They want to paint it black

Lizzy Janssen painted a black accent wall and uses it as a showcase for photos and collectibles.
Lizzy Janssen painted a black accent wall and uses it as a showcase for photos and collectibles.
Posted: March 01, 2014

When trying to convince her clients that she was open to their ideas, Bryn Mawr interior designer Linda Dooney always had relied on a long-standing line: "I'll do whatever you want, as long as you don't tell me you want to paint the walls black."

Recently, though, she's had to find a new expression.

The game-changer came when Dooney, of LAD Interior Design, was tasked with decorating a large family room in a transitional-style Villanova house. The room was enormous, 1,000 square feet, so making it appear cozy was a challenge.

She was stumped until she had a stroke of genius: Cover the walls in charcoal-gray, a nearly black backdrop that made the room feel inviting and set off the glow of French doors sheathed in curtains ablaze with golden sunflowers.

Black rooms, as Dooney realized, are no longer exclusively the province of angry teenagers and goth enthusiasts. They may not work for every space, she said, but done right, they can be chic, warm, and surprisingly livable.

In particular, black accent walls (and even ceilings) are now common on design websites and in magazine spreads - perhaps because it makes for eye-catching, Pinterest-friendly pictures that inspire imitators.

Philadelphia resident Lizzy Janssen, a graphic designer who went for a black accent wall in her home, sees another reason for black paint's newfound respectability: She chalks it up to home design in the post- Trading Spaces era.

After all, shocking and saturated colors were all over cable-TV design shows a decade ago - but those chartreuse living rooms turned out to be rather tough to live with. Black satisfies the mandate to be daring with color, but it also functions as a neutral.

"If somebody wants to go for the bold expression, I think black is the go-to," she said.

She tried out a navy-blue wall in her home, but it didn't work as well as the black in her view.

"White and black are really similar colors," Janssen said. "They're both blank slates. White makes a space feel open and airy, infinite. Black also creates a feeling of endlessness."

The matte wall was the perfect backdrop for her collection of black-and-white photographs, she said. As a grounding color, it can create a luminous, lightboxlike effect.

"I love the way items just pop off the black," Janssen said. "Ethnic collectibles or anything bright and eclectic, and also anything antique, Victorian, and turn-of-the-century - those items all play well off of black."

Blue Bell-based interior designer Diane Bishop opted for black paint in the home office of the Philadelphia Magazine Design Home last year. High ceilings and a large window ensured it wouldn't feel too cavelike.

"People who went through were like, 'Wow, I can't believe it doesn't seem dark.' It seemed warm, it seemed inviting," she said. "People hear 'black,' and they get frightened. But it can be a very friendly color."

She said that, when painting a room black or any dark colors, it's advisable to opt for an eggshell- or satin-finish paint, since dark paint in a flat finish will burnish if anyone rubs against it.

And, she said, black walls can work well in an office, or any room where lots of artwork is on display. The important thing is that there's contrast, by way of sufficient lighting and lighter-colored furnishings.

Or, you could build the contrast right into the paint job.

Tara Mangini and Percy Bright of the Philadelphia design-build firm Jersey Ice Cream Company recently created a color-blocked, black-and-white kitchen for a client in New York state.

The Downton Abbey-inspired design includes black cabinets and appliances, set against black walls; at about shoulder height, the paint job switches to white. Butcher-block countertops and a white farmhouse kitchen sink also cut the darkness.

Photos of the project circulated on shelter blogs, where reactions were mixed.

"We had a lot of flak from people on design websites who said, 'We would never have a black kitchen,' " Mangini said. "But when you're in there, it's a really nice space to cook in. It's really cozy and makes you want to bake pies."

The couple clearly aren't afraid of black: They also coated their own bathroom wall in chalkboard paint, allowing them to change the pattern on a whim.

But for that two-tone kitchen, they opted for a color one step lighter than black, to make the contrast slightly less intense.

Dooney found a different way to temper the harshness of black: Instead of using paint in that Villanova family room, she used grasscloth, which has a soft, silklike sheen.

She also doubled down on lighting, adding cove lighting in the ceiling and a large iron chandelier. Mixing in gold hues and adding comfortable furniture also helped.

"People tend to think of grays and black as cold, and it can be quite the opposite," she said.

If you're still not convinced, Bishop points out that paint is a relatively inexpensive design choice - even if black paint will take a few more coats to cover up.

"Experimenting with color is a great idea," she said. "It's nonfattening. It's relatively inexpensive. It's a way to dramatically change a room."



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