It's Hue They Know

An inside look at the flourishing world of color consultants

As an oncologist Dr. Alexander Tseng understands the value of specialists. He and his wife, Cindy, engaged a raft of them—architect, landscape architect, structural engineer, geotechnical and lighting consultants, even an arborist to ensure that new basement light wells wouldn't damage nearby trees—for the renovation of their Tudor-style house in Palo Alto. "We thought we'd handle the colors ourselves, but we were struggling with them," he relates. "Then we saw a house with terrific colors that Bob Buckter had done. After we hired him I learned he'd colored most of the hospitals where I work."

Drawing on 29 years of experience, Buckter—a.k.a. Dr. Color—makes house calls with a black leather bag full of cards painted in myriad hues. "He came, listened to us, and in ten minutes told us what would work," Tseng says. Instead of the usual white and brown Tudor-style scheme, Buckter prescribed sage-taupe for the body of the house, a dark sage-gray-green for the timbers, and a black-green for windows and accents. The result has both elegance and a storybook charm. Today he's returned to help choose interior colors that will complement wallpaper, floors, and other elements. In one bath he advises against a wallpaper that will make the room too top-heavy above white tile wainscoting. In the master bath he suggests changing the cabinet color to something that will go better with the limestone counter and tub surround. Placing a wallpaper sample on top of the limestone he asks Cindy, "What do you think about how these two go together?" Further discussion leads to a new scheme: a limestone-friendly shade of white for cabinetry; a lighter white for ceiling, doors, and sashes; and instead of wallpaper, a few flourishes to be painted by a decorative artist. Cutting off pieces of color cards he writes on the back of each the names of the paint color and manufacturer and where it's being used.

As his bathside-manner shows, Dr. Color takes what he calls "a warm approach" to color consulting. "My goal is to come up with colors that look good as well as meet individual tastes and needs," says the painting contractor. As one of the country's small number of architectural color consultants, Buckter colors about 500 projects a year. You may never have heard of his specialty, but take a close look at the buildings around you—perhaps even your own home—and you'll probably agree that it deserves to be better known.

At the turn of the century satirist Ambrose Bierce defined house-painting as "the art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic." It's no less true a hundred years later. "People are awfully uncertain about color choices," states Roger W. Moss, adjunct professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. An authority on preservation and historic color schemes, he says, "I've met couples who are on the verge of divorce over this issue. Painting your house may be the most intimate thing you can do in public without getting arrested."

Matters of taste are personal and provocative, especially when they center on the home, which represents many people's greatest investment. A paint job (exterior or interior) can cost $10,000 or more, last at least six years, and affect property value as well as the occupants' self-image. Neighborhood design constraints or a desire to be faithful to a home's period and style can also come into play. "I get countless questions about color," states House Beautiful editor Margaret Kennedy, who responds to reader queries via her "Ask Peggy" column on the magazine's Web site. "It's amazing how anxious people are about choosing colors for their homes."

There's good reason for all the hue and cry. Everyone knows that a well-chosen palette can enhance a home, with effects ranging from calming to energizing, patrician to pagan. You'd expect design professionals to have strong opinions on the subject. (Kennedy recalls a dinner at which star designers Mario Buatta and John Saladino got into a rather feverish debate: "John said he thought yellow should be banished from the rainbow, while Mario was vehemently in favor of it—he cited trend-setter Nancy Lancaster's famous yellow living room in London, above Colefax & Fowler, which is still maintained as she did it, in a shade she called 'buttah.' ") But for every architect or interior designer who is steeped in the aesthetics of color there are many others whose approach to the subject is less than methodical. "Color makes up a surprisingly small part of an education in architecture or design," says Shashi Caan, an architectural designer specializing in color who works for SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) in their New York office and has taught at Pratt Institute. "We're instructed to focus on form-making, yet form depends to a great extent on light and color."

Hence the rise of color consultants. Often trained in design or fine art, this small but influential group advises on color for everything from cars and fashion to housewares and buildings. Focusing on domestic harmony, color consultants for the home can guide clients through the color jungle, maximize a paint job's appeal, and perhaps compensate for a designer's shortcomings, frequently for a fee of $500 or less (think of it as aesthetic insurance). They use color swatches (often actual painted "brushout" cards) to lead clients out of the gray area of indecision and determine color preference. Furnishings, clothes, and even cars can provide clues to personal color taste. "I also consider the client's personality and coloration," remarks Christy Cizek, a Bay Area color consultant who draws on her experience as a licensed painting contractor specializing in murals and other decorative finishes. "It's often true that blondes tend to like clear, light colors while brunettes favor dark, earthy tones." However, Max Factor's famous Hollywood headquarters had a pink salon for brunettes as well as rooms colored green for redheads, peach for "brownettes," and blue for blondes.

Every era has characteristic colors (think of the mauving of America in the eighties or the upbeat pastels of the fifties). But when it comes to painting your house, home colorists say that the couleurs du jour matter far less than the house's style, vintage, and context—and most important, your own likes and dislikes. Interestingly, cross-cultural tests have shown that humans (and rhesus monkeys) share a basic order of color preference, running from blue to red to green to purple to yellow to orange. But it's one thing to rank a few fundamental hues, quite another to choose among the vast number of available colors (some paint stores offer as many as 10,000) and combinations.

Context is critical, particularly for exterior colors. A consultant may ask clients to drive around their neighborhood and look for appealing color combinations, and will always consider the colors of neighboring homes. "It is not just about selecting colors," says Ken Charbonneau, color consultant for Benjamin Moore & Co. "A good color consultant knows how to put colors on a house, how to balance the house, how to pick out architectural detail, how to make the colors look right for the neighborhood and the region." Because of differences in quality of light, climate, foliage, and architectural traditions, a color scheme that is harmonious in one region may fall flat in another.

When James Martin, a Denver consultant who had originally been trained as a graphic designer, began renovating houses for resale he noted that houses that looked better sold faster. "That led me to pay attention to color and ultimately make a business of it," he says. Over the last two decades he's colored everything from vintage Victorians to entire towns—including downtown Ketchikan, Alaska—and he set up the color parameters for Windsor, Florida (a high-end planned community done in a palette of soft pastels). "The first thing that I try to do is express the architecture, to play up its strengths and overcome its weaknesses," he says. "You can add interest to a plain house with a color scheme that accentuates doors, shutters, fascias, and windows, perhaps with different colors for windows and frames."

"Most people want a fairly conservative color on the siding, something a bit more daring on the trim, maybe something bold on the door," observes Charbonneau. "I compare the siding to a man's business suit, the trim to a dress shirt, the front door to a tie: It's a chance to use a punch color to make a personal statement, but it should not clash with the entrance-hall colors. Shutters are like socks—they can go with your suit, your shirt, your tie." Too much contrast, he adds, diverts the eye and makes a house look smaller, while a more subtle scheme lets the eye sweep across the house and makes it seem bigger.

Considered the country's preeminent architectural colorists, Donald Kaufman and his wife, Taffy Dahl, charge fees starting at $5,000 for projects beyond their New York base. Trained as a fine artist, in the early '70s Kaufman was teaching painting at the University of California, Berkeley, and supplementing his income by painting houses. "That's when I saw the flaws in the way house paint is mixed," he explains. "Commercial paints use the simplest possible color formulas, while artists mix complementary pigments to add richness to the colors. More complex mixtures with a full-spectrum range of pigments are richer and tend to change more with changing light conditions." In the quarter-century since that insight, Kaufman and Dahl have published three books on color and worked with such prominent architects as Robert A. M. Stern, Philip Johnson, and Richard Meier. They've colored everything from cells at Sing Sing to San Francisco's Candlestick Park (dominant hue: ballpark green) to Diana Vreeland's "Costumes of Royal India" show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (in eye-popping colors made with special dyes).

"Taffy and I work as a team because it gives us two views on what a client needs and evens out differences between our personal tastes," explains Kaufman. "Working together we can better decipher what the client wants, not what we want. That's the key." For one client they matched the color of a favorite pair of khaki pants; for designer Joseph d'Urso, a shade of red the color of dog food. Joan Rivers gave them a stocking that had just the blush shade she wanted in her French-style drawing room. A mossy-green on a book jacket became the main color for the library of Field of Dreams director Phil Alden Robinson.

In addition to the Met, the couple have complemented art with color for the new J. Paul Getty Museum, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, New York's Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. "Most people think that white is the best color for gallery walls, but it can create too much contrast between the edge of the frame and the wall, which can distract from the art," observes Kaufman. "If you match a color on the wall to one in a work of art it can look like there's a hole in the painting. We have found that by doing full-spectrum colors that are neutral you can make the colors in the painting show more truly."

In their Color: Natural Palettes for Painted Rooms (1992), Kaufman and Dahl describe how adding as little of 1/64th of an ounce of pigment can subtly enhance a color. "We mix custom colors for most of our clients," he says. "We can also choose colors from our paint line." (Specially blended with his balanced, wide-spectrum pigment formulas, these paints can be had for less than $60 per gallon). A custom apple-green created for Margaret Kennedy is now part of that line.

"When you look outside your window you see thousands of pigments, which result in an infinite range of textures and patterns," notes Kaufman. "Using a wide range of pigments creates paint with greater luminosity and depth, paint that echoes the spectrum of colors contained in nature and in light itself. If it's a good color, it has a good chance of looking good regardless of the light." Like other colorists, he considers clients' tastes, their furnishings and artworks, and the home's given materials—but he's also likely to find inspiration in the lichen-crusted stones of an exterior walkway. "For our projects we focus on what is going on in that specific spot," explains Kaufman. "We look very closely at minutiae—like the color of leaves and bark—and at light: Color exists only by virtue of the light that carries it to the eye."

On a consultation in Marin County's Mill Valley, Christy Cizek explains to the clients why she favors a deep periwinkle: "The light in that downstairs part of the house is indirect, with a gray quality. It requires a blue with enough red to give it vibrancy, one that has plenty of color but still reflects back lots of light." For a house in Tiburon she has to find a hue that will mediate between the kitchen's stone backsplash, taupe-colored cabinets, and coppery-red flooring. "My instinct is to go with a mid-value yellow," she says, fanning out a range of them, then narrowing it down with the client. One has too much gray, another too much green, one is just right. The same Goldilocks process yields the perfect decorative finish (burgundy) for the room's trim. Cizek says, "In a few hours I can make people happy. I know colors that will appeal to both a CEO and an artist, colors that speak to us now."

Martin cautions that using too many colors, or colors that clash with the neighbors, is "like wearing a tux to a barbecue." Though he deployed 56 lush hues in the Connecticut home of fashion designer Alexander Julian, Kaufman is known for his smaller, carefully calibrated color schemes. In a New York apartment drained of contrast by north light, he used gradations of beige to call out architectural details. Buckter, who earned his stripes with multihued schemes for San Francisco's old Victorian houses, is still fond of those Painted Ladies but says, "I usually do four or five colors per design, maybe three on simpler jobs." He begins with the given shades of roof, brick, and stone, woodworking, floors, and tiles, and typically tempers splashier colors with more neutral ones in varying tones.

Like Martin, Buckter occasionally does remote consulting for exterior paint jobs (both say interiors must be seen in person). "I send out a questionnaire that covers the clients' color preferences, the color of neighboring buildings, etc," he says. "They send it back with photos of the house. I provide a color scheme with actual paint brands and specific hues and finishes, from flat to glossy. I insist that all decision-makers sign off on the color selection, verify that paints match swatches before leaving the store, and test the paint first: for example, around a window, to see how all the colors look together."

Consultants encourage clients to confirm choices before painting with ample (at least three-foot-square) test patches, applied to different walls (and examined at different times) to reflect varying light conditions. "Color looks different under different kinds of daylight and artificial light," explains Martin. "Our perceptions of a color are influenced by the colors around it, by the scale of the surfaces, and by the sheen." Flat finishes tend to recede, glossy ones to advance. Experts agree that regardless of brand, buying top-of-the-line paint is critical (they will also advise on stains, glazes, and other finishes). "It's a fraction of the cost of painting your house," says Martin. "Higher-priced paint gives you better coverage, longer-lasting colors, and more time between paint jobs."

Owners of vintage houses who want an authentic color scheme may commission a paint seriation study, which delves through successive layers of paint to reveal a home's color history. Such a study can arrive at true colors with tools such as microscopic analysis and comparison to period color palettes. State historic preservation offices and local preservation groups can supply referrals to experts in chromachronology. But colorists say that people who set out to be purists often end up opting for a looser approach because historic color schemes may not suit contemporary taste. Victorian colors, for instance, can seem somber today. "But you can still find historically correct colors that will be to your liking," insists Roger Moss, whose books on historic palettes are among the ample documentation providing contemporaneous colors for houses of any vintage. Houses in historic districts may have to conform to color guidelines, but this can also be true of houses in newer neighborhoods and planned communities. In either case a specialist can help homeowners arrive at a pleasing color scheme—and gain approval from design review boards.

Colorists can likewise advise on the latest paint trend: finishes that add luster or texture to color. (For example, L.A. color consultant Gere Kavanaugh, whose color library includes earth samples, chili peppers, and other bits of nature, has achieved texture by adding sawdust to paint.) Metallic paints and custom glazes are far from new, but today's manufacturers are systematizing various effects. Ralph Lauren's paint line includes finishes inspired by flannel, suede, and stone. A new arrival in the American market is the collection of Italian-based Fractalis, which offers finishes that evoke sky and water as well as goatskin, parchment, and marble. Such "special effects" are like subtle overlays that lend another dimension to solid color. However, bear in mind that these textured paints are tricky to use.

Faced with a daunting universe of possibilities, too many take refuge in neutral colors. "I feel sorry for the color cowards of the world," says Benjamin Moore's Ken Charbonneau. "Linen White is in its thirty-seventh year as our top-selling color. Maybe you wanted Pompeian red but played it safe with Linen White; then you die and go to heaven, and it's all Linen White."

Though color consultants can certainly hatch a distinctive scheme of neutrals, they like to encourage their clients to be more adventuresome—in the spirit of Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. Describing his use of bold color (as in his Casa Cabernet in the Napa Valley), he notes that in approaching a design, "instead of saying I will make a wall and paint it red, I [say] I will make something red and it will be a wall."

When clients repaint in the same colors, colorists are gratified, if not surprised. They know color can enhance not only our homes but our sense of well-being. "Beyond all the uncertainty the overriding factor is that people love color," declares Martin. "The greatest compliment is when a client says, 'I like coming home now.'"

Home Color Consultants

Bob Buckter 3877 20th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114; 415-922-7444; fax 415-381-4542;
Shashi Caan 135 West 70th Street, New York, NY 10023; 212-874-9423 (studio) or 212-298-9329 (office)
Christy Cizek Patinae, Box 5758, San Francisco, CA 94147; 415-929-6704, fax 415-929-6705
Donald Kaufman & Taffy Dahl 410 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10014; 212-243-2766 (For information on Donald Kaufman paints: 800-977-9198)
Gere Kavanaugh 420 Boyd Street, Suite 305, Los Angeles, CA 90013; 213-687-8270
Harold Linton Author of Color in Architecture, Color Forecasting and Color Consulting, and chairman of the Department of Art, Bradley University, 1501 West Bradley Avenue, Peoria, IL 61625; 309-677-3330
James Martin The Color People, 2231 Larimer Street, Denver, CO 80205; 303-308-0220
Theodore Prudon Cowley & Prudon Architects (specializing in restoration, including historic color schemes), 636 Broadway, New York, NY 10012; 212-673-6910
Philippa Seth-Smith Creative Paint Techniques, Inc., 8033 Sunset Blvd., Suite 2660, West Hollywood, CA 90046; 310-455-7242; fax 310-455-9864;

Note: Roger W. Moss and Ken Charbonneau do not color-consult for individual homes.

Jeff Book profiled designer Tommi Parzinger in the July/August issue.