reflections on space and color

What I've discovered so far while living in this house in the woods, which lacks any distinct architectural style, is that decorating an open space is hard.  The main floor of the house is one large room including living, dining and kitchen areas.  Furniture arrangements are tricky because I want the space to remain open feeling, while simultaneously recognizing the three different functions of the room.  Color especially is difficult.  And I've been thinking to myself, what exactly about this or any open plan is so difficult to successfully decorate?

One of the six apartments in Chicago I lived in had a touch of the open plan feeling.  The main room of the second of my two Logan Square homes functioned as a living and dining room.  There were no predetermined features to distinguish which area should be for a dining table and which for the sofa, but still I was able to arrange it nicely to accommodate the two purposes because the room itself had a distinctness.

a wide angle shot of the main room of one of my Logan Square apartments

See those dark wood window moldings on the left and the built-in bookcase, sometimes called a breakfront, on the right?  Those architectural features, though not particularly grand, had presence.  The very existence of substantially proportioned trimwork helped to define the room.  The windows said, "Come over here and be by the light and look outward, onto the urban street corner which is interesting and ever-changing."

for a smallish room, these windows are wonderfully massive

The built-in breakfront said, "Come over here and look inward, at your books and at the objects you've collected in your life."

the built-in breakfront beautifully incorporated the doorway to the kitchen

So, though the space was multi-functioning, the room itself had nice proportions and good bones, which made it easier to decorate, because there was already a there, in the first place.  The room could have existed happily on its own with nothing in it because the room itself, the very walls, the very light, the very height of the ceilings, gave the room a personality and presence.

Our next apartment, in Oak Park, while really a warren of small rooms, and not an open plan at all, had similarly fine detailing that helped define the rooms, and made them easier to decorate.  Nearly any decorating scheme would look in rooms with large windows, decorative trim moldings, and original hardwoods.  And the fact that this space was not open, allowed me to be bold in my paint choices, because there was only a limited amount of each color.

An eggplant dining room combination office with red accents!

color inspired by stephen gambrel, Benjamin Moore Eggplant 1379

A saturated green living room with lots of pattern play!

Benjamin Moore Agave AF-420

At the time, green was not a shade I usually gravitated towards, but given the charm of the old building with its heavy crown molding, the substantial mantle and the gentle afternoon light, the intensity of the color worked.

Benjamin Moore Agave AF-420

Every room was a different color, a different scheme, all united by the very oldness of the apartment itself.  Even the "foyer" could have it's own bold scheme, as offset by all the dark wooden doors.

Sherwin Williams Shoji White SW7042 with hand painted gold detailing, navy ceiling

Despite being able to make several apartments there feel stylish and homey, I was so ready to leave Chicago when we did.  It's not a place I could have stayed and been happy.  But a year and a half away from it, with the benefit of distance, I can identify what I enjoyed most about living in the city.  I do miss the vibrancy, the diversity, the stimulation and constant novel experiences, the world-class museums, the world-class shopping, the grittiness, the toughness, the danger, the glowering skies of winter, the languid summer afternoons, the clashing and the harmonious, the absolute cityness of it all.  Yes, of course, I miss those things very much and more.  But, just at a basic level, an almost unconscious level, I miss old buildings to live in.  I miss smaller rooms with imperfections of age.  I miss windows that are something of an visual event themselves.  I miss doors that have some detail to them.  I miss the fact that in an old building in Chicago, you could sense the passage of time by looking at the 50 chipped layers of paint on everything. 
After our first year here of generic apartment-living pergatory in Durham, we moved to this house in the woods.  I was so excited to have a house to decorate and make our own.  I had all these visions of projects and inspiration and blog posts.  And yes, with all the renovating of the kitchen and the bathrooms, I did have projects and blog posts galore.  But once we completed those projects, I've come to a near standstill.  I kept thinking to myself I was uninspired to write.  And then slowly over the six months we've lived here, I've come to realize, it's not that I was uninspired to write, it's that I was uninspired to decorate.

Because this floor plan is so drastically different than the past six places I've lived in Chicago, I almost feel like I need to learn a new design language, but didn't realize it until now, and all this time I've wondered why I can't understand the space and it can't understand me.  That's not true of course; it's not that I need to learn a new design language.  What I need to figure out is how to apply broad design principles to a less defined, less detailed interior space that comes with a little house built around 1980.  I did not consider in advance that I would have to rethink my decorating strategies when we moved to North Carolina.  I didn't even realize how I had been given a rather huge decorating headstart all along living in those great old Chicago buildings.  

This house is sort of quirky, in its way, but calming and comfortable at the same time.  I've been enjoying the easier access to nature with the nice deck on the south side of the house.  The exposed rafter ceilings are funny, but I'm okay with them.  I'd rather have the extra foot of ceiling height they create, rather than the typical-of-1970s low 8' kind.  It's a perfect house for two people (and three dogs and a cat).  But I've  been really struggling to get the main level to come together.  If you look at the extreme "before" shot below, you can see just how random (never mind the random collection of chairs) the space looks.  Lines, lines and more lines everywhere.  No where for the eye to rest.

very before

After we completed the cabinet painting and tiling in the kitchen, which served to update while adding some unique design elements, we needed a color for the walls.  Our thought was to reuse the same Benjamin Moore Agave we used in the Oak Park living room for the entire main floor of this house, as the space certainly called out for color.  The existing Antique White wasn't doing the house any favors, much less any of our stuff.  The Agave went up all over and I liked it against the newly white cabinets and the black shelving in the renovated kitchen.

the kitchen in its current state, also with Benjamin Moore Agave AF-420 throughout

But six months and a bout of wintertime lowness later, the Agave has come to feel oppressive.  The combination of the exposed rafter ceilings, the dark parquet flooring and the small scale molding and trim, the green just started to feel too avocado green.  A little too too.  Agave is too strong against the piddly proportions of the trim here.  (I had some fleeting thoughts of replacing all the base molding from the current 3" height, so something much more substantial, maybe 8"-10" high.  Fleeting thought only, as that would be a ridiculously huge undertaking.)  The color doesn't feel cozy or restful or energizing.  It just feels intense.

So, yeah, I finally decided that I was going to have to repaint.  Just thinking about repainting feels wasteful and exhausting since we just did it six months ago.  But I see now that getting the color right will majorly improve this space.  The right color will greatly ease my decorating job.  What I didn't see til now is that the Agave green actually exacerbated the difficulties of the space.  The green on the walls here say, "Look at me! Look at me!" because absolutely nothing else is distracting the eye.  There is no thick window trim, there is no fireplace mantle, there is no bright light blinding its way in through the windows in the afternoon to offset the strength of the color.

My first thought for a new color was to use the same color as the pantry, the powder bath and the upstairs library - Benjamin Moore Iceberg 2122-50.  I made a couple swatches with my leftover paint on the living room walls and immediately realized Iceberg was going to be too light in such a big space and too devoid of depth and personality.

Then I thought, okay, how about something more gray, but still subtle, like the Sherwin Williams Worldly Gray SW7043 that I successfully used in Logan Square and in the Oak Park bedroom.

Sherwin Williams Worldly Gray SW7043 on walls in our Logan Square apartment
Sherwin Williams Worldly Gray SW7043 on walls in Oak Park bedroom

So I bought a test can of it, put up a couple swatches and quickly realized that it, too, would not work.  It looked mauve and sickly in this setting.  Worldy Gray was not going to be it either.

Hmmmm..... What to do?  Poking around the internet recently, I stumbled upon the portfolio of this incredible Charleston, SC based designer Angie Hranowsky.  One of her rooms provided instant inspiration.  Grey, yes!  But much deeper, more blue almost purple-y.  And two trips to the paint store later, this is what my walls are looking like:

six shades of blue-greys from Benjamin Moore's Affity line tested along the baseboard

A crazy patchwork quilt.  The idea of blue-grey was not far from my mind at any point, especially since the living room rug is a variety of pretty shades. 

to the left of the door, the definitely failed attempts of Iceberg and Worldly Gray

That front door, that front door, the one that should welcome you in and having something interesting happening to it as viewed from the inside, sits there absolutely depressed.  That damned electrical tape on the broken lock!  It's shouting at me for attention!

Do you see what I mean about the pitiful moldings that have no identity?  They are there as a function: boards stuck against the wall where drywall meets flooring to cover the gap between the two.  They almost say, "Don't look at me.  We're nothing."  But instead, in their very meekness, they say, "Look at us.  Aren't we just so pitiful and neglected? No one gave us real consideration."

What I'm always attempting to create through interior decoration is a thereness, a true sense or spirit of place.  Color is the fastest way to transform a space that is vague and nebulous into something vibrant and distinct.  In the case of this house, with the right wall color as my springboard, I will more freely and agilely dress the space.  The right color will not instantly define the room on its own, but it should flatter and elevate the less-than-ideal elements of the space. It is going to be important to get the color just right.  It has to work in late slanting winter light, as well as the darker days of summer when the trees block out most of the direct sunlight.  It's got to make my red velvet chairs sing and also harmonize with the living room rug.  Artwork should feel more bold against it, and people feel more restful in it.  I'm demanding a lot, really, but I think I've found a winner amongst my six test shades, so the plan is to paint several large swathes of it on a couple walls to get a clearer sense of this color all over.  I know that if I get it right, the room will be a whole new place.

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