Emboldened by the excellence of our bedroom results, I turned my attention to the entryway and living room, both of which presented design features that my company’s Risk Review Board would name “challenges” or “opportunities,” which mortals like me tend to call “problems.”
The front door opens onto the far right-hand side of the unit, in the bagua which feng shui practitioners say influences helpful people and travel. The dining area — actually a small portion of the kitchen — lies directly ahead, the staircase cuts through the middle of the space, and the living room lies to the left. The trouble spots should be clear to anyone who has decorated a home.
The long, barren stretch of entry wall to the right draws visitors’ attention to the kitchen and garden beyond, so that they naturally tend to skirt the living room and head to the back of the house, where we may not want them initially. The staircase creates an odd, angled nook at the back of the living room. This space intrigued me when I looked at the house — I nursed fantasies about a cozy home office or built-in shelves — but in practice it’s hard to fill such a restricted space with seating or anything else. The remaining living room is almost too small for a full-sized couch.
When I moved in, I thought that gracefully arranged furniture and artwork would overcome these difficulties. After some thought, I bought an armchair and bookshelf and set up a reading nook under the staircase. It seemed to be a pity to waste the picture window, so the remaining seating — a love seat and smaller armchair — faced it. I could entertain three people comfortably, but anyone else would have to perch on dining room chairs dragged in for that purpose.
My method for choosing living room colors was simple: I chose shades from artwork I loved and intended to hang there. I’d always wanted to showcase classically inspired art on the entry wall, including two Greek plates that I’d picked up at an estate sale (or, more bluntly, a yard sale). They depicted Poseidon, the god of horses and the ocean, and an ambiguously posed couple I couldn’t identify. Cream and terra cotta predominated, with touches of oxblood, bright orange and a deep, almost black brown. I love all shades of red, so I matched the plates’ deep crimson to Sherwin Williams’ evocatively named “bolero.” That red was one of the few colors we loved from the first sample stroke (see before & after pictures of that red wall here).
For the opposing wall, we brought together two prints by the German contemporary painter Gerhard Richter. He’s been called the greatest living painter partly because he’s mastered every possible technique over a 50-year career, producing photorealistic landscapes, dazzling abstract studies, portraits, and blurred meditations on Old Masters paintings. My abstract image is one of four widely available Richter prints; I had it framed in brilliant green metal frame and non-reflective glass. The second was a real find — a rare poster from a 2007 gallery retrospective of German art showing Richter’s “Seestuck (See-See)” a 1970 painting of two wave-tossed ocean surfaces meeting at a distant horizon. It, too, is behind non-reflective glass, this time in a deep blue frame lightly marbled with gilt. Neither was terribly expensive in itself, but I remember my shock at the cost of framing them properly.
As usual, I voiced vague notions and Ken expressed them as a theme. After several spells of lying on the couch and gazing abstractedly at the walls, ceiling and floor, he suggested this: if the entry wall was to be classical, with a picture rail, decorative plates, and prints of red-figure vases, then the opposing wall should be contemporary. It would have no trim, and be a contrasting blue. We pulled a likely shade out of the abstract print and matched it to a chip, and Ken painted on a sample.
Up until now, I’d always loved the first color we chose for any given wall. This was hardly a long track record, but it made me cocky. I argued for buying two gallons instead of a sample. I’m glad Ken’s cooler head prevailed: the first blue we chose had an unfortunate lavender cast, and I repudiated it immediately. And as we’ve spread color through the house, I’ve started out with more wrong shades than right ones, testing as many as four on any given wall before buying a gallon.
That week demanded many sample trips, then, and cemented my friendship with Pablo, the sales clerk at our neighborhood Sherwin Williams. Ken and I chose the final blue shade with only two or three false casts, but the rear wall under the stairwell stumped us for a full weekend. We tried a blue one shade darker than the one on the gallery wall. Nah — insipid. We considered cream, the unifying color we planned to use throughout the house. Nah — the angle of the stairs faded into obscurity, and we wanted to emphasize it. What, then? Yellow? Green?
I slogged to the paint store one last time in search of inspiration. I finally just stood in front of the wall of paint chips, held up “our” blue, and scanned for colors that worked well with it. One color leapt out at me: Sea Serpent, a profound, almost black ocean blue. I came back with that chip and yet another boring mid-blue, and pitched my new passion to Ken.
I love Ken for many reasons that have nothing to do with home decor, but I fell for him further when he smiled indulgently and told me to get as many samples as my little heart desired, in any color that pleased me. I might bring home some odd samples, but ultimately he trusted my taste. In fact, he would paint a whole wall a silly color and repaint it to show his love (I would test this assertion months later by bringing home a truly awful bubblegum pink for the guest bathroom). “It’s just paint!” he said.
I’ve been wrong about many things, but I was right about Sea Serpent. My heart lifts every time I see it, which is the true test of any design decision. Besides, I like to have an excuse to say “Sea Serpent.” It sounds much better than “Vegan” or “Jocular Green,” two shade names I just now chose at random from the Sherwin Williams color fan.
The rest followed easily. We painted the remaining walls Antique White, chose an espresso brown for the picture rail (we bought it at Home Depot, which made us feel like we were cheating on Pablo), and began to plan gallery lighting. Other projects distracted us before the picture rail went up, so it followed relatively recently (Ken had to repaint parts of the entry wall, too, since I’d been using it to practice a yoga pose called “Scorpion”), along with the requisite hardware and a high-end outlet plate ordered online. I considered buying and framing three classical prints just for that wall, but decided to take the cheap route for now and hang three sketches for the large abstract canvas in the bedroom.
With the living room, we began to solidify our process:
1. Come up with a theme and organizing principles (classical vs. contemporary gallery walls);
2. Develop a set of colors based on that theme, modifying and rejecting them as we go (deep red, medium blue, our trusty Antique White, and, of course Sea Serpent). I usually start from a single color chosen from artwork, then add contrasting or complimentary shades, depending on the effect we’re after.
3. Wall by wall, pick two or three likely samples. Unless a sample is truly horrible — say, a vulgar blueish pink — paint two coats in large swatches next to adjoining walls and any artwork, and allow it dry completely before making a decision, living with a color for a few days if necessary.
4. Choose a weekend to prep and paint.
5. Divide labor sensibly. I am clumsy and tentative with tools, so TDH does the prep and painting. I cook, read aloud to amuse him, and pick up last-minute supplies or fresh samples.
6. Make a list and assemble all supplies in advance.
8. Replace the furniture. Become convinced that it was all wrong before, and pull it hither and yon until it feels right for the room’s purpose.
9. Lounge around on the couch for several hours dreaming up further home improvement schemes (in our case, adding lighting, changing the carpet, and, inevitably, upgrading the moldings).
I’d like to say that we whip through all of this in a weekend now, but really each room has taken at least two weeks from initial concept to happy lounging, and some have taken much longer. False starts and bad ideas rejected at the sample stage are the norm; they’ve helped me to uncover my own aesthetic, and to develop confidence that in time we’ll solve my home’s deepest design riddles.
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