Red magically transforms any space

There’s a story that the late Beverly Hills designer Barbara Woolf loved to tell. I know it wasn’t apocryphal, because she was my wife of 27 years and I know how much she loved the color red. It’s a tale of a woman endowed with a brilliant color sense who one day decided to paint a good portion of her home in a very beautiful and seductive shade of red.

Upon completion, Barbara decided she would throw one of her famous dinner parties to see what some clients and close friends would think of her latest endeavor. The guests came and gathered in the two-story living room, milled around, drank Moet et Chandon champagne (her favorite) and ate assorted canapes, while Barbara kept close watch of the time to see how long it would take for one of her guests to notice what she’d done. It was a half-hour before someone blurted out, “Barbara it’s red!” To which she replied, “Yes, Toby, it’s red!”

For Barbara, red was simply a neutral color. And you know something? It is because red mixes well with almost any color scheme. But, the shade of red you use needs to be well thought out, too.

I don’t think that many of us realize that, along with black and white, red may be one of the three basic colors, at least as defined by some anthropologists. And there’s plenty of history for the color red on which they can base this assessment.

About 4,000 years ago, in the Orient, people dabbed red clay on their lips to ward off unwanted spirits, and even in recent times some Asian fishermen have been known to wear red loincloths to ward off sharks, believing that red has been endowed with special charms. Barbara believed in the magic of red, too, as she wore nothing but red lipstick and nail polish, which she considered her trademark.

The use of expensive colors (such as red) enforced social positions for many years in Europe, and in ancient Japan wearing intensely red clothing was an indication of high social status when even a tiny amount of red dye was worth the entire assets of two ordinary households. The bulk of the population was forbidden to use the dye. In China red signifies good luck and is often used as a wedding color.

Color remains critically important in interior design today and plays a vital role in changing the mood of your home. Everything in nature or created by man has a color and every one of them has been proven to create an emotional response because we experience color on a deep psychological level.

You’re probably wondering how to decorate with such a powerful color as red without going overboard since it can go everywhere from cheerful and warm to angry and aggressive. To begin with, red is an active and physical color, as opposed to passive colors such as blue or green. It’s natural for a warm color such as red to stand out more, literally giving it the ability to make our hearts beat faster. The physical effect red has on our bodies has led color psychologists to believe that red actually induces appetite, making it a great choice for dining rooms and kitchens. (Naturally, my dining room is painted red.)

Whether it’s used for energizing a room in a bright shade or to give a cozy warm glow with a softer one, red remains a favorite color choice of designers looking to make a bold statement. That’s why Barbara loved it so. It’s a color that speaks of drama and passion; not a color for the faint of heart. Still, red is often one of the most challenging colors in a painting project, and often designers resort to a custom shade, many times mixed on a job site through a process of trial and error.

When is using red in your home too much and when is it not enough? There’s no real definitive answer. Just know that when thoughtfully used, whether on a wall or in some accessories, red can make your room come alive. On the other hand, while red is no doubt the color of passion, you don’t really want to be too passionate about it or you wind up literally seeing red in your home.

Red also can magically give a large space more human dimension. That’s to say, it can help cozy up a large space, which is exactly what I did in an oversized room when I was a student in England and used red fabric on the walls of my sleeping area. Somehow, I instinctively knew that enveloping a room in red warms it up immediately.

Some hints for working with red: Black accents can help a room from being too red, so can a pale shade of red for fabrics and adding in some gold. A red-lacquered finish will help give the color more depth and prevent a room from seeming too dark and imposing.

Nothing can bring together a space better than color, so the right or wrong color can make or break a project. For interior design, color is probably the most important component and using red can really make a statement. Be creative and give red a try, whether in large or small doses, for an exciting, vibrant and glamorous result.

On a personal note, I will forever associate the wonders of color with Barbara; and my love and respect for her as a great lady and talent is eternal, just like her beloved red.

Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer and president of Soleil Design . He is president-elect of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers and is a certified professional in green residential design. Questions can be sent to

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