October 7, 2017
June 16, 2020
As the New Year dawned, an optimistic green ‘moment’ was the decorative mood. Both literally with all shades of the colour being top of the paint popularity charts, but also metaphorically in terms of its ecological and environmental connotations. But now, a very new era of disruption is upon us. The conversation is rapidly changing. [Note this piece was commissioned pre-Covid and then only slightly tweaked to reference it as it was subsequently published after its emergence.]
And yet, a swing towards black and white was already on the cards. Such all-round verdancy traditionally represents a collective desire for fresh starts and new beginnings. But if we take a step back to look at the bigger picture, it was arguably already the case that much in the nascent new world order had to be made over completely anew. Not just adapted or tweaked to fit. And this is where black and white comes in. Whether we’re talking fashion or interiors, monochrome is uncomplicated. It’s easy to assimilate and instantly recognisable. It’s also effortlessly translatable to the mainstream. In this way, it’s a look that never really goes away. It ebbs and flows, finding expression in varying forms to suit the status quo.
But, its emergence into the spotlight now has a deeper significance. One that speaks of realism and straight-talking. Indeed, never before has looking at a black or white future seemed so prescient.
If white is thought of as the ultimate cleanser, and black as the absence of all things, when times are complicated, it might seem a natural reaction to consider either a blank sheet or a mass erasure. After all, both offer the opportunity to rewrite the rule book and plan a different trajectory. It’s like performing a complete re-boot of your computer in an attempt to return it to its factory-clean settings instead of just deleting a few files. It surely prompts comparison to what’s happening in the world at large. Even before the emergence of the Coronavirus, angry protest had caused many assumed beliefs, titans of industry and traditional edifices not just to be temporarily rattled, but to come crashing down.
And yet, combative duelling is rarely the path to sensible compromise. Or to put it another way, a sustainable future for all hinges on understanding, if not accepting, polarising points of view. Thus, signalling a note of optimism beneath all of this disruption — ie that such rage and revolution will ultimately beget evolution — there are two significant characteristics to the forthcoming monochrome. One is that its 2020s iteration is not about single colour blocking, nor even in-between shades of grey, but the creation of spaces where black and white meet. And the second is nuance. Something that supports comfortable confluence and is vital to its success.
The last time monochrome was top of the hit parade for homes was in the 1980s. Then, hard to clean matt black surfaces were paired with equally high-maintenance glossy white finishes and stainless steel. Punctuated by expensive (and obvious) designer icons — think a white leather Barcelona day bed and chunky black Le Corbusier armchairs — it was hard and cold, implying only prestige and elitism. It was utterly symptomatic of the greed is good era. A look that stood for status, with little to nothing to do with relaxation (or practicality). More banker’s boardroom than a family living room.
By the 1990s, it was all about one or the other, black versus white. And as few then would have countenanced an all-black home, white became the go-to for cool, literally bleaching away the distaste of the preceding decade. Notably, 1994 saw the birth of The White Company, a business dreamt up by founder Chrissie Rucker when she couldn’t find the affordable home essentials she wanted in classic white. Today, what started as a 12-page mail order company is synonymous with easy, laid-back living. And its 60 stores across the US and Europe are testament to the enduring allure of the all-white home.
Certainly, shades of pale can be transformative, reflective and intrinsically peaceful. Popularly associated with clean and uncluttered spaces, it’s a seductive option in a hectic world. Albeit, conversely, this decade also saw the complication of white. Out went plain Brilliant White, and in came Dutch White or Chinese White, even Spanish White, Cotton Street, Pointing and Dimity. But regardless of nomenclature, white is still rather aspirational as light finishes and furnishings mean constant household vigilence. This isn’t a look for those with small children and pets. Although Rucker, being a mother of five, would probably disagree. Nonetheless she concedes, in her book ‘For the love of White’, that “white spaces need careful thought and planning”, and that, “thinking through the layout and flow of rooms and including adjustable lighting” is essential to ensure they don’t become too bright or sterile.
The Noughties swept in the dominance of Scandinavian style. Still resolutely pale and muted, in theory it was warmed-up with blond wood and gentle smudges of grey. By the dawn of 2010 however, the grey took over as the interior stylist’s ‘colour’ of choice. Championed as the new neutral, it signified the very tentative start of a move away from the domination of the Nordic looks. Nevertheless, in my opinion, wholesale grey was nothing more than the new magnolia. A default choice when you had no idea what else to do. Inevitably, there would be a reaction.
For designer Abigail Ahern, for whom dark decor has now become a highly-merchandisable personal signature, this was the moment she took her first shop, and then her home, completely to the darkside. “It wasn’t to be provocative” she says, “I did it in the store and got so excited about how it turned the space around, and how it made me feel, I echoed it at home.” A decade ago this was radical stuff. It marked the beginning of her ‘arrival’ as a tastemaker, and interiors magazines fell over themselves to feature her. Interviewed at the time, she described her home as marrying “glam with a dollop of grit” and telling “a story with a dose of drama.”
And today? For Ahern the love still burns strong. However, her home has gradually evolved towards a decor that involves a coordinated series of deliciously dark shades. And they are all from her own-brand paint range of 23 colours. It’s a selection that includes several almost-black browns, an umber-infused burgandy, a warm blue black, a deep grey and some depth-of-the-forest fir greens. “It feels luxurious, cocooning and makes the most generic room feel cosy and sultry” she says. “When you go dark, in order to tantalise, you need a few shots of warmer hues to take it to another level.” Combine it with oodles of texture, and it can be intensely comforting as the way it feels is the big idea behind trying solus dark decor in the first place.
As she puts it, “We all want to create warm, cosseting spaces that we can hunker down into, away from the outside world.” It’s a sentiment supported by Lucy St George, co-founder with Jane Rockett of the quirky online emporium Rockett St George and owner of a defiantly black kitchen. ” Black can make you feel powerful, strong, glamorous and sexy” she says. Although she reiterates, “the trick is to find a warming shade with the right undertone to create a calm and cosy space.”
And it’s this issue of undertones, the whisper of another hue behind the main colour, which is the pivotal distinguishing feature of the 2020s monochrome revival. This is the nuance mentioned before. And it was forseen by Ruth Mottershead, marketing director at Paint and Paper Library. The company recently debuted Monochrome, a set of six pairs of coordinated white and blacks in association with the Royal Institute of British Architects. The paints are arranged such that each couple shares the same subtle undertone — ochre and pink through to blue, green, taupe or grey. “While white remains a very popular colour,” she explains “consumers are becoming more adventurous in their choices.” The new Monochrome paint card is therefore intended to “allow people to use black with ease and to see it in a new light rather than as the very bold, harsh and difficult colour it has often been understood to be.”
It’s certainly true that hisotrically, black paints were nearly all a very flat jet black, coloured with soot. And although white is available in ever more variations, without being able to perfectly tonally coordinate the two, monochrome was a difficult decorative act to pull off well. Especially if cosy comfort was the goal. It could be “a strong and rather stark” combination agrees Motterhead. “The contrast would be too intense, and unsuitable for many interior spaces.”
Indeed, the combination of black and white has often been seen as a very classic style, popularly reserved for homes rich with abundant period detail, plenty of light and existing warming features like parquet wooden floors. Imagine high-ceilinged Parisian Hausmann apartments. Or American townhouses replete with grand hallways and generous sash windows. Alternatively, it was used in houses with a very modernist sensibility. In either case, the paint effects were deliberately second fiddle. They were there only to draw attention to filigree plasterwork, or lend rigour and form while allowing the architecture to take centre-stage. In short, I’d posit, a smart backdrop to life rather than an active contributor to the wellbeing of the life lived within those elegant rooms.
But today, because both black and white have evolved to encompass varying degrees of warmth or coolness, it makes them both much more liveable. Also easier to use, whatever type of space you have. Nevertheless, Sue Timney, for whom black and white has been a sartorial and professional obsession since she co-founded her fabric brand Timney Fowler with Grahame Fowler in 1985, thinks otherwise. For her the pending return of monochrome is less to do with it being more user-friendly, than it capturing the mood of the moment. “This current wave of black and white comes as we are completely ready for something fresh, clean, and simple within interiors” she says.
And I think she’s absolutely right. Mood, mode and material have perfectly coalesced. The time is nigh to revel in the wealth of new decorative possibility. Delicious sounding blacks have joined all those seductively monikered whites — think Paean Black, Pontefract, Kohl and Ilex. One of my favourites though, funnily enough, is Zeitgeist from Craig & Rose, one of the oldest paint makers in the UK, dating from 1829. Described as “almost black with a drop of green and the chalkiness of charcoal”, it sounds like an apposite metaphor for the next decade. All we need to go with it is a lovely warm white-with-a hint-of-hope.
First featured in FT How to Spend It magazine. Published 29 May 2020
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Michelle Ogundehin is internationally renowned as an authority on interiors, trends and style. She is an influencer with expertise and the multi award-winning former Editor-in-Chief of ELLE Decoration UK.