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Wendy Donahue, Chicago Tribune, Published July 11 2012

C O L O R tells a story: Designer Gambrel explores proper use of hues in book

Along with his sister’s return flight from France, interior designer Steven Gambrel sensed something else in the air.

“I can feel it coming on: She’s going to want to bring that color back with her,” said Gambrel, a Virginia native whose firm is based in New York City. “There is a reason we travel. Those color combinations – sunny yellows, tomato reds and Mediterranean blues – are not as successful in Virginia as in the south of France. The light is different. Which is great. Those colors, you’re going to have to go visit.”

Choosing color for one’s home is a function of the twin elements in the title of his new book, “Steven Gambrel: Time & Place” (Abrams, $50).

“I’m really intrigued by how different regions have different personalities and histories. You see certain colors repeated, and color becomes part of the spirit of a place,” he said. “In Russia the colors don’t work with the environment but must have been a reaction to it – they needed color to cheer them up from those dark winters.

You can determine visually that something’s successful because it looks good. Then you study the culture and realize the reason it looks good is it comes with a history of function.”

Q What is the art to using color as punctuation?

A The way to work color successfully is with a thread that runs throughout the story, similar to writing. With color as punctuation, the most successful is red.

And sometimes when I’m trying to convince a client to have a punctuation of color in the house, I’ll remind them of how they dress. With a woman, it may be red lipstick or a red purse. Basically the accessories that run through a house might become a thread.

The whole house needs to be considered as one place and one story. We were looking at this small library, which in previous decoration was bright white, and the giant living room was bright white. The white living room was successful because it had bright light coming in. But the library suffered because it was not competing properly against it.

Now, it’s dark slate, and speaks the language of warmth and comfort and cuddle-up time. In the big room, you’re reminded this is a sunny, vibrant, happy room, where you’re entertaining people. The color is there to help you define your actions and lifestyle.

Q Where do people go wrong with color?

A The mistake is to use it without fully understanding where it comes from. First, develop colors that react to architecture or local environment. More earthy terra cotta tones tend to come out of an environment that has a clay-based soil. Clear colors tend to come out of landscapes that have a sandy soil.

It’s like eating seasonally and locally. It probably shouldn’t taste right to have strawberries in February. A lot of colors that are successful are probably the ones that do react to nature.

And now that you have that foundation, it’s a great opportunity to add an unexpected punctuation point that isn’t based entirely on nature but on product, on small doses of color that are a contrast or complement to colors we’ve already selected.

Q How do you develop a color story?

A On my desk, I might have textiles that I want to use in a room, but I also might throw in a piece of lacquer that will represent a tray we haven’t found yet, or a piece of glass that might represent my desire to find strong transparent color in maybe a lamp or vases.

I might also throw on a picture of a painting from an auction catalog that has a hit of red.

It doesn’t mean we have to find a painting that has a hit of red in it, but somewhere we have to find a hit of red to make the story complete.

It’s about collecting ideas on a table or bulletin board and looking at it and wondering where the balance is off, and throwing whatever is right onto that table, and once you have something that makes sense don’t worry about what it represents. That’s probably the right ratio of color in the room.