Douglas Stock on ‘Fear of Color’

by Douglas B. Stock, Antique Persian Carpets

I recently traveled to New York to serve on the vetting committee for The Winter Antiques Show. I had received a “good deal” on a four star, tower style hotel in mid-town and was given quite a spacious room on a high floor.

"Serapi" with rare yellow field

What struck me, in particular, about the room was the “minimalist” decor. Though there was ample room for a nice, over-stuffed and comfortable, traditional sofa in some rich color, none was to be found. Though the room had nice hardwood floors, the only floor covering was two little scraps of some bland something on either side of the bed. The lone larger lamp, though interesting in scale and design, was difficult to work and hovered over a single, lounge style chair that might have been fine in a dentists office but was anything but suitable to sit, relax and read in. There were no drapes, only electronic shades that malfunctioned. I like open space in a room, but here existed “wasted” space. There was little, if anything, to draw the eye. No warmth; no color; no charm.
Clearly, all of the above had been carefully formulated by a designer who was following the minimalist trend. The question is: ” Why ?”.

Several years ago, we received a call from some clients who wished for us to sell, on commission, some carpets they had purchased from us a decade or so earlier. The home was a New England mansion that was featured in a book on historic homes. The main carpet was a classic, navy field carpet with bold design and saturated color.

"Ziegler" (green)

They had retained a new interior designer and were replacing the antique carpet with Sisal: bland, grass-like stuff that can not be cleaned. Again, the question is ” Why ? “.
Why would anyone exchange color and charm, items that have been held in high regard for centuries, whether it is period English chairs with beautiful fabric, antique carpets, Chinese Export Porcelain or colorful Delft pottery, why exchange these items for pieces that are frequently disposable and seem to have no character or individuality?

One can posit any number of theories, largely predicated on how cynical one is, but let’s try this as at least part of the equation. Decorating, or interior design, has a new paradigm, and it ain’t pretty in any sense. I can not think of a minimalist room I would actually like personally, but I am willing to concede that there are extremely talented
interior designers who can, conceivably, pull it off. From an empirical standpoint, I have never actually seen such a room, but I believe they exist, sort of in the loose way
I believe the Lochness Monster might exist. Even if some, truly great example of this paradigm exists in the flesh, most rooms done in this style, to invoke Plato, are mere “copies” of the form. So why has this trend become so prevalent?

Much of it has to do with a fear, and misunderstanding, of color. During my New York trip, I found myself on the subway one evening. I had on a bright green sweater. I looked around and realized that I was one of perhaps two or three people wearing any color at all, other than some shade of grey or black. Decor and clothes, nowadays, lack color.

My wife, Helen, says the trend is now, finally, starting to change in clothing design, and that furnishings follow clothing design; but the change can not come soon enough.
The juxtaposition between spending the day at The Winter Antiques Show, surrounded by color and texture and form, and going back to my startlingly characterless hotel room, was remarkable. But people choose to live in homes decorated like that hotel room.

To use color effectively, one must embrace it and try to have shades that “comport” and not “match”. So many rooms now feature beige walls, beige sofas, beige drapes, beige carpets and a black lamp or two. Even when the forms are nice, and they usually are not, there is no warmth and, the protestations of many in the interior design trade noted, it takes little true skill to do this type of room. One needs no understanding of color if you are avoiding color. In the past, interiors featured bright colors and textures all around. Wonderful fabric, great ceramics, colorful paintings, cheerful carpets, all in a harmonious whole. The argument that one wishes to highlight “fine art” by minimizing everything else is tautological. One can emphasize fine art and still have interesting decorative arts all around. It worked in the 18th century and it still works now. They are not mutually exclusive. So how has this trend become so widespread?

I would argue that much of it has to do with “the wealth effect”. For all but the most sophisticated and independent thinking people, trends have a profound effect on individuals. And trends follow paradigms. The paradigm of the colorless room, in my mind, exists to make the job of interior designers easier. It makes the job of “cloning” a room more possible and lessens the likelihood of mistakes. But you would not pay your lawyer or doctor a large fee to do what is “easier” for them. The fear of color leads to what could be considered a case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Essentially, affluent home owners are told it is chic to do a bland room. They might not know any better, so proceed. Their friends look at the situation and say “Well, that is a four million dollar home and I know they hired a decorator”, so they follow suit with the budget version of the room. People end up in beige rooms with uncomfortable seating and impractical lamps, just like my hotel room. But the concomitant impact on the antiques world is profound.

A major reason our industry is suffering is the perception that “brown furniture”, Oriental carpets, fine porcelain and the like are old fashioned and stodgy. We need, collectively, to help people understand that what they have been sold in the minimalist / industrial craze is a case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Look to the automotive industry for a second. When was the last time you saw a Pinin Farina designed Ferrari in beige with a beige interior and beige dashboard. Enzo would roll over in his grave. That rolling art embraces not only color but “Contrast” of color. An Aston Martin in British Racing Green with a tan top is a thing of beauty. More importantly, God put color in trees and flowers. Imagine a garden that is all beige. Interiors can be indoor “gardens” if people take the time and effort to work at it. We in the antiques field need to be bold in asserting that the trend to minimalist design and avoidance of color is nonsense. It is not beautiful; it is not interesting; it is just a trend. Let’s stop being steam rolled by the design industry and raise a collective voice that color and ornamentation are beautiful, when well executed, and they lend an aesthetic richness that the current trend can never hope to have.

Author: editor

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