makeover, orange is combined with hot pink and yellow, creating an analogous scheme, which means the colors sit next to each other on the color wheel.

Citrus Influence

To spice up this kitchen, designer David Bromstad paints an orange backsplash with a floral motif. Like its adjacent color red, orange is known to stimulate the appetite, so it's perfect for a kitchen.

Shades of Pumpkin

To highlight a neutral palette, add a splash of color. Kim Myles uses deep browns and grays to create a relaxing bedroom retreat, but opts for a muted orange to add color as a subtle accent.

Orange Focus

Orange is ideal for highlighting the main focal points in your room, since it has a high visibility. Think outside the box when working with your fireplace and turn it into a real centerpiece. For this project, David Bromstad designed a facade that looks like a Shaker dresser to transform the look of the fireplace.

Yellow

“Yellow is all about optimism and happiness,” Smith says. It’s a chatty, energetic color, great for kitchens and family conversations; it also has the ability to evoke memory and imagination. Combined with lavender, it’s also thought to have healing properties.

Master Bedroom With Nursery Wing

Master Bedroom With Nursery Wing

This nursery wing adjoining the master bedroom creates the perfect place for your newest addition! The lines in the yellow and white wallpaper make the room feel bigger and the ceilings higher while keeping the vibe soft and relaxing.

From: John Lyle

Photo by: Photo Credit: Edward Addeo © Gibbs Smith, Farrow and Ball, Brian D Coleman, Edward Addeo (photographer)

Photo Credit: Edward Addeo, Gibbs Smith, Farrow and Ball, Brian D Coleman, Edward Addeo (photographer)

Green

If you want a sense of calm, look no further than green. “The connection with nature means that we associate green with peacefulness and balance,” Smith says. “It also has associations with renewal, good health, and positive growth.”  The human eye can actually see more variations of green than of any other color because of our evolutionary history—surrounded by green in the natural environment, our ancestors had to be able to distinguish the slightest changes in the landscape to protect themselves from predators. (But now that we’re not expecting anything to jump out of the bushes, green is a wonderful way to bring the peace of nature inside!)

Double Closets

Double Closets

It may be true that sharing is caring, but the kids’ bedroom features two spacious closets capable of housing two separate wardrobes with extra storage space.

Photo by: Eric Perry

Eric Perry

Blue

Blue is everyone’s overwhelming favorite for a reason. “It’s a constant in our lives, between blue sky and blue water,” Smith says. “There’s a real trust factor with blue.” That’s why many of our authority figures wear blue uniforms, and why blue is the most popular color for corporate logos. Blue also slows our heartbeat and respiration, giving it a calm, sedating effect and making it an excellent choice for bedrooms. If you like the idea of blue but want a sense of profoundness — with a little mystery — go with deep shades like indigo and midnight blue.

Blue Americana Guest Room

Blue Americana Guest Room

Red pillows pop amongst the blue houndstooth, blue gingham carpet and blue paisley bed linens in this Americana guest room.

Decorating with Blue

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Beautiful With Blue

Designer Andrew Suvalsky likes to complement blue with one earth tone or neutral color to make the look more modern. Without an earth tone, anything from cream to beige to brown, blue color combinations will feel more traditional. Suvalsky's room, shown here, is an example of making blue modern.

Cobalt Kitchen

It's not every day you see an electric-blue kitchen. Then again, it's not every day you see a kitchen as fabulous as this one in a 19th-century apartment in Paris. The sleek, color-saturated cabinets are by Snaidero, with a Brilliant Blue finish in high-gloss lacquer. The contrast provided by soft cream walls helps to electrify the already bold shade. Ed Ku, of Coffinier Ku Design, Ltd., acknowledges that the effect is not for everyone, and should not be decided on a whim.

Jazzy Blues

Although the walls of this show house bathroom by designer Jamie Drake are covered in deep, midnight blue, the room looks and feels bright and airy thanks to generous splashes of white.

Balanced and Blue

While blue rooms often have a beach-house feeling, this bedroom in a New York City loft is 100 percent citified. Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz, whose firm designed the space for a London-based theater producer and restaurant owner, says that velvet is always urban. In addition to the velvet, the room is swathed in layers of other blue fabrics — the same deep, gorgeous shade in subtly different textures. White lamps and night tables make the blue look even more intense.

Blue, Take Two

A sofa covered in blue leather, sofa cushions in blue velour and deep blue drapery layer the color for an intense, enveloping and warm feeling. When the resident of that gorgeous blue bedroom (previous photo) decided to downsize, he changed his address, but not his favorite color. Turning to designer Andrew Suvalsky, an alumnus of Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz's firm, the client again requested blue, blue and more blue. Suvalsky delivered, beautifully.

Purple

Purple used to be favored by women, but more and more men say they’re drawn to it these days, according to Smith. It’s associated with mystery, royalty, and creativity — and even a little eccentricity. But if you use it in the home, choose a shade that leans clearly toward a blue or a red undertone, such as a grayish lavender or a red-violet, which tends to make people more comfortable. True purple (often the top choice of preteen girls) can come on too strong.  

Wool Kilim Trellis Rug in Lavendar

Wool Kilim Trellis Rug in Lavendar

Kilim Trellis 8' x 10' wool rug in lavender, $660, rugsusa.com

Photo by: Jim Bastardo

Jim Bastardo

White

“White is all about purity, cleanliness, neutrality, and fresh new beginnings,” Smith says. From bridal gowns to picket fences, white conjures a very positive connotation for most of us, even though at its extreme it can be sterile and cold. If you’re choosing a white for the home, be aware that there are few true whites; pay close attention to the undertones. “If you want just a hint of color in a room, you can start by looking at whites,” Smith says. “Choosing a white with blue, pink, gray, or green undertones can be quite beautiful.”

All White Room Corner Seating Area

All White Room Corner Seating Area

Varying textures and shapes help make this all white room more than one dimensional. The shag throw pillow and green stemmed white lilies prove to be the center piece of this space. While the design is simple the added textures and modern decor makes this space an elegant one.

A Serene Bedroom

A Serene Bedroom

An all-white bedroom features a white four-poster canopy bed and silver touches including an art deco mirror and lamp. Together the colors create a light and airy feel perfect for enjoying breakfast in bed.

Pink

Quite literally, pink is the excitement of red toned down with the purity of white. It’s sweetness and romance with a touch of innocence, which speaks powerfully to many women, especially as they age. “Pink has a connection to youthfulness and carefree days,” Smith says. Although pink has a strong feminine quality, when mixed with a bit of brown or gray it can also be used as a neutral that conveys calm, stillness, and beauty.

Graphic Pillows Add Pizazz to Eclectic Living Room

Graphic Pillows Add Pizazz to Eclectic Living Room

On sofa, from left: Jaipur 20" x 20" cotton canvas pillow cover in coral, $64, serenaandlily.com; gingham checkered 20" x 20" cotton pillow in brown, $60, and Boho Aztec 13" x 21" cotton pillow in coral, $50, both zazzle.com; diamond 20" x 20" cotton canvas pillow cover in coral, $64, serenaandlily.com. On chair: Tribal Aztec chevron 13" x 21" cotton pillow, $50, zazzle.com

Photo by: Jim Bastardo

Jim Bastardo

Brown

“Brown grounds us,” Smith says. “It’s all about reliability, stability, and approachability.” Although neutrals frequently go in and out of vogue, warm brown is back in a big way, she says, from soft baby browns all the way to dark espresso shades.

Brown Pocket Door

Brown Pocket Door

Gray

Gray stands for wisdom, intellect, and knowledge, and it’s a color we instinctively trust. “It conveys authority and a firm foundation,” Smith says. “Gray is a great neutral that you can use without pushing the boundaries too far, but it’s still classic, sleek, and sophisticated.”  Gray in the home used to be far less fashionable, probably because shades available on the market tended toward an industrial, battleship gray. Now, however, gray is much more versatile, taking on brown or blue undertones to work with almost any color you can dream up. 

Modern Gray Kitchen

Modern Gray Kitchen

This streamlined kitchen includes sleek gray cabinets, built-in wine storage,a to-the-ceiling tile application, a woven metal light fixture and stainless steel appliances.

Black

People tend to have a strong, primal reaction to black. “There’s something very mysterious about the void in black,” Smith says. “It feels a little bit dangerous and powerful. People definitely notice it.” In the home, black can work a special kind of magic. A black lacquer entryway, for example, can convey formality and grandeur. And contrary to what you might expect, an expanse of black — say, black subway tile in the kitchen — can open up a room. “That lack of color can actually expand your space instead of closing it off,” Smith says, “giving it an endless quality.”    

Bold Black Hallway

Bold Black Hallway

This bold black hallway allows the art and furniture to shine through, as well as the architectural features of the molding and ceiling. Don't shy away from black if you have a statement to make.

Black Lacquered Dining Room

Black Lacquered Dining Room

The dining room is brimming with drama thanks to lacquered walls and exposed beams. Powder blue Louis XVI chairs soften the strong personality of the jet black walls, while an art deco pendant and sideboard mirror help bounce light around the room.

Photo by: Kari Whitman

Kari Whitman

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