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Friday, April 19, 2024
Arch-i-text: The origin of ‘greige’ homes goes all the way back to 19th century
Brian Marshall says a good way to pick the colour of your home is to spend time taking inspiration photos wherever you go. There’s nothing wrong with copying a colour you like.

Since about 2010, the most popular colour palettes for the exterior treatment of homes have been muted tones dominated by neutral greys and taupes or a mix of the two, commonly referred to as “greige.”

Now, the proponents of these palettes claim they are classic neutrals that are calming and evoke tranquillity, but on the other side, there are those like David Batchelor, author of “Chromophobia,” who states the following in a May 2022 article written by Elle Hunt for the Guardian:

“You can have a colour chart that says ‘bland’ and stick it all under that. It’s all so safe, that’s probably the most dispiriting part of it: it threatens nothing and no one, apart from with a slow, unadventurous death.” 

Furthermore, this colour palette is the one most North American designers said during 2023 they would most like to see “go away.”

Off the top, let’s understand the “classic” reference.

Prior to the mid-19th century, nearly all pigments used to produce paint colours were based on naturally occurring materials – iron oxide, for example – mixed in a linseed oil/turpentine base solution.

This reality distinctly limited the colour options available to our ancestors.

So, this “classic” choice of a paint scheme is, in part, an expression of these limitations rather than a representation of societal taste.

That said, certainly the most common exterior paint treatment for wood-clad houses of this period was white with green shutters – something the author Charles Dickens commented on during his 1842 visit to North America.

He wrote: “All the buildings looked as if they had been painted that morning … Every house is the whitest of white; every Venetian blind the greenest of green,” a “blind” being a louvred shutter.

Interestingly, the “white” that Dickens refers to was not what our eyes would interpret as “whitest of white.”

All 19th-century white paint was “warm” with varying degrees – based on the quality of materials and skills of the painter who mixed it on-site — of buttery undertones. Modern titanium white paint was introduced to the market around 1925.

Three things occurred during the second half of the 19th century, which had a direct impact on colour palette options for buildings.

First, A.J. Downing, one of the most influential North American architects of the time, began to promote neutral tints.

In one of his many publications, he wrote that buildings should be painted “soft and quiet shades called neutral tints, such as fawn, drab, grey, brown, etc., and … all positive colours, such as white, yellow, red, blue, black, etc., should always be avoided.”

Downing’s 1842 book “Cottage Residences” actually contained a hand-coloured palette of his recommended paint colours.

He then went on to spell out rules for the use of these colours, writing, “Choose paint of some neutral tint that is quite satisfactory, and, if the tint is a light one, let the facings of the windows, cornices, etc., be painted several shades darker, of the same colour.”

“The blinds may either be a darker shade than the facings, or else the darkest green,” he added. “If, on the one hand, the tint chosen is a dark one, then let the window dressings, etc., be painted of a much lighter shade of the same colour.”

Restrictive, yes, but it laid the groundwork for the notion of “classic neutrals.”

Second, the development of modern, chemically synthesized pigments was rapidly expanding the range of colour choices available in the market.

Third, the industrial paint industry was born based on the technology to grind pigments in oil, put them in sealed cans and then ship the resultant “pre-mixed” paint to anywhere in North America serviced by the railroads.

Given this manufacturing and logistical capability, these early paint companies put marketing into high gear, printing and broadly distributing colourful brochures and architectural pattern books featuring the full range of their colour options while promoting the use of the new, richer colours. 

So, in the simplest terms, the century between 1820 and 1920 had four major colour phases.

Circa 1820 to 1840, the colour palette was light, delicate and dominated by white.

Circa 1840 to 1870, was an era of pale earth tones.

Circa 1870 to 1890, the late Victorian palette was dark and rich (albeit somewhat muddy to modern eyes).

Then, circa 1890 to 1920, the palette gradually returned to whites and lighter pastels.

Today, my Benjamin Moore colour bag is a small suitcase containing nine distinct colour fans each holding roughly 100 paint colours.

And that’s just one paint company. It could be said that we are drowning in a sea of colour choices!

But, let’s get a little more practical – if someone is contemplating painting the exterior of their house, how does one navigate this cornucopia of choices?

Before we get into colours, here are a few points to consider:

1. Understand the style of your home: certain paint schemes and colours will accentuate the architecture of your home or diminish it.

For example, a collection of pastels would look jarring on a Ranch bungalow, while painting a Queen Anne in pale earth tones would result in the visual loss of its decorative elements and details.

2. Recognize your geography: the quality, intensity and seasonal angles of sunlight plus the type of vegetation and landscape can have a huge impact on the paint colours you choose.

That beautiful coral-pink stucco house in Bermuda or the wonderful burnt umber home in Arizona would look sadly out-of-place on a Canadian street.

3. Walk your neighbourhood: whether you wish your home to stand proud or blend in, there are contextual limitations imposed by the existing streetscape.

Too great a departure from the norm in the name of “standing proud” will result in your home looking garish, gaudy or out-of-place, while an over-emphasis on “blending on” will result in a house that is a milquetoast non-entity, lessening the streetscape.

4. Spend time taking inspiration photos wherever you drive: there is absolutely nothing wrong – and everything right – with being a copycat of a paint scheme you resonate with.

However, make sure that the paint scheme is on a house style similar to your own.

Falling in love with the palette of a 21st-century Modern will likely not translate well when applied to an Arts & Crafts home, and vice versa.

And, as a general caution, avoid at all costs, a stark modern black and white paint scheme … no architectural style, except perhaps, the properly treated International style, can wear this scheme well.

Moving on to the actual selection of paint colours in the scheme for your house, I’ve run out of room for this week’s column.

But, stay tuned next week as we delve into the modern rendition of Issac Newton’s colour wheel as one of the principal tools you can use to make appropriate paint selections for your home.    

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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