Real Homes: Colour without the paint chart

Throw away that roller - the latest way to change the shade of your walls is to use light. KATE WORSLEY reports

When Benetton starts producing paint that's meant to look like denim you know that slapping colour on your walls is getting a little, well, faded. The hottest new alternative is using light as though it were paint.

Designers are working with light to wash a room in colour in ways that are far more grown up than the ubiquitous lava lamp. At his new hotel in London, St Martins Lane, Phillipe Starck has concealed a light above the bedheads that can be adjusted to glow in any colour of the spectrum by rotating a switch. You can get a similar effect in your own home with the Auralight, launched later this month. "It is a way to cover your walls in colour without picking up a paintbrush," says designer Mark Brazier- Jones.

A freestanding 2.2m metal strut conceals a fluorescent tube that can be tinted using seven different coloured films. When the light is switched on, the metal becomes well nigh invisible and the coloured light drenches walls and ceiling. You can even paint the strut to blend in with your walls. Strangely enough, although the colour looks intense from a distance, the effect is fairly muted close up. With a pink filter in place, the Auralight in Brazier-Jones's front room colours and brightens a dark corner behind the large palm, creating fascinating gleams of turquoise along door and window ledges.

"You can change the colour to suit the mood, and you get some great sculptural effects as the light hits surfaces in the room and mixes with light from other sources," says Brazier-Jones. The Auralight (pounds 295 incl UK p&p) looks best against white walls.

You can't set foot in a bar these days without having your pupils massaged by some nifty concealed neon that's a world away from the crackling pink serpents of the 1970s. Strange then, that while in every other respect our homes now look identical to leisure environments - the mosaic tiles, the laminated flooring, the polished chrome - home lighting has been so slow to catch up.

Introducing colour in the form of pure light is perfect for minimalists, the indecisive as well as the plain lazy: changing a plastic filter is a lot less messy than washing out a roller. And if the colour saturation starts to overload your senses, just flick the switch and you get your cool white room back again. Mike Stoane, the Edinburgh-based lighting designer, is experimenting with ways of reflecting light in different frequencies in different directions, never paints his walls any other colour than white - all the better to experiment at home.

Much of the renewed interest in using light as paint is due to the latest cool, non-flickering fluorescent tubing. Gallery owner David Gill has exploited the tube's potential to create a 4m x 5m square canvas "floating wall", suffused with blue/green light, by the entrance to his new furniture gallery in Vauxhall, London. It wasn't intended for sale, but customers inundated him with requests to make them one just like it. "The light would look fantastic in a bedroom, behind the head of the bed, for instance," says Gill's assistant, Jenny-Lyn Hart. It creates subtle but stunning optical illusions. When you stand next to the wall, the objects standing in natural light at the other end of the room have a pearly pink glow. And bizarrely, and best of all, if bare your flesh next to the wall you look as though you have the finest Caribbean tan.

If all this sounds a bit full on (and expensive), there are alternatives. In an effort not to be left behind, Mathmos, producer of the original lava lamp, has introduced a squidgy shaped light projector to splurge its coloured blobs on your walls and ceilings (the Space Projector, pounds 79.95). Or construct your own lighting box using a plug-in fluorescent tube from Encapsulite (from around pounds 30), plus a canvas (to size) from any good art suppliers.

Auralight (tel: 01763 273599). David Gill lights, POA (tel: 0171 793 1100). Mathmos lava lamp (tel: 0171 405 6990). Encapsulite (tel: 01525 376974).

RAINBOW ROOM

Many claims have been made for the psychic benefits of coloured light. Sixties designer Vernon Panton produced a series of rooms in different colours to demonstrate the effects on our senses (currently showing at the Design Museum). These are some of his findings.

RED

Filled with tension and excitement. Potent and sexual. Orange-red is welcoming.

YELLOW

Stands for joy and hope for the future. Stimulates spiritually and promotes conversation.

BROWN

Sensuous, comfortable, stable. Has a warming, calming effect. Suits older people.

BLUE

Gives an impression of relaxed sensitivity, calm and satisfaction. Dark blue gives depth, light blue width.

GREEN

Tense, stable, defensive - the ideal colour for the hard man. Calms and evens out.

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