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Orange Redeemed

An Awkward Color Comes of Age

By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page H01

There's nothing really wrong with bright orange. It's sunny. It's cheery. The Dutch love it so much they claimed it as their national color. The Fauves, a school of early-20th-century painters, were so crazy about it they rendered sand, sunlight, even shadows the color of marmalade. And just ask any American kid if Halloween would be the same were jack-o'-lantern orange replaced with tasteful taupe or sage.

But something unsettling can happen when bright orange tries to mingle with other colors within a room. It too easily becomes an agent of shock, of uneasiness, of forced glee. Some sort of weird reverse alchemy reduces its golden brilliance to baser, almost vulgar origins. Combined with avocado and brown, the color forms an unholy trinity of Nixon-era design that lives on in our collective memory, thanks to TV Land marathon weekends spent trapped in the Brady Bunch kitchen.

The Prince check silk taffeta drapery from Storehouse. (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)

For its crimes against good taste, orange can never be completely forgiven. Which is not to say it can't be rehabilitated and paroled.

That seems to be exactly what is happening right now as a new and, many would say, improved orange enters the spectrum of colors deemed acceptable for contemporary interiors.

Yesterday's bright, sunshiny iteration isn't completely dead. It remains a popular color in kitchens with a Mexican or tropical motif, especially for painted tiles and backsplashes. And mid-century cultists still get excited at the idea of upholstering a set of Saarinen Tulip stools in tangerine Naugahyde, just like it was done back in the day.

But for the most part, the orange working its way back into today's mainstream tends to be deeper and earthier, a shade more complex than the specimen bearing its name in the Crayola box. Think less Bradys-at-breakfast, more Berkshires-in-October. The new orange is deliberately adulterated -- and unquestionably adult.

Witness the cover of the most recent Crate & Barrel catalogue, for instance, given over to a club chair covered with full-grain leather the exact shade not of pumpkin, but of pumpkin pie: a warm russet with creamy yellow undertones. Or the new silk taffeta draperies from Storehouse that share a warm palette of red-orange, gold and rust. Room & Board, the small but growing Minneapolis-based chain of stores devoted to making contemporary and classic design affordable, is now flaunting in its magazine ads a pair of accent chairs upholstered in a "spice-colored" velvet. And a bold, terra-cotta-colored KitchenAid stand mixer is currently spicing up the shelves at your local Williams-Sonoma.

We've come a long way since 1991, when Forbes magazine, in an article about how color affects consumer choices, concluded that orange denoted "cheap." Back then, when painful memories of all those Brady-esque 1970s kitchens were still relatively fresh, that may have been true. But not anymore.

"It's perceived, correctly, to be one of the more difficult colors to pull off," says Donald Kaufman, whose company, Donald Kaufman Color, advises some of the world's leading architects and interior designers on how to use color in their projects. "But you have to be careful how you define 'orange.' It occupies all that space between red and yellow. When it gets duller, it turns into rust or cinnabar, or all those wonderfully earthy terra-cotta shades. In those incarnations, orange is quite beautiful."

The November 2004 issue of Architectural Digest features a Washington living room by designer Thomas Pheasant whose draperies, wall panels and furniture upholstery combine to form a study in orange and its neighbors on the color wheel: saffron, persimmon, chestnut and burgundy. Even if the O-word barely appears in the room's description, there's no denying that Pheasant, whose trademark style blends the best of classical and modern ideas, has embraced, rather than spurned, this oft-maligned shade.

Seattle-based interior designer Terry Hunziker says he is seeing orange everywhere he looks these days. "While I don't recall ever being drawn to it, I find myself suddenly surrounded by it," says Hunziker, whose work has also appeared in Architectural Digest. The designer recently built a second home for himself and faced interior and exterior walls with Cor-Ten, a steel that oxidizes over time to turn a moody, Mark Rothko-worthy burnt sienna.

Orange, says Hunziker, is "the color of intense awareness. Depending on its hue and intensity, it can evoke anything from a soft, enveloping warmth to something more lively and exciting." He likes to temper its boldness with earthy neutrals such as driftwood gray, oyster and khaki. "I also love to use it with a subtle violet-blue," he says.

Kaufman is understandably ecumenical when it comes to the tools of his trade, and orange is no exception. "There really are no bad colors; it's all about how they're placed," he says. But he suggests that one reason the new deeper, darker orange is more appealing than its bright, saturated forebear may have something to do with its natural associations.

"There's just not a lot of it in our environment, except in its earthy varieties," he says. "It can range from intense ochers to rusts to the colors that leaves turn after the chlorophyll has been bleached out of them. As it approaches those earthy ranges, there are more references to colors in nature that our culture is familiar with. And that makes its transition to architectural spaces more palatable."

Orange's renaissance may even be rooted in a deep-seated, if subconscious, desire on the part of busy 21st-century urbanites to stay connected to the primordial hearth.

"Our prehistoric ancestors had the warmth of the fire," says Jill Morton, a Hawaii-based author of books on chromatic symbolism ("Color Voodoo") and a color consultant whose clients include Nokia and Dow Chemical. "And so these warm colors are, to this day, evocative of comfort. These things are hard-wired into us. In terms of physiological and psychological responses, earthy warm tones are part of our dwelling heritage."

But the orange of Dutch patriots, carefree Fauves and trick-or-treaters will always have its defenders, no question. After Didier Heiremans and his wife returned to their Northwest Washington townhouse from their honeymoon in Provence, they both knew that their home's battleship gray exterior needed to be rethought. Malaga, an exterior paint from Duron that hovers somewhere between apricot and butterscotch, was called into service.

"Houses [in Provence] are often painted in bright, cheerful colors," says Heiremans. "We decided on a color scheme with a sunny Mediterranean feel. Since our house sits in the shadow of a very large magnolia tree, we thought that our selection of orange would brighten the front yard under the tree canopy. And we're happy to say it does."

Even Morton has a soft spot for the effulgent orange of yore. For all her learned talk about Paleolithic associations with hearth and safety, she confesses to having owned, years ago, a Toyota that was "a bright, bright, bright orange."

"All my friends would look at it and say, 'That's the one color a car shouldn't be,' " she says. But she loved it anyway, despite their protests.

Orange can grow up all it wants. There will always be people who can say, fondly, that they knew it when.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company