Photo: Courtesy of Rachael H Grochowski
Emotions and color are closely linked. Think about “seeing red” while angry, for instance—or ponder why spas and other havens of relaxation tend to be decked out in soothing neutral tones. While the color-mood relationship isn’t a direct cause-and-effect one, the colors you choose for your home can serve as cues to rest, focus, or feel energized.
“It’s really about psychology, as color affects our heart rate in different ways,” says Rachael H. Grochowski, RA, NCARB, Founder and Principal, RHG Architecture and Design. Indeed, there’s some evidence that color choices can affect the way we perceive our feelings and abilities: a 2018 study found that university students living within blue interiors associated the color with calmness, while orange or red settings had a negative effect on studying.
But choosing colors isn’t as simple as selecting paint and waiting for your mood to magically shift. That old “a yellow room makes you happy!” advice, for instance, is too simplistic. First, there are countless shades of yellow—pale butter, neon yellow, bright daffodil, murky mustard, to name a few—and any given hue will interact with surrounding materials such as floors and tiles. Furthermore, if yellow is your least favorite color, a “cheery” yellow kitchen certainly won’t delight you. Instead of following someone else’s rules for how colors supposedly shift moods, trust your own reactions. “There are loads of books out there on color theory,” Grochowski says. “However, what is most important is how the color makes you feel.”
Keep in mind, too, that it’s the whole of the room, not solely a color, that shapes how people feel within it. That’s why decorator, stylist, speaker, and renowned color expert Maria Killam recommends using a mood board to, well, set the mood. This is especially important if, like most people, your home has certain elements (think flooring, tile, and stone) that are difficult to change. “If you’re not afraid of color and you’re worried that your favorite color will clash with the existing colors in your home, make sure you start by adding all your existing elements—whether it’s a photo of your bossy fireplace stone, your sofa, etc.—to a mood board so that you can see how it all works together.” The same advice goes for shopping online: Put it all together before you add to cart, so you can visualize how different pieces work next to one another.
Getting neutrals right
Killam and Grochowski both sing the praises of a neutral background, which allows people to bring (and swap out) color as they see fit. “I often think bringing the color in through accessories and artwork with a neutral background is best,” Grochowski says “It allows for flexibility with a very bold color and still allows one to change their mind and make a chance with ease.” So if you’re seeking a rich, dramatic feel in your bedroom, it’s far easier to choose oxblood curtains or throw pillows than it is to paint—and later, repaint—the walls. (One of Grochowski’s favorite neutral paints is the “lovely, peaceful” Benjamin Moore’s Olympic Mountains 971, pictured above in the room she designed.)
Of course, neutrals can be tricky; it’s why some beige-based rooms feel cozy and inviting, while others have the warmth and charm of a hospital waiting room. The key to getting these shades right, Killam says, is choosing colors that complement the home you already have. “More people straight up just get neutrals or whites wrong because they don’t understand that choosing color starts with looking around at the ‘bones of their home’,” Killam says. Her Understanding Undertones color wheel is designed to help the layperson nail down the neutrals and find complementary hues that help a room feel harmonious. “For instance, if you need to choose a countertop color and you have green beige tile, you want to make sure your countertop also is green beige and not violet gray,” she says.
Then, when it’s time to add on to that neutral backdrop, Grochowski advises choosing one or two feature colors for a cohesive look. Killam suggests beginning with a sofa in your favorite color. “To make it look intentional, repeat that color two more times in small, medium and large gradations.” That’s what she’s done in her own living room, pictured below. “My yellow sofa is the starting point for the yellow in this room,” she says. “Then it’s repeated in the leopard print in the upholstered chair, backs of the dining chairs, and throw pillows. Then I painted the walls an orange beige complex cream to pull it together. Which is what you want your paint color to do!” (Eagle-eyed readers will note that Killam has used the technique with kelly green and pale lavender in the same room.)
So yes, colors do affect our mood, but it’s not as simple as “blue room equals a feeling of calm.” Still, by bringing your favorite colors into your home intentionally—and by focusing on the relationship between those colors and what’s already in place—you can create spaces that are visually harmonious. And that’s what makes a room feel good.