Interior designer Tom Bartlett’s top tips for using colour to enhance architectural elements

By Tom Bartlett

Often, colour is seen as being only decorative, but at Waldo Works, the agency I co-founded, it’s one of the first things we think about on a new project. Our approach has always been to use colour to enhance the architecture of a space: to provide emotional cues, reinforce design agendas and sometimes even to help with the function of a space.

And it can be powerful. I was once asked to help design a party venue for Amnesty International: we decided on three rooms with different moods, one of which was completely painted red. On the day, the party producer I was working with told me that the other two rooms — which were white and purple — would be empty and everyone would cram into the red one. She was right, and the fact that people had moved into a particular space just because of the colour stuck with me.

We are based in the UK but love working in New York — and we adore the architecture of Richard Meier, who designed this $53mn six-bedroom triplex. But for an interior designer, the floor-to-ceiling windows can be a challenge because it’s all about the view. And at least one wall of the apartment will go from orange at dawn through white, blue, grey, and then black at night. It can completely turn what you think you know about colour on its head!

Consider hierarchy and focus

Why are so many signs painted red? It’s because it’s the colour that we notice before all others. Even in more nuanced, domestic settings, this idea of pulling things forward through colour choice can make or break an interior.

I tend to use stronger colours to provide focus to a particular part or feature of a room. One blue tap and one red, for example, for a Frankfurt hotel we are designing. More subtly, we blended the colours in a library that we recently completed to become more intense as you approach the central seating area. It’s important to think about the level of colour and how it can help indicate how to use a room.

The living room in this US apartment is large and impressive, but the furniture feels a bit as if it’s floating at sea — which life raft should we pick? I always start with a deep coloured rug from Christopher Farr. It will provide a safe harbour to the principal furniture, around which other seating areas can be arranged.

I would choose this one by Joseph Herman (inset in picture below) to bring some earthy green tones in from the watery view and to give a starting point for the other colours in the room.

Be conscious of geography

My agency works all over the world and may have to specify colours for a house in the Caribbean or Colorado from my desk in London, where it might be dull and overcast. We know the colours will look completely different in bright sun or mountain glare so we lug out large test cards to get the colours right, on site.

The quality of light in New York is clear and northern, and actually quite similar to a good day in London. For the dining room in Manhattan, I would curtain the whole space with a material that drapes really elegantly, such as a good wool. This grey-blue fabric from The Isle Mill (see inset, below) is sky-like in colour, so would integrate with the view. It would also create the sense of a room around the dining table by creating four similarly toned walls — whether they are windows or not.

Trust emotion

Dining rooms are red, bathrooms are blue, conservatories are green. Obviously, it’s more complex than that but there is something about our instinctive response to colour that you don’t want to ignore. Red rooms make us chattier, blue rooms make us feel fresh and clean, and green rooms are restful and outward looking.

In the apartment’s TV room I would up the veneer quotient and panel throughout to give it some mid-century Mad Men oomph. I like these windowpane veneers from Alpi by Patricia Urquiola (see inset, below) — they are a great colour and one that would look rich and wonderful spread across this entire room.

White is never just ‘white’

We have just finished a project that involved restoring an incredibly ornate ceiling in Edinburgh. We decided to use about eight different whites on it as I knew it would look pointedly inferior if we were to paint it plain white. The painters groaned and got on with my annoying, intricate demands, and then when they were finished we all scratched our heads because it looks like it’s just one colour . . . All I know is that it works.

The walls in the sitting room in the New York property need to be white. With so many windows it makes sense to paint the walls an “obvious” colour. They could be a little greyer though, and maybe also have a sheen to tie them in with the glazing. We go everywhere for our whites, but we particularly like Anna von Mangoldt paints (see inset, below) at the moment.

Embrace personality

There is a real heritage in the UK of using colour to surprising and unrestrained effect in our homes, and long may it last. My favourite interiors are ones that are a gateway into understanding the owner’s personality, and colour is an esoteric but strangely incisive tool with which to do that.

My approach to the US apartment would be to inject some spirit of expression into the space. I like the idea of someone looking up from street level and seeing the dressing room lacquered in a strong burgundy — perhaps Murrey Red (see inset, below) from Papers and Paints’ range of classic London front door colours.

Photography: Mike Tauber/Mayfield Real Estate

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