Come over to the dark side: Brave decorators are embracing a more dramatic look
It's time to go back to black, says Ruth Bloomfield
Friday 22 April 2011
On Sunday mornings, in DIY stores across the land, a familiar scene is being played out: couples wandering groggily up and down the aisles, clutching sheaves of colour charts, and trying to discern what is the earthly difference between sandstone cream and ivory pearl.
White, and all the seemingly endless permutations of off-white, has been king of our bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms for the last ten years – but there are distinct signs of darkness ahead.
Take Louisa Richwhite, a jewellery designer, who works under the very appropriate name of Violet Darkling (www.violetdarkling.com). Having remodelled her house, and faced with choosing a colour for her new open-plan living room, she turned her back on all those subtle shades of dove, wicker and linen and went straight for a shiny, uncompromising black.
"People thought I was crazy," she says. "I know it doesn't sound very nice but it is amazing. Because the room has a lot of light coming in and the walls have a shine and really reflect the light, it's not dark at all. People come round and always say: 'Wow, your house is so cool' – although I'm not sure how many of them would do it themselves."
Black last had a fashion moment, interiors-wise, in the 1980s when teenage goths begged their parents to be allowed to paint their bedroom walls a murky shade of raven, almost certainly accessorised with a Southern Death Cult poster and a shaky pentagram painted on the ceiling. Today's fans of the dark side take an altogether more sophisticated approach.
Richwhite, 27, a New Zealander who has been living in the Britain for the past nine years, moved into a two-bedroomed period terrace in Westbourne Grove, west London, with her sister three years ago.
The house was "a bit of a shambles" and the sisters set about knocking down walls to create an open-plan living space. As well as painting its walls black they opted for dark-stained wood floors, although the ceilings are a traditional white.
Richwhite feels that a room not blessed with good natural light might feel rather depressing if painted black, and furnishing it proved more challenging than if she had opted for a classically neutral palette.
A fan of vintage furniture, Richwhite regularly scours the Ardingly International Antiques and Collectors Fair in East Sussex (www.iacf.co.uk/ardingly – the next sales are 19 and 20 April, and 19 and 20 July) for inspiration and picked up her vintage dining room table and chairs – black, of course – there.
Her yellow and orange sofas, pure 1970s style, were a bargain from Golborne Road Market, the grittier sister-market to Portobello Road. However, they are shortly to be traded for a more sophisticated (and comfortable) charcoal number which she will accessorise with brightly coloured cushions.
It would be easy to dismiss Richwhite as a quirky exception to the white-on-white rule, but leading interior designers are increasingly ditching the endless symphony of neutrals for something a little more theatrical.
Abigail Ahern, of Atelier Abigail Ahern (www.atelierabigailahern.com), is proud to have championed an inky aesthetic: "Dark rooms are my idea of heaven, I love inky, sludgy, dark colours – you get a tantalising, sophisticated effect and things pop out in a way that you don't get if you go pale. It just ups the style rating."
Ahern concedes that her clients sometimes take some convincing to paint their walls, floors, and often ceilings, dark grey. "I embraced the dark side six or seven years ago and at first people just thought that I was bonkers. You do need a big dose of confidence to go dark, but it is one of the most transformative things you can do and it is just a tin of paint – so it is the easiest thing to change if you don't like it. People are now embracing it more and more, because you do get just a phenomenal effect."
Crucial to the success of a dark scheme, according to Ahern, is the liberal use of bright colours. "You need high-voltage hues, whether it be flowers, accessories or art," she says. "You need a pop of colour and not neutral colours – otherwise it will become just depressing. You need to have lots of little subtle shots of colour.
"Lighting is also crucial to create atmosphere and pools of light – I have seven different lights surrounding me at the moment," says Ahern. "It just adds glow and pools of light. I prefer very low voltage light, not anything too bright."
Ahern often paints the ceiling in a dark colour, as well as the walls. "That way you get fewer boundaries," she says. "If you do the floor, then the furniture just floats, and it limits the horizontals." For dark-hued paints Ahern rates Farrow & Ball (www.farrow-ball.com), for its depth of colour, as well as the French paint firm Ressource (www.ressource-decoration.com), which has a dark palette with a wonderful velvety effect.
She is less keen on wallpaper in general, but makes an exception for the Parakeet design by Nina Campbell for Osbourne & Little (www.osborneandlittle.com), which is bedecked with zingy blue birds on a black background.
Farrow & Ball has four shades of black on its 132-strong colour card plus an increasingly popularcharcoal grey shade – the slightly unappealingly named Downpipe – which recently moved from "small batch" production and into the firm's mainstream production line. A spokeswoman says the company had noticed customers were growing more adventurous in their colour choices, and seeking out dark colours – including deep, deep browns, greens and blues – in order to create "drama and intimacy".
At the very top end of design, Matthew Carlisle, creative director of Candy & Candy, says dark interiors are popular with male clients keen to make a statement.
"Some of our clients are wealthy bachelors and they want more masculine, powerful interiors," he says, "although, saying that, we have had some success with female customers. When you add light and sparkle – some beading and crystal and contrasting light trim it becomes very glamorous. People like the dark background with a shinier element."
Carlisle says the key to success is layering: black walls need artwork to add contrast. "Or you could put up a cabinet which gives an extra layer, plus the items in the cabinet add detail to that."
He advises steering clear of matt black in favour of more reflective surfaces, think polished plastered walls or lacquer paint effects. "Light bounces off it and you really notice the light on a dark surface," he says.
His favourite place to source paint is the Paint and Paper Library (www.paintlibrary.co.uk), which has fabulous range of dark tones.
For wallpaper De Gournay's dramatic hand-painted wall coverings are great for inspiration (www.degournay.com), although they do not come cheap. Carlisle also rates Zoffany (www.zoffany.com) and Cole and Son (www.cole-and-son.com).
For furniture, Carlisle says that the 1970s and 1980s influence will stick around for the next couple of years, so vintage pieces might be the way to go. "You can find big, beautiful 1970s lacquered furniture with polished brass trims," he says.
Favourite spots include Alfies Antiques Market, in London NW8 (www.alfiesantiques.com), Talisman Antiques, London SW6 (www.talismanlondon.com) andthe online antiques store 1stdibs at (www.1stdibs.com).
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Other popular areas include Didsbury, Clifton in Bristol, central Cambridge and West Bridgford
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