You are here
Color Tips from Designer Mary Douglas Drysdale
Invigorating palettes are just one part of Mary Douglas Drysdale's signature style
- « prev
- next »
- 1 of 20
Traditional silhouettes. Classic proportions. And especially invigorating palettes. These elements distinguish the work of Washington, D.C., designer Mary Douglas Drysdale, long a favorite with Traditional Home readers. (Her beguiling yellow room is featured on the cover of our book, Signature Style). Mary earned a bachelor of fine arts at George Washington University, followed by study at Parsons School of Design and the Sorbonne. This background shows in her work from farmhouse to townhouse and hotel to restaurant, always with a relaxed and open look that belies her careful attention to detail and innate perfectionism. The recipient of countless awards—including one for craftsmanship in metal work from the Washington Building Congress—Mary is an innovative and ever-enthusiastic designer who often creates custom pieces and finishes for her clients. She believes, “The success of any room and the ultimate experience of any interior cannot be separated from the architecture against which the decoration is used.”
Bring Color to Furniture
When considering non-upholstered furniture, people are inclined to think principally of metal, plastic, or stained wood with respect to the frames. I have always favored the late 18th-century neo-classical decorative styles. These would include Swedish Gustavian, English George III, and French Louis XVI, which explored extensively painted furniture finishes. For my own projects, I often have pieces made, and then have them painted in a color which becomes a strong part of the decorative scheme. This picture shows the details of a custom secretary I designed and had painted. Paint is such a wonderful finish because it is so easily blended to any tone that suits a scheme.
With Strong Color, Keep the Palette Simple
Clients often ask me to work with rich, strong color. In order to keep the impression of the space and light cohesive, I will develop a color scheme based on two primary colors, one of which is often white. I then emphasize one of the colors, typically the stronger color, in the textiles for curtains and upholstery, as well as in paint for pieces I design for a project. In this picture, I painted the desk a snappy yellow. At the time, I thought hard about painting the desk a color to match the basic scheme, but I have always been glad I chose to do so.
Stripe the Walls
Stripes are such a classic touch in a decorative scheme—and what a great tool to use in custom painted colors when building a color scheme. I often custom-match the stripes I use to the specific colors of fabrics or other decorative elements, and then I lay out the intervals with a painter, who precisely measures and tapes out the wall to get the width and color sequence perfect. When planning stripes, make sure to have a full stripe land in all of the corners. One can achieve this by modifying ever so slightly the width of each stripe on a wall, so that the sequence “fits” the wall perfectly. It is the relationship of the elements that the eye reads that is paramount (not the precise dimension) when the variance is so slight.
Monochromatic Schemes Expand and Balance
Decorating a room with one color visually simplifies a room, as high contrast is eliminated or reduced. I find monochromatic schemes particularly useful when working with a narrow space, or a room of complex shape. A single color, when used for walls, trim, upholstery, and even floors, pulls a room together minimizing the differences in scale or form, and correcting inherent problems of proportion or stylistic mismatches. It also creates a restful space. Painting floors is a terrific way to express this one color—especially when dealing with old floors—and it can reduce costs when remodeling by eliminating the absolute need for new floors.
Framing With Borders and Bands
It is often the detail found in the layers of a color scheme that provide subtle interest and contribute to the strength and clarity of a first impression. I will often border a rug with a leather band (leather “like” also works), which calls out the edge. I then surround the rug with a painted floor border which reinforces the basic shape of the rug in the room. This decorative bordering always makes for a beautifully decorated floor even when the rug is removed. This can be highly practical for rooms where a table needs to expand, (and once expanded, no longer works well with the rug size). It also works well as a concept for schemes that have both a summer and winter face.
On curtains I will often have a workroom fray a fabric edge and then apply it as a detail to the fabric panels. There is a richness of thought that resonates through the application of borders and bands when the room is viewed as a whole. I find it a wonderful way to enhance any color scheme.
Use Color in the Kitchen
I grew up in a house that had extraordinary painted metal cabinets in the kitchen. My parents were collectors of modern art and they commissioned an artist to consider the colors of their cabinets. There were three colors altogether in that kitchen. While my own approach to color in the kitchen is less Mondrianesque, coloring the cabinetry and trim in the kitchen is a grand idea, developing the room in the way one might a traditional decorative scheme, rather than the expected stained wood or white cabinetry. I also include art, rugs and exceptional furniture in the kitchens I design.
Sew Solid Colors Together To Invent Your Own Color Scheme
When working on a marvelous French-style historic house, my client asked for a particular green color that he had found in a book on French-style decorating. It was decided that we would match walls and rug and bring in some pattern and contrast at the windows. The scale of the room was such that most of the patterned fabrics I found were simply overwhelmed by the space. It occurred to me that giant stripes would suit the room wonderfully. I found simple solid fabrics and I scaled the drawings and pattern to the size and repetition I wanted. By combining the skills of a good workroom and readily available textiles, it was a wonderful way to achieve exactly the effect I wanted.
Strong Color in a Quiet Room
The energy of the diagonally patterned red rug in this sitting room could have taken the scheme to a much more dramatic place. But here texture—not another color—is used to balance the strength of this geometric and richly colored rug. The coffee table and the end table are wonderfully carved. Note that the shaped legs of the sofa are stained to blend with these tables. Blending all the wood tones makes the room less busy. Upholstery and curtain fabrics are striated, to give added weight to these lighter tones. The lively red is gently distributed throughout the room in accessories and art to tie it all together.
Consider Your Covers
I often find that people don’t consider the most prominent colors of their book jackets before selecting a color to paint their bookshelves. In order to achieve the most elegant and pulled together look, it is important to take a look at your books before finalizing a color scheme. A collection of books with lots of black on the book spine can work very well with a darker color for the walls and shelves. On the other hand, a collection of books with mostly white covers looks great with a lighter, whiter setting. I once did a scientific library which had a great number of red books. We painted the walls and cabinets a muted, grained red finish. It was spectacular!
Walls for Photography
This octagonal entry foyer was planned to showcase the owner’s collection of sepia-toned photography. So often people limit themselves to white walls when considering the display of a photography collection. The taupe-painted walls seem to extract color from the faded prints, and the banding at the base of the skirt on the octagonal table picks up the toasty taupe flavor again to give as much structure to the color scheme as is expressed in the shaping of the architecture. The table top is populated by objects and art, yet the impression remains visually quiet, as the color of the decorative elements and that of the fabric used for the skirt are so close in hue and value.
Use Color To Unify An Architectural Plan
The view from the stair hall into the entry hall of this historic house is grand and expresses movement, refined by clear form. My intention in defining form and selecting finishes for this project was to create a space which, in spite of its grand scale, communicated quiet elegance, clarity, and smooth architectural transitions. Both of these grand halls are colored in similar tones, making them seem somewhat continuous. A change in color from room to room and hall to stairs would have shifted the focus and sense of continuity. It was critical to clad the stairs in stone, as this connected the stair to the stone floors below and softened the impression of the grand projecting stair. I went to Paris to select that stone and carefully specified both color and finish.
Create Coziness with Color
The first decision in this kitchen was to antique the stained wooden kitchen cabinets and the second was the selection of a yellow-and-blue toile for the primary fabric. Color, paint, and pattern took a drab almond-and-beige kitchen to another level. Inexpensive, unfinished side chairs were revved up in a strong golden yellow. Shades of golden yellow were also served up on the walls, carefully hand-striped by a decorative painter. Yellow field flowers and a painted yellow bucket extend the scheme to every detail.
Hand-Painted Wall Pattern
Have you ever had some old furniture that you didn’t quite know what to do with? The chairs and a chest of drawers found in this room were painted for my client by her grandfather, when she was a girl. As it turned out, decades later those same pieces were the inspiration for this small and charming scheme. I took the chairs to a paint store where, via computer color matching, we were able to find a tone that worked with the chairs. I also commissioned a decorative artist to develop a hand-painted flower pattern, which was lifted from details on the chairs and chest. I often find quilts to start and establish a scheme, but in this room I found the quilts later to blend with the existing room. Quilts and painted sisal combine here to extend the idea of handmade and home.
Blue-and-White: Always a Favorite
My color statistics show that America prefers the classic combination of blue and white. In this dining room, I used geometric patterns and lines to heighten energy and interest in the room. To keep the elegance high and make the room appear larger, I kept the color scheme quiet––limiting it to a mid-tone blue and off-white. Geometry and detail made the room work. A lovely circular bolection mirror over the mantel, painted white, gives focus and dimension. The giant Greek key border and slipcovered chairs maintain the main color themes; their shape and simple pattern add interest without being busy.
White with Lively Color
Sedate Swedish antique chairs were given a brilliant presence by upholstering them in a brilliant chrome yellow velvet. The client was a diplomat with twin desires: to be conservative but also stand out. The plan of the room was symmetrical and the furniture elements reserved, but the addition of the small amounts of yellow within the scheme created a very strong impression. I had the walls glazed in many tones of white; curtains, sofas, custom woven rugs, and painted coffee table were also in varying tones of elegant off-white. A strong color, even used sparingly, brings energy to a room. Yellow is a color which communicates warmth and generosity.
Glaze Pattern Onto the Floor
So often either the dimension of a room and its shape, or the price of acquiring a new rug, make it hard to bring color and pattern to the floor via the conventional formula. One of my favorite decorative devices is to stain and stencil a floor, which can provide a dazzling end result. Scaled and accurate drawings of the room and the proposed pattern are essential, as well as the skill of a highly accomplished decorative painter. In this room, I was also careful to manage all the transitions to furniture pieces, which needed to connect logically to the room’s furniture scheme.
Brighten Up a Dark Room
The bedroom in this picture is on the shady side of the house and receives no natural light. The daughter of my clients wanted a sleek and modern room, and we quickly arrived at the idea of painting the floor white. From there it was a quick leap to striping the walls and continuing the stripe onto the floor. I selected a warm white and had the formula lightened by 50% at the paint store to make these stripes. The floor was painted and sealed to form a strong bond. The floor reflected so much light that it made the room seem as if sunlight were pouring in all day. To contrast with the snappy white, I found a strong and pretty pink which I used for the seating and accents. The Marilyn replica we hung on the wall pulled it all together. Whenever I am greeted by a client's dark room, I think of this lovely room which was transformed by generously applying a warm white.
The Addition of Flowers Can Make a Room Sing
I have always thought that flowers could make almost anyplace beautiful. But the choice of arrangement has everything to do with how it makes a room feel. I always work to make my arrangements look as though they didn’t come from a florist. Field flowers and the most common sorts of blooms are the most welcoming and comfortable to me. They give that fresh-from-the-garden look, which just feels like home.