On white

by Barendina Smedley

Colour is out of fashion at the moment, as happens from time to time. White is back.

Even people who could not really explain the difference between colour and tone — even people who don’t realise that tone is actually just colour, but thinned down with varying amounts of grey, the variation in the amount being the point — would, at the moment, probably prefer a cool, Gustavian space, full of massive pieces of Edwardian brown furniture arbitrarily slathered in Farrow & Ball All White, to the same space furnished with the un-modernised brown furniture and dressed with deep colours such as emerald, azure or Farrow & Ball’s own Picture Room Red.

Why this is the case is a question for those who enjoying staring thoughtfully into the shifting deep currents of mainstream taste. There have been points — perhaps most recently in the 1980s — when colour ruled. There have also been other points — the 1970s, the 1990s — when cool white interiors, enlivened with the most subtle of tonal interventions — were far more acceptable. Perhaps this iteration suggests that change itself is what we seek, the freshness of transformation and renewal, the occasional decorative climacteric?

For the moment, though, colour is out. It is banished, at best, to ‘statements’, articulated against a backdrop of pale grey, pale stone and the whitest of whites. Sensitive owners of country cottages are painting their floors and skirting boards white. Old furniture is ‘brought to life’ with different shades and hues of ghostly white. Vintage finds are loved more if they have enough tact to restrain their colour palette to grey, silver or white. Strong colour is, by implication, hectic, unsophisticated, garish. White, in contrast, is calm, intelligent, the choice of all right-thinking decorators.

Looking back from 2050 or thereabouts, I suspect that all-white interiors will have become an adorable, nostalgic evocation of a vanished age. The few that survive will be feted in whatever the future will substitute for decorating magazines. Such interiors will, by the way, require periodic behind-the-scenes ‘renewal’, as whatever else white may do, it does not wear well. They will look as dated then as a groovy, early 1970s David Hicks interior does now. And it is good that this is the case, as period style has something ineffably magical about it, a subliminal route back to temps perdu, and it would be sad if we were not creating a period style of our own.

Period style is usually validated at the time as anything other than a period style. It is invariably lauded as ‘timeless’, albeit strangely not ‘timeless’ in the same way that previous period styles have been. Only with hindsight does the distinctiveness of the style become apparent. Does the flight from colour always mirror phases of economic anxiety and geo-political unrest? Does it seem wrong to indulge in rich colour when times are difficult for so many? Is white inherently pessimistic? Far from being serene, is white the most anxious colour of all?

Because my own house is vaguely ‘historic’ — or, to put it another way, perhaps more accurately, because my present-day preference was to preserve many of the decorative choices of my predecessors there — there is precious little white on show. What there is can be found above the picture-rails and on the ceilings in most of the upstairs rooms and some of the downstairs rooms. The exceptions are the south-facing drawing room, in which white walls rise from waist-high cream-painted panelling, and the south-facing Orangery which — if we ever get round to painting it — will be done in lime-white with accents of Wedgewood blue. In both cases, the decision was made to embrace the natural lightness of these rooms. But in each, there will also be plenty of strong colour — old-gold sofas and kelim scatter-cushions in the drawing room, teak campaign furniture and a bright mid-century abstract mural in the Orangery. These will not be fashionable rooms.

The problem here is my own lack of self-control, pure and simple. Put bluntly, I can’t resist colour. I crave colour — rich, deep, strong — nor do I see any point in trying to control these cravings. The result is that my house is, in colour terms, assertively anti-fashion. We have old William Morris wallpapers, sixteenth century oak beams picked out with colour c. 1900, ceilings painted blue, dining room walls painted red, indeed a kitchen painted in 1930s ‘cream’, which by most people’s standards is actually quite a strong yellow. The landing and east corridor were painted in stone, admittedly, but that was only so that we could then hang some rather bright pictures against it — and the joinery there is fire-engine red.

I know perfectly well that there is a genuine greed, a neediness in my desire for colour. It fits, somehow, with a preference for creating object-rich rather than ‘edited’ interiors. Bluntly, I prefer a convivial clutter of books, pictures, old furniture and so forth to the alleged ‘serenity’ of empty white spaces. Isn’t all that white a little bit cold, sterile, lonely? No, self-denial for its own sake does not appeal to me. Our homes are there to cushion us against the indifference of the world outside, not to mirror it.

But on the other hand, my taste in colour is also instinctively rather dark. Given the choice, I’d never opt for pure colour. Shades suit me better. They seem older, more established but also more flawed, as if they have lived a little. That suits me too.

Perhaps that is why the trend towards white doesn’t quite work for me. In other people’s houses, its charms are admittedly manifest. A white-painted floor, for instance, can look stunning, working as a counterpoint to colour and texture elsewhere in the room. There’s certainly plenty of cheap and cheerful furniture out there, crafted out of cheap materials and covered in nasty varnish, which could indeed be improved by a few coats of paint and session of artful ‘distress’. And there’s something impressive about the force of will needed to maintain a clean white space in its pristine state — a creed of aesthetic purity never once traduced by dirty boot-prints, a scatter of Lego or the lurid glare of actual commercial packaging. I couldn’t live like that for half an hour, but I have a degree of respect for the people who not only can, but do.