The Psychology of Color

Learn the connection between color and mood, and how the right color scheme can change how your home makes you feel.

| May/June 2016

  • Think of area rugs as a fifth wall when it comes to color selection.
    Photo by Raya Carlisle
  • Secondhand furnishings can be revamped with a coat of colorful paint.
    Photo courtesy Miss Mustard Seed's Milk Paint
  • Soft, earthy orange tones are more soothing than bolder orange hues.
    Photo courtesy Farrow & Ball
  • The colors we choose for our living spaces don't just reflect our tastes; they also impact our stress levels, productivity and more.
    Photo by Raya Carlisle
  • A mix of bold colors can make spaces feel energizing and dynamic.
    Photo courtesy IKEA
  • Green is a restful color suitable for any room of the house.
    Photo by Raya Calisle
  • Neutrals—even in dark tones—act as a relaxing base that leaves room for exploring brighter colors as accents.
    Photo courtesy Devine Color
  • To wash a room with color, paint all four walls and the ceiling a soothing hue.
    Photo courtesy Devine Color
  • Neutral accents soften the effects of colorful paint.
    Photo courtesy Devine Color
  • Brightly colored furnishings can define the palette in a neutral-painted room.
    Photo by Raya Carlisle
  • Deep colors lend drama—without becoming overwhelming—when used on a single accent wall.
    Photo courtesy Farrow & Ball
  • Stripes, patterns and color blocks are a creative way to use paint in our homes.
    Photo courtesy Farrow & Ball

Our homes are a reflection of our tastes: Most of us choose décor and furnishings based on our personalities and preferences. But nothing establishes the personality of a home and its owners more quickly than the colors we use—on the walls, in the furniture, and in the pillows, bedding, rugs and other accent pieces.

The colors used in a home quickly set the mood and can, in turn, affect the mood of its inhabitants—and visitors, too. Light colors can make rooms seem open and airy; they are subtle, quieting the mind and the mood. Darker colors can make rooms appear smaller; these colors can be sophisticated, but they can also make us feel down, so using them strategically is important.

We really can’t formulate any hard-and-fast rules when it comes to color. First, “there are varying degrees, intensities, values, shades, tints and tones” of every color, says Leatrice Eiseman, a color specialist based on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and author of nine books on color including Colors for Your Every Mood. What’s more, everyone has their own personal color tastes, which must be taken into account when designing a space, says Kentucky-based interior decorator Liz Toombs, founder of Polka Dots & Rosebuds Interiors. “Everyone associates different feelings with different colors, so you have to balance out your likes and dislikes before you choose colors for your home or your office,” she says. San Francisco-based interior designer Kriste Michelini, founder of Kriste Michelini Interiors, likens color in the home to how people dress: “Some people love vibrant colors, others feel more comfortable wearing neutrals. It’s the same in the home.” Certain fundamental parameters—to follow, in our color guide—often hold true in homes, though. Keep these guidelines in mind, along with your own personal preferences, when decorating your space.

Passionate Red

For many, red raises a room’s energy level: It stirs excitement, is a symbol of love, and can be an appetite stimulant, Eiseman says.



Red can also feel aggressive. A recent study published by Durham University in England found that men who wear red send out a signal that they’re angry (red has traditionally been thought to stimulate anger in animals such as bulls, too, although they are actually color blind). One University of Texas study found that employees in a red office reported higher negative mood characteristics than workers in a blue-green office. But a bit of red—according to a University of British Columbia study—can help people stay focused and have a positive effect on memory.

If you want to use red, try warm, deep reds such as claret or garnet, Eiseman says. These winelike shades work well in dining rooms or kitchens, as red is thought to draw people together and stimulate conversation and hunger. Red is typically too intense for bedrooms, but it can work well in a powder room, Michelini says. “Powder rooms are small, and people don’t spend a lot of time in them, so you can do something bold and different there—as long as it’s cohesive with the rest of the house.”



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