INTERIORS / Show your colours: The British are scared of any shade bolder than magnolia, but it was not always so - and brilliance is making a comeback. In the first of two articles, Dinah Hall thinks positive

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MOVING HOUSE or getting divorced pales into insignificance beside the trauma of looking at paint charts. We make a brave show of considering the possibilities. (Well, the yellow would be cheerful. I've always liked blue. Red is perhaps a little too extrovert.) It is a bit like sex really. There are all sorts of things you can do, but if wrapping your legs around your neck and painting the walls fuchsia does not come instinctively then the missionary position and cream walls win every time.

The British have a wounded confidence when it comes to colour, and the more they pick at it the more it bleeds magnolia. This inferiority complex has been deepened by years of being told by books and magazines how hopeless we are at it, how useless our light is, how wonderful in contrast is the Mediterranean and Caribbean colour sense. Dutifully we return from our two weeks on a Greek island with the obligatory photograph of the bougainvillea tumbling over a brilliant white wall and the two cats asleep on the bright blue steps and sigh about our drabness. (If we had used the same two colours for the last four centuries to paint our houses we would not be squirming with designerly delight over them but castigating ourselves for being boring.)

Designer Francois Gilles of IPL Interiors remembers walking around Chelsea when he first came to live in London, and laughing at the crazy eccentricity of all the different coloured doors, so unlike Paris where the colours politely echo each other. But the adventurousness is strictly limited to portals and probably has less to do with liking a colour than annoying the neighbours. As Gilles soon discovered: 'The English are afraid of colour. They are too worried what their friends will think. I like to push them, and once they have taken the plunge they find it very rewarding. You can combine any colours in one room as long as they have the same intensity. As with furniture you have to have the right proportion, so with colour you have to get the balance right.'

In this country we tend to equate colour in interiors with childhood; which is perhaps why there is always something slightly patronising in our admiration of the Caribbean and Mediterranean colour sense. We bombard our babies with bright colours: depriving them of Dick Bruna friezes is tantamount to third degree child abuse. Post-modernism, with its building-block architecture and baby pink and blue, was really nothing more than a kind of infantile regression among designers before they rebirthed themselves into matt black.

Yet historically, Britain is not such a grey nation as it paints itself. Robert Adam, for example, used quite startling blues and greens in the most grown-up of houses. Red has traditionally been used in dining rooms since the 18th century - though today this tends to be seen as a fittingly grand thing for the

upper classes to do, rather than representing a passionate outbreak of colour.

Possibly it was the two world wars - and the aftermath of cream utility paint - that depressed the spectrum. Certainly in the 1940s the decorator John Fowler's palette was strikingly different from what he termed the 'genteel colours' of 'Sloane Street good taste' (plus ca change). Just as some people have a nose for perfume, and can describe a scent in evocative terms, Fowler had an eye for colour. He and his partner, Nancy Lancaster, christened shades with such graphic names as 'sugar bag blue', 'cooking apple green', 'elephant's breath', 'mouse's back' and - at the scatological end of the spectrum - 'caca du dauphin' and 'vomitesse de la reine'. He was also chivalrous: never paint a lady's bedroom yellow, he warned, it casts an unflattering light on the complexion first thing in the morning.

There is no doubt that some people - particularly artists - do have a heightened perception of colour: where most of us see red, they see vermilion, crimson, scarlet or rose madder. Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo read like a box of Winsor & Newton oil paints. Compare the average 'the sea is really, really blue' holiday postcard with Van Gogh's description of a Dutch sky - 'first a violet haze, in which the red sun was half covered by a dark purple cloud with a brilliant fine red border; near the sun reflections of vermilion, but above it a streak of yellow that turns into green and then into blue, the so-called cerulean blue; and here and there violet and grey clouds that catch reflections from the sun.'

But Van Gogh's was not just an inborn, artistic sensibility - he understood the basic chemistry of colour. 'Absolute black does not really exist,' he wrote. 'But like white, it is present in almost every colour, and forms the greys - different in tone and strength; so that in nature one really sees nothing else but those tones or shades. There are but three fundamental colours, red, yellow and blue . . . to have a clear notion of this is worth more than 70 different colours of paint, as, with those three principal colours and black and white, one can make more than 70 tones and varieties.'

Clearly, some knowledge of the physical properties of colour and light is useful but not at the expense of instinctive sense. In the 1970s every design book had a section on colour that opened with the dreaded 'colour wheel' - reducing taste to a scientific formula and proscribing certain combinations, like blue and brown. This was the decade of 'co-ordination', when sofas matched curtains and from Esher to Edinburgh, wallpaper borders matched across cornices, creating the look of canned 'good taste'. To further immobilise individualism and the glorious possibilities of bad taste, the paint companies devised helpful literature to keep customers on the straight and narrow path of 'mix and match'.

Inevitably there was a reaction to the stifling confines of paint charts and in the 1980s, with the flourishing of techniques such as marbling, dragging and stippling, it became uncool to take your Dulux straight. At the very least you had to add stainers - though pigs' blood was so much more authentic. The move towards 'natural' paints was partly influenced by the ecology movement, when a spate of 'green design' books convinced us that we were breathing in toxic fumes from our bedroom walls, and partly the result of the nouveau pauvre aesthetics. Ancient recipes for distemper and limewash were avidly consumed. Decorators hankered after the flat quality of lead paint but, as small children were even more fashionable at the time, their needs had to be met by ranges of fab-drab colours, such as that produced for the National Trust. This was the antithesis of the clean shining glossy rooms as bounded through by Old English Sheepdogs.

But then recession caught up with style - it was not so much fun pretending to be poor when you really were. So suddenly GLAMOUR] And COLOUR] is back (interior design, you have to remember, is usually about a year behind fashion - the grunge look, as in cardboard walls, is still a little way off). It is such a long time since anyone saw it that even the word 'colour' sounds exciting.

Tricia Guild on Colour (Conran Octopus pounds 19.99) is rather like a glorious Technicolor advertisement for Designers Guild fabrics, interspersed with photography from the field of rape/eye of poppy school. This 'nature-the-greatest-colourist-of-all' argument is often used to promote daring combinations. If nature can paint primulas yellow and purple, so you can paint your drawing room likewise. What is never pointed out is that the primula dies after a couple of weeks, but your yellow and purple drawing room lives for years.

The photographer Richard Lohr and his wife, the photographers' agent Kim Sion, have lived in their deep red and yellow maisonette for three years without any yearnings for Brilliant White. Only the dog Funky shows any signs of being driven demented. And two-and- a-half-year-old Marley seems to have benefited from the assertive properties of red, though she has yet to learn her mother's ability to complement the walls when she gets dressed: Kim wears black, whereas Marley combines colours to cause maximum retinal havoc.

Bright colours evidently come easily to this family. They can probably even look at paint charts without having a personality crisis, though as it happens, they didn't need to, having mixed the yellow themselves when the painters got cold feet. 'We kept coming home to find they had used a really wishy-washy colour because they insisted we wouldn't be able to live with bright yellow,' explains Richard. 'In fact when I'm away from home I often think I must change that yellow, but when I get back I always think how great it looks.' Without actually being immediately obvious, it is a darker yellow painted over a paler shade with a wallpaper brush to achieve the effect master decorators have spent years eliminating from their work - visible brush strokes.

Kim had always wanted to have a living- room with the cosy atmosphere of 'a gentleman's club'. (Funny isn't it, how we women cling to this fantasy of clubs being warm, womb-like places when they are really inhabited by misanthropic old men.) So when you push against the thick yellow panels in the wall you enter a wonderfully intimate living room painted a deep Russian red.

From the integral way in which design and colour work here, it is evident that paint was not applied as an afterthought. With the clever detailing and sensuous use of space created by replacing existing walls with curves of formed plywood, it would be understandable if the designers, Michael Merhemitch and Simon Withers, had insisted that the architecture be allowed to speak on its own merits, undistracted by colour. Fortunately both clients and designers shared the same bravado, so that the drama of the space with its concealed doors and enticing apertures is heightened by the use of colour. Merhemitch points out that we have a tradition of deep colours, which was only thrown off balance by the 'white walls and false optimism' of the Fifties. Perhaps, then, those who celebrated the false prosperity of the Eighties with white walls and Le Corbusier chaise-longues will find their lives enriched by colour in the impoverished Nineties.

Colour coding directory

Interior designers

CAN it be coincidental that all those mentioned below are not British, or have spent most of their lives abroad?

IPL Interiors, 308 Fulham Road, London SW10 9UG (tel 071-352 8360). Design practice of Francois Gilles and Dominique Lubar - a look that combines elegant French tailoring with a hint of English eccentricity.

Jenny Armit Interiors, 167 Westbourne Grove, London W11 2RS (tel 071-243 1606). A contemporary British look created with an unBritish palette.

Merhemitch and Withers, 50 Golborne Road, London W10 (tel 081-968 1666). Heretics who dispute the modernists' creed that poor light requires white walls.

PAINTS

EVEN the white-walls-Corbusier-chaise-longue school of modernists is coming round to colour in interiors - but in moderation. Perhaps one cupboard door painted a deep, vibrant shade - or one wall in a different tone.

Putnams (tel 071-431 2935). Importers of 'Mediterranean Palette' water-based Turkish paints, available in 25 colours. Telephone for colour chart and mail order details. Also at Brats, 281 King's Road, London SW3 5EW (tel 071-351 7674).

John Oliver Paints, 33 Pembridge Road, London W11 3HG (tel 071-221 6466). Makes its own range of colours derived from historic houses. What sets them apart is the choice of base: a complex colour needs a transparent base, they explain, whereas the commercial companies use white which can mask subtle shades.

Papers and Paints, 4 Park Walk, London SW10 0AD (tel 071-352 8626). Historic paints and colour-matching service; 40,000 individual recipes on computer, including one for a woman who came in with an aubergine. Owner Patrick Baty says: 'And every day we get someone asking for 'the sort of colours you see on French chateau shutters'.'

Pine Brush Products, Stockingate, Coton Clanford, Stafford ST18 9PB (0785 282799). Chris Mowe makes his own water-based paint with pure pigments to give a subtle, dusty effect in 25 colours.

L Cornelissen & Son, 105 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3RY (tel 071-636 1045). Powder pigments to make your own colour.

FLOOR COVERINGS

WALL-to-wall carpet is beginning to make a comeback - in strong colours or laid-in patterns. But an abstract rug on floorboards is a less drastic commitment.

The Contemporary Textile Gallery, Vigo Galleries, 6a Vigo Street, London W1X 1AH (tel 071-439 6971). Limited edition rugs by colour-enthused designers such as Malcolm Temple and Jenny Moncur.

Crucial Trading Ltd, The Market Hall, Craven Arms, Shropshire SY7 8ZZ (tel 0588 673666), 77 Westbourne Park Road, London W2 (tel 071-221 9000). Bright red and green sisal matting.

Christopher Farr, 115 Regent's Park Road, London NW1 8UR (tel 071-916 7690). Enthusiastic commissioner of art rugs.

Tretford Carpets Ltd, Lynn Lane, Shenstone, Lichfield, Staffordshire WS14 0DU (tel 0543 480577). Practical, hard-wearing, usually to be found in shades of merde de cochon (as John Fowler might have put it) on office floors, Tretford has never been glamorous. But designer Francois Gilles has discovered the potential in this corded carpet and lays it in strips or squares of bright colour from the choice of 41 shades. Ring Tretford for stockists.

Afia Carpets, 26 Garden Market, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10 0XE (tel 071-351 5858). Carpets made to customer's specification in any colour. Owner Judy Afia reports a trend towards 'strong, deep colours'.

LIGHTING

AFTER years of advancement in invisible high-tech, low- voltage lighting, designers have started to face up to the fact that most people have lights hanging down from the middle of their ceiling. Enter the updated paper lantern:

Peter Wylly raw silk shades, from Brats, 281 King's Road, London SW3 5EW (tel 071-351 7674).

Tom Dixon paper lanterns in cosmic shapes and colours from Space, 12 Dolland Street, London SE11 5LN (tel 071-820 0288) and Theme and Variations, 231 Westbourne Grove, London W11 2SE (tel 071-727 5531).

FURNITURE AND ACCESSORIES

MODERN shapes are looking more confident while historical chairs look new in bold brights. Sofas and armchairs should clash, not match.

The Conran Shop, Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RD (tel 071-589 7401). Design groupies congregate here on Sundays to worship all things bright and beautiful.

Aero, 96 Westbourne Grove, London W2 5RT (tel 071- 221 1950). Clean-cut contemporary furniture - mostly their own designs, and made in Britain.

Maison, 917-919 Fulham Road, London SW6 5HU (tel 071-736 3121) and 47-49 Neal Street, London WC2 9PG (tel 071-240 2822). 'Polka' upholstered dining chairs can be ordered in assorted vibrant checks; also an exclusive range of reasonably priced, brightly coloured pick 'n' mix china.

FABRICS

VELVET is the new hot fabric for upholstery - deep, intense colours for modern shapes and near-fluorescent shades for your Louis Quelquechose pieces. Telephone the following for stockists of vibrant velvets:

Demetra Fabrics Design at DHA Lighting, 3 Jonathan Street, London SE11 (071-582 3600); Sahco Hesslein UK Ltd (071-636 3552); Lelievre (071-636 3461).

Additional research by Zoe Shippey

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