Designer colors

There are decades-long trends in interior decor, including the colors favored. If you were in the US in the late 1970s – early 80s, you probably remember shag carpeting and wallpaper, often in shades of avocado, orange, and rust. You probably also at some point rented an apartment with a bathroom done in black and white tiles with pink fixtures. No matter how strange or hideous those colors look to us now, at some point they were decided upon by professional designers. I learned about this at one of the many temp jobs I took in Washington DC in 1986 when I began my working life post-college.

One of these jobs took me into a special building that only professional interior designers had access to: a shopping mall of showrooms for makers of home textiles, carpets, paints, furniture, lamps, etc. Home designers could view demo models and collect samples and swatches to propose to their clients. For a company that made interior design fabrics, my job was to reorganize their thousands of sample swatches. One set of these were handkerchief-sized, neatly folded and placed in a huge array of pigeon holes, so that the colors rippled across a curving wall in a visually-pleasing sequence. Others were 2”x2” squares glued to cards and hung on racks, similarly arranged by color.

A new season’s colors had been released. My job was to get all the new swatches and squares into the displays, remove all the discontinued colors, and make it all look good. The colors being retired were the late-1970s rusts, olives, and oranges. The new colors coming in were cream, pine green, lavender, and dark purple. Obviously, I couldn’t just take out the discontinued colors and put the new ones in their slots: the whole wall had to be rethought to keep the flow of colors (horizontal and vertical) pleasing to the eye. It wasn’t as simple as making a rainbow, either – there were colors in many families of warm and cool, bright and earth tones, with differences in fabric types that also changed their visual impact.

Neither the company nor the shop manager provided any guidance. I had a decent artistic sense and eye for color, but I had to just try things, taking swatches out and putting them into new holes, over and over again. Sometimes a color sequence worked right away. Sometimes it didn’t, and I’d have to do a section of wall all over again. 

Once I’d finally got the wall where I wanted it, I had to repeat the process with the squares. I think it all took me two weeks, and at night I was dreaming about endlessly moving swatches and patches of color. In retrospect, I’m surprised that this task – which determined the visual impact of an upscale design showroom – was given to a temp who’d been hired on the basis of her secretarial skills!

One result of that episode was that I could always spot a hotel that had been redecorated in the mid-80s. A couple of years later, I walked into one such hotel in DC, just re-opened after a lavish renovation. I laughed as I recognized its cream, dark green, and purple carpeting.

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