Lavender, Neutralized

"It's gone beyond the sweet old lady thing," designer Whitney Stewart says of lavender, which she used in this Georgetown home. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

In my house, the color palette is neutral: The walls are pale linen, the sofa is light brown, the rugs are natural sisal, the dishes are white.

I find neutrals calming, tasteful and restful. And the perfect backdrop for anything and everything, all seasons of the year, whether the shade is taupe, tan, ecru, almond, cream or ivory. Or lavender.

Once considered too cloying, too old-fashioned, perhaps best left for the baby's room, lavender has of late become a go-to color for walls, ceilings, fabrics and furniture, showing up in magazines, catalogues, show houses and designers' portfolios.

"It's gone beyond the sweet old lady thing," said Washington designer Whitney Stewart. "It's something new and fresh that we can use in the same way as the beiges."

This season, Crate and Barrel is selling lavender stemware. Pottery Barn's summer paint palette includes a shade of lavender. Restoration Hardware, known for its strictly edited color selection, sells lavender paint, shower curtains and towels. And, last fall on the fashion runway, where interior design often takes its cues, a pale lavender wedding gown appeared among a sea of white and ivory.

The color stars at the Kips Bay Decorator Show House in New York this month, where emerging design trends often begin their journey into the mainstream. A lush bedroom decorated by Manhattan designer Jamie Drake included lavender wall-to-wall carpeting, a lavender velvet slipper chair and high-gloss lavender lacquer wall panels.

"Lavender can be a soft and embracing neutral when used in lavish amounts," Drake said in an e-mail.

Many people have a misconception about neutrals, designers say. Neutral does not have to mean shades of beige. It's a grounding background color that does not call attention to itself, but allows everything around it to stand out.

"There is an entire world out there of neutral colors that are not beige," said Stephanie Hoppen, author of "Perfect Neutrals: Color You Can Live With." She describes lavender as sophisticated and chic, a color that "works like an absolute dream."

The wide spectrum of lavenders -- tending toward pink, blue, gray or white -- can adapt to almost any color or design style. Paired with warm dark wood finishes, lavender can seem cool and refined. Near a cool pale green, lavender comes across as warm and lively. "It can pick up the qualities of any color," said Chicago designer Anne Coyle. "There's no color that it can't mix with. Lavender is the new neutral."

Coyle says lavender is always her first choice, and it's the color of the walls in her home furnishings store in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago. Despite a rotating stock of items in a mix of colors and styles, she says, nothing ever looks bad with the lavender walls. She likes the color with black and white, brown, gray, celadon (a pale green), mustard yellow, contemporary furniture and antiques. "It's like gray but a little more racy, a little more fun," she said. "It's like the crazy aunt of gray."

Stewart recently used a taupey lavender as the principal color in the living room of a client's Georgetown home. She frequently uses the color with cream, gray and taupe, or midnight blue and white. She says the color is a frequent request of young professionals.

Jeannie Tower, a Washington feng shui consultant, says the color not only looks beautiful, but can make you feel good, too. "It's a nesting color," Tower said. "It makes you very content. You want an environment that's calm, surrounded by things that inspire you and make you feel warm and comforted. Lavender will do that."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company