Thursday, 27 January 2011

In defense of what has been called 'magnolia'...


I often struggle with colour. I look on Flickr and at other people's blogs and will occasionally so fall in love with the way that someone else uses colour in their home that I am overcome by the wish to emulate their boldness and flair. We are having a new bathroom put in at the moment and I began planning it a few months ago with a resolve to be adventurous with colour. I chose tiles with beautiful and definite colours and began picking out paints and floorings that might complement them...but while I could appreciate their beauty to the point of absolutely loving them, my heart did not feel warm with happiness at the thought of having them on my walls. I realise now that I felt guilty and self-conscious for not challenging myself more with colour in my home. But choosing tiles, paints and colours for this bathroom has eventually made me realise that I do not veer toward shades of white and cream through fear of colour, but more through an utter appreciation of them. When I have sat with my husband or friends and looked over paint charts they have surprised me by not discussing colours with me, but simply saying 'but that's not you at all' when I have pointed at a deep plum paint....and thank goodness that they seem to know me better than I know my self at times.


So sitting in boxes, waiting to be laid on walls are these small mosaic tiles that just felt so right as soon as I saw them, with all their calm, understated pearly iridescence that in certain lights make me think a petrol-spattered puddle.


All these choices that have needed to be made have made me think a lot about colour and how one can feel that one is not being brave and fearless if one does not splash it about with abandon. Before Christmas I was sent a review copy of Orla Keily's Pattern (full review coming soon - it's fantastic, and what is written below is in reference to one paragraph in the entire book, the rest of which I thoroughly enjoyed). I read much of it over the holidays, and was struck by one paragraph because of how passionately I disagreed with it.

"Despite the widespread availability of colour in every area of life, from clothing to wallpaper and paint, from bed linen to pots and pans, many people fight shy of it. While fashions in clothing and interiors do go through their periodic patches of monochrome - 'black is the new black' - there are those who remain ill at ease with colour regardless of what is in the shops or featured on the pages of a glossy magazine. perhaps this is Because they are daunted by the sheer choice of colours available and the fear that they might get it 'wrong' or perhaps they are simply uncertain of how to handle its emotional power or worry about standing out from the crowd and calling attention to themselves. All of which might account for the rather depressing popularity of 'magnolia' as a safe wall colour. Whichever is the case, life without colour is not merely cooking without seasoning, it's cooking without half the ingredients." - Orla Kiely, Pattern.

Firstly, I think Magnolia is a derogatory term. The word magnolia reeks of all that is soulless, bland and without personality. It makes me think of settling for living in a colourless box because B&Q were selling 10 litre cans of magnolia paint on special offer the weekend that decoration was carried out. So to write off the whole spectrum of creams, whites and pale oatmeals with the word 'magnolia' makes me feel as though, for all her brilliance, Orla Keily is missing something. I realised through this bathroom choosing process that whether it is technically correct or not, I, and I know many others, very much see shades of white as colours : colours that allow room for other things to speak, such as light, texture and reflection. These shades of white make my heart sing with their subtlety and calm and just how many hours I can lose every year enjoying and appreciating all that they allow to be seen: the way that light bounces off them in such a pure, undiluted way and the canvas for shadows that they provide.


These two pictures were taken a few months ago within five minutes of one another as the winter sun sank down.
I think Orla Kiely's take on things disregards texture, light and reflection and her handbags have always seemed an example of this to me: for someone who displays such brilliance when it comes to pattern and colour, I've always found it odd that she chose to ignore the importance of texture in the equation and created her beautiful handbags in a laminated fabric where practicality was allowed to reign with a total disregard for texture and its many nuances (to me her beautiful patterns look trapped and dampened behind this shiny veneer). When I choose colours from within a spectrum that Orla Kiely describes as 'magnolia', I am not seeing depressing nothingness: I am appreciating the unadulterated dry, chalky finish of a paint; the pattern and structure of a cashmere blanket's weave; the iridescence of a tile finish; and the way all of these things interact with the light and shadow around them. I am not just choosing a blank canvas: I am choosing a subtle but richly patterned canvas that has the ability to be changed, altered and made other by the things around it, without the need to assert its own dominance. I guess you might say that I am choosing pure, unadulterated 'emotional intensity'!

It is rare for me to say anything bordering on feisty on my blog. Whenever I'm sent books to review I feel incredibly mindful that the author is a person just like me who may be hurt by a negative review after months of hard work spent bringing their book to life and so I tend not to write about books that I haven't enjoyed (I'd never expected the author's themselves to read all their reviews across the blogland, but I've now heard from five lovely authors having mentioned or reviewed their books, so I'm now doubly mindful of this). For the most part I loved Orla Kiely's book and intend to write a full review of it in the next couple of days (while sipping tea from one of her mugs), but this paragraph in the book provoked an odd reaction in me, I think partly because she asserts her view as though the use of colour is the superior choice when, call me sitting-on-the-fence-girl, I think that the only thing that matters is whether it makes your heart flutter. I've thought about it often since reading this in December, so please forgive me for sticking my head above the parapet*, but occasionally one must for fear of turning into the equivalent of a can of magnolia paint.

Florence x

(*Yes, Joanne, the parapet has been peeped over twice in 24 hours - lawks! This is unprecedented).

32 comments:

  1. Interior decorating can definitely lead to "choice fatigue." I very much like the tile pictures you have posted. They are subtle and beautiful. Also, using soft neutrals for things that are expensive and that you will have to live with for a long time just makes sense. Much easier to add colour that can easily be changed through towels and the like. I am not really fond of dark or bright colours in bathroom tiles and porcelain-ware. Somehow they aren't soothing and they often don't feel clean.

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  2. I agree wholeheartedly with Karin's comment above. So much easier (and affordable) to inject colour into a bathroom with the accessories. Our house was completely decorated in "magnolia" when we moved in and I rebelled against it, decorating each room in bolder colours but I now find I am returning to the calm of neutral colours, they are so much more restful and a good backdrop for pictures, ornaments and the like in bolder patterns and colours.

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  3. I'll join you above the parapet again. I only have to look around my own monochrome house so see the difference a well chosen neutral makes. Take F&B's strong white - in my hall it seems whiter than white, while in my living room it is a pale grey. No one was more astonished or delighted than me to see that. I also have an entirely white bathroom, aside from the slate floor tiles, and the ceiling, which we painted a deep slate grey/blue. Incredibly peaceful when having a bath, but if I ever tire of it, I can paint it...

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  4. Lovely tiles, Florence. We have a lot of neutral colours because they suit this house and make everything look clean and help with the dark areas. Husband likes bolder colour so he has his study painted bright yellow and is contemplating a medieval blue for his music room, but even he prefers a neutral bathroom. At least one can repaint easily enough, once bought a house with bright carpets which were much more trouble!

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  5. Reading blogs (and especially yours) I have come to have a new-found appreciation for white and cream and muted tones. I do love color, but when you're making decisions for something that will be around for a long time, I think it's better to go with something neutral where you can change the color of the "accessories"--you get color, but in a much less non-committal way. I've never seen a post where I thought "What was she thinking?" I usually think "I want to do that." It is your home, and you must make it your palace, no matter how large or small. Leave the color to Orla if she wants it, but go with what you love :)
    Hugs,
    Bethany

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  6. I think it's entirely a personal choice, which colours one tends to favour and I wouldn't agree that because someone likes neutrals, that's somehow safe or inferior to the use of colour. It's actually harder to be cleverer with neutrals, and pull off the necessary textures etc require to really bring them into their own. We have those iridescent tiles and they are absolutely gorgeous, you won't be disappointed. However, I am an Orla bag fan and also a fan of the oilcloth she uses for them. It really is so super practical and I actually think the glossy finish suits the bright colours and bold patterns. It would be a boring world if we didn't all have our own opinions!
    Hen x

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  7. When my husband and I bought our first house (only house - although a temp. job has us back in a rental) I jumped at the chance to splash colours everywhere, having spent so many years in "rented whites". I now dream about going back to our home and re-painting everything in more subtle tones. That's the great thing about paint - it's easy, cheap, cheerful, and mistakes are easily remedied. What bothers me about the book passage you quote is a trend I see in many fields (decor, personal style, music...): an apparent need to put down the choices of others simply because they aren't yours. Your comments about whites & neutrals are spot on, and analogous comments could be made about any colour family - they all have their own potentials and limitations. I'm sure the book you quote (I'll look forward to the review) has many good insights, but the author missed the mark on this one. Bravo to you for speaking your mind in a fair and constructive way.

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  8. I think you (and the commenters above) are spot on! Though I do think Orla has a point that white *can* be a result of timidity. I feel like that's how the house I grew up in was--all white and beige. I rebelled in the every-wall-a-different color direction for a while, but lately I find myself really drawn to the layered white-and-cream background look (with color in smaller changeable doses). For people in gray northern climates where light is scarce but interesting I think a pale background can work really well.

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  9. I really enjoyed reading your post and the comments linked to it. I think there are keywords (and images)that stand out and describe what we are trying to define: texture, tone, shading, layering. All of these words describe a design activity that creates an emotional response from us(calming, soothing),that provides a blankish canvas to add more layers of emotional response in terms of what we do in the space or add to the space with our creativity.

    Art lecture over! And I really love your blog,it has awoken my first love in creativity - fabric.

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  10. Ok I'm sure I'm going to get shot down for this but I hate magnolia. It's boring and bland. My father was an interior designer and from his work I know how many people choose it simply because they have no imagination and / or style of their own. The mere mention of it makes me cringe.

    However 'Magnolia' and neutrals should not be mistaken. Neutrals as part of a well thought out scheme can be stunning. My cottage is currently decorated in variations of hessian which I have used to tie my home together. Each room then has different accents on this neutral background to give identity for the room while complimenting all the other spaces.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that any colour randomly splashed about isn't good. But the same colour as part of a thought out scheme can transform a home. It's the thinking it all where many people fall down.

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  11. I know what you mean, I have trouble pushing myself to use colours on things like walls and tiles. White, creams etc are fantastic though as you can then create different looks just with vivid accessories :-)

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  12. This is such an interesting view-point. My mother, and all the other adults I know, have a penchant for pale tones. My close friend has an impeccably decorated house, with gorgeous expensive stuff everywhere in ivory and cream, and even the family pictures are sophisticated. But it still feels welcoming and like a loving home, which I think is often missed in decorating with 'magnolia'. Whilst I love bright colours, I tend to wear, sew or decorate with just an accent of that colour, because the paler shades, and the perfect whites, are beautiful too. Often it seems that part of growing up is seeing the beauty in white walls...

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  13. What an interesting post! I am decorating my new hairdressing salon at the moment and I really have had to fight with myself...to give myself permission to paint it white! I feel under such pressure to make it a 'colour'. Not sure where the pressure id coming from but it's there! I've been down this road before and I'm always glad that I've stuck to my guns. I love colour but I think nothing shows it off as well as a white backdrop. I especially like wood against white. Your bathroom tiles are stunning! I feel quite envious of them and wish I could tile behind my backwash area with them, but I'm trying to watch the pennies...maybe further down the line, eh? Will you show us when you're done? Lots of love, Amanda xxxx

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  14. I love, love, love this post.

    I'm a lover of colour, but not just any colours - I love refined, blended, unusual shades. Complex ones that are hard to pin down (I was nodding when you mentioned that in your shirt post). And aside from aubergine, my favourite colour is black. Just like it's paler twin, it's not monochrome, but a whole range of textures and shades. It's why I love Rothko's black paintings so much, and why I find them so uplifting and not at all dark. They're a celebration of colour. I think anyone who writes off either end of the spectrum is really seeing colour in a very simplistic way.

    Oops, I just started waxing poetical. Never mind me. So yeah, what you said.

    And those tiles are utterly beautiful.

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  15. My bathroom looks quite warm and cosy at the moment and my new downstairs loo hot and funky but change the blinds and wall colours (or just the blind and towels in the loo) and they are white. Just how I like it. As others have said here the cost and upheaval of renovating a bathroom is not something you want to repeat very often and cool shades of white just what you want to feel clean and relaxed.
    x C

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  16. Very interesting post. Our living room is magnolia, but through choice rather than a fear of colour - I love colour and all the other rooms in our house are painted much bolder colours. (After 14 years, though, I am starting to feel the need for a change!) Love the bathroom tiles you have chosen too!

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  17. What a pleasure to read your blog this morning. I have been dealing with similar feelings about color lately. And I have come to decide that I prefer more neutral walls with highlights of color from textiles and other forms of decorating. I have found a similar internal debate when trying to choose colors for a quilt. I am very inspired by the colorful quilts I see in pinks, aqua and red, and have been trying to learn from them, only to realize that while I enjoy looking at them, they are not what I want to live with. I prefer more vintage, slightly earthy versions of pinks, reds, and all the rest. Have a good day, and enjoy your new, beautiful bathroom.

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  18. When I hang my brightly coloured photos of my children on my bailys coloured wall, the focus are my children, not the wall and thats the way I like it. We have recently got a new kitchen, in various tones of white and cream and a small injection of colbolt blue as a backsplash, which we can change down the road a few years,if we get bored of the colour, it makes sence to me as I get bored easily. Love your tiles, would love to know where you got them from.

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  19. Oh no. I can see how some people do pick magnolia as they daunted by colour ( a lot of the newer homes over here look the same, with off-white walls, mainly because they are open plan), but there are so many examples of off-white done well.

    I do have colour in my home - although nothing too bright. Partly because it's more practical with kids like mine and partly because I like the calmness of say, a pale aqua blue or grey in the bathroom etc. and the way that it makes the whites stand out. Then I look at my wardrobe and 90 per cent of my clothes are black / grey / navy...

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  20. As a Portuguese that's been living in the UK for a year, I think the British are just *too* fond of colour. Deep red, lime green or purple walls just don't make any sense to me! I see it as a way of compensating for the grey skies but it's not the right way to go... I find it too bright and artificial and a bit too much for everyday living.

    Then there's the flip side of that trend: "magnolia". Magnolia is a horrid yellowish shade for people who want to "play it safe". I say no! Go for elegant, understated whites, creams and proper beiges, but not for magnolia, which is neither of them! Magnolia is the nightmare of tenants! (and that's why we're painting our walls in "cream lace" is is simply a muted, not too aggressive white).

    I like rooms where one can breathe and not feel like the walls are going to bite you!

    You're so right about textures, Florence! I bet your bathroom is turn out lovely!

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  21. I just wanted to thank you for such an eloquent post. I don't have much to add (all these comments above are so thoughtfully written!), but I wanted to let you know that your post resonated with me. One of my friends tends to look down her nose at me for preferring white or pale cream walls (she likes her walls bold and colorful) and I've never had the right words to explain why I prefer the exact opposite... Your post was just the verbalization I needed! :)

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  22. I agree with you wholeheartedly Florence. I have done exactly the same in our new house. I came in here after looking at lots of house magazines saying I was going to add lots of colour to the walls and make it different from our previous house but I came to realise that it's not me. Now all the walls are painted white with a warm wodden floor, the occasoinal strip of colourful wallpaper and lots of colourful chair cushions, pictures and photographs - it is the perfect canvas to show off other things that you love.

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  23. Go Florence! I'm in thorough agreement with you. Reading the quoted paragraph, I was reminded of the popular attitude to travel - that if you're not into exotic holidays or constant 'city breaks' there must be something wrong with you. It seems to me that these kind of views, which accuse others of being narrow-minded, are perhaps a little narrow themselves.

    Sunlight through my unbleached cotton flannel bedroom curtain makes me happy.

    The paint colour that's actually called Magnolia is rather nasty, I think, but of course all whites, creams, and beiges shouldn't be tarred with the same paintbrush!

    For really subtle and lovely neutral colours I recommend natural paints (try www.greenshop.co.uk). They're more expensive but I don't decorate very often and plus, they don't poison you. Somehow they seem warmer and more interesting than most of the toxic options (and they smell like cake). In fact, I had an Auro colour called *gasp* 'Magnolia' in my old house and it was beautiful - other people admired it too! It was nothing like the Dulux shade.

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  24. I can't agree more with you about the shades and textures, you can't just ignore those things. To me texture is what makes things interesting. Also lovely post, sounds like coming from deep inside. BTW I've been reading for a while, I love your blog.

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  25. Enjoyed reading this and concur! Quick mention, Grandmother flower garden range, I know you are a fan- reduced in UK Buttonberry, check my blog for more info or go to their closing down shop!

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  26. Gosh, I've so loved reading all these comments.

    Hen, I'm so delighted that you already have the tiles and love them...on the sample card without the grout between them just occasionally I have been hit by the worry that they look like little teeth...at which point I try to switch my brain off. It's good to know they will look lovely and that you didn't mention little teeth in your comment.

    Postcolonial Rabbit - yes, I completely agree, although I didn't fully realise this until making my fathers black and grey quilt and I realised how much delight I was gaining in the subtle differences of the different shades of black.

    Bird in a Nest - I am regularly struck by that dilemma - the colours that I want to work with are not always the ones that I want to live with.

    UK Lass...yes, I think those are the colours of my wardrobe too...

    Concha - I think that is a British thing, you're right. But not one that always sits easily with our light.

    Nina Y - you do always give such good links. We have actually used the Little Greene, which I think are also lower in lethal substances...although maybe not quite as pure as your ones - loved the paint on teaspoons photo.

    Yadira - hello, it's always lovely when a long-time reader decideds to comment.

    Kerry - thank you so much - I've just seen that on their blog. You're right I did love GMFG...but oddly, it's now one of those fabrics that I don't feel quite so passionate about. A friend said to me recently that she thinks my tastes change as a reflection of what age and stage my little girl is at,and I think she's right. Now, when I think about it I realise that I loved those prints because I thought that she'd enjoy them as I might have done at that age...but she keeps getting older...which is good, and as she does she makes me see print and colour through her eyes.

    I can't tell you quite how much I have loved your comments in response to this post - it was one of those things where I felt apprehensive about posting, so it's been lovely to have had such a discussion and for people to have volunteered their own opinons. As Yadira said...I think it was a post that came from deep inside...which is odd as I wouldn't normally have thought of it as an emotive subject, but reading through your comments I think maybe it is.

    Florence x

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  27. I think you should generally choose colours that you are happy with, so magnolia or shades of white are fine by me. I like them too and for me it is not only about the finer shades of them, but the freedom of which they give me to change the mood of a room with very little by changing colours of candles, hand towels, cushion covers etc. i also thimk that I can use more colours in smaller things than I could if my walls had a certain colour. This is why my kitchen changed from very lovely burnt terracotta to white.And I do love your new bathroom tiles. They remind me of beautiful glimpses of mother of pearl in sea shells.

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  28. I fully agree with Orla's sentiments my self. I absolutely loathe magnolia, cream, white or anything else such blandness may be deemed. Any magnolia walls muct be changed instantly. I don't go along with the shadows, reflection thing either as shadows reflect in all colours and they aren't a dull grey. The dullnesh and lack of anythingness makes me feel quite quite ill. Give me colour - any colour, any day over magnolia!

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  29. I totally agree with Mara,

    I am an architect and used to work in the UK for some years. When it came to colours the Clients often insisted on the same old colours they always used because they were thought to be practical. So our choices were between "buttercup" (another "classic") or "magnolia". The reason why I don't like them is that they are neither white nor colour.

    It is a completely different story to choose crisp white walls and arrange your colour scheme around it, maybe with a bit of dark timber, greys, blacks and one accent colour. Or to go with neutrals and create a very soft colur scheme. The point is to choose colours carefully (even ift that means all white) and maybe highlight a few things. But not have a little bit of colour everywhere (maybe because of the fear for white spaces) and that is what in my opinion magnolia stands for. Just some colour without any thought or concept.

    It is difficult to explain for me in english, but maybe you get the idea.

    The other point is that Orla Kiely's designs are simply unthinkable without colours. They live from their bold colours.

    I would encourage you on you bathroom tiles, I think mosaic and mother of pearl look will be very classy, and as Karin said, buy some new towels whenever you want to add a bit of colour.

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  30. Florence, I love your way with words. A pleasure to hear your ramblings on neutrals. We are planning redecorating, and although I love colour, I am going neutral with my walls and flooring (I have splodges of various colours on the walls... er... painted magnolia before we moved in, and then decided I wouldn't be able to live with any of them). I will however have splashes of colour madness (curtains, some lovely Amy Butler fabric awaiting the machine, and cushions!!!).
    Yes, calm neutrals and fabulous fabrics x

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  31. I wish that I could appreciate color the way that other people seem to do. I'm severely colorblind so it's difficult for me to appreciate the things that bring others such pleasure. I have to get a lot of help to decorate and it's definitely done for others because color just doesn't have that same impact on me.

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  32. One thing that's always put me off Magnolia is having to live with it for years in rented accommodation.. grim.

    Your tiles are beautiful.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a message - it's always really lovely to hear from people.

I now tend to reply within the comments section, so please do check back if you've asked a question or wish to chat.

Florence x