Did you know that people in transitional or stressful situations will often create extreme environments around themselves, according to a white paper by a professor of colour science at Leeds University. Professor Stephen Westland, produced a report into our emotional reactions to colour for our podcast sponsor Harlequin and I have to say this line stopped me in my tracks.
You can hear the full interview over on the podcast but, as always, I am elaborating here.
Regular listeners, and readers, will remember how I was drawn to yellow during the lockdowns of last year. This is a colour that I normally don’t like at all (unless in a very soft ochre form) and then, as each lockdown lifted I resorted to: “Yellow? What was I thinking?”.
Now, having spoken to Prof Westland, I wonder if that was my reaction to the stress under which we all found ourselves. Others have postulated that the rise in popularity of green is to do with a year of deprivation of nature, which also makes sense. Although, of course, green was chosen as the Dulux Colour of the Year 2020 when they couldn’t possibly have known what was coming, so there’s an argument that green was on its way anyway. And blue, of which more later, is consistently chosen as the world’s favourite shade.
But back to Prof Westland because look at the wall I just painted in my loft. Now if you had asked me about this two weeks ago (when I did it) I would have told you that I was having a 70s Halston moment, and we discuss his influence on interiors and the return to 70s glamour in the first part of the show. Those books with the pages facing out beloved by Instagram? Turns out it was Halston, who found the multi-coloured spines jarring. Mind you he also spent $100,000 a year on orchids so maybe don’t be too influenced by him.
When I was asked to join a campaign to promote the Yellowpop x Jonathan Adler Neon artwork, which has a 70s vibe, the orange wall wasn’t far behind. Actually we started with a bright orange but it was too much and we fell back to Blazer, a softer pinkier red by Farrow & Ball, that could also be interpreted as an extreme version of the colour palette of the rest of the house. At least it made sense to me that way. But maybe, just maybe, I have felt the need to create my own extreme environment as a post-pandemic lockdown reaction.
What do you think? Has anyone else been drawn to new colours over the last year. I remember saying early on that when many people were being bold with their choice of colour that I wanted restful calming neutrals around me and it’s only now that the bold has emerged.
But back to the Professor, who also told us about the concept of High Screeners and Low Screeners and this, it turns out has nothing to do with how long one spends on Instagram but is, in fact, about how easy you find it to ignore your surroundings. Designers, for example, tend to be low screeners. They can’t work if the pictures aren’t straight or the cushions are the right colour. This is definitely me and I thought it was just procrastination! High screeners, on the other hand, can happily sit at the kitchen table with a laptop and surrounded by the remains of breakfast and work just as well. So which are you?
One of the other areas of research that Prof Westland, whose areas of expertise include colour science, machine learning, colour imaging and design, lighting , health and well-being, is myth-busting. For example, it is generally accepted that red makes your heart beat faster. He decided to investigate and was challenged by one of his peers who asked why he was wasting his time as “everyone knows that’s true”.
But he could find only one reference to a single scientific study in California in the 1950s and has been unable to locate the original work. Instead, he has been able to establish that while red might speed your heart up it’s from, say 60bpm to 60.3bpm and yet the myth persists. Presumably, and the conversation turned before we could nail this down, because red is associated with danger and it’s the acknowledgement of danger that speeds your heart rather than the colour.
Confusion also reigns when it comes to blue. On the one hand the world loves it – it’s associated with sky and the sea and therefore with holidays and relaxing. But we are constantly told that too much blue light from a screen is stimulating and will ruin our quality of sleep. From which, Prof Westland, concludes, it’s not so much about the colour as the light.
“ Your eyes respond to light and send signals to the back of the brain but the eye sensors also send signals of the middle part of the brain and the part which regulates our temperature, sleep patterns and hormone secretion.
“All of that process of wellbeing is controlled to some extent by the patterns of light, and the eye cells that send their signals to the middle of the brain are doing something quite different to the parts that are controlling the phsyiological mechanisms.”
And this is why people react differently to different colours; it depends on the balance of our own emotional reactions against the physiological effects of the light.
It’s all very scientific in theory but I can tell you that I don’t particularly like blue, there is none in my house and I’m a rubbish swimmer following a particularly brutal teacher in the 1970s. So make of that what you will.
Other studies have also shown that white walls can be boring and uninspiring, which is what led to the push for artwork on hospital walls a few years back. I thought it was all fascinating but, in the words of Sarah Jessica Parker, I couldn’t help but notice, as I looked at Prof Westland’s Zoom background, that it was very, well, neutral.
“Well,” he said. “I’m married, and while I repeatedly tell my wife that I am a professor of colour science and I work in a school of design and I teach colour design, it turns out in this house my opinions are worth very little.
“My wall is Elephant’s Breath, which is quite famous and I don’t like it very much. But I do have a red wall – that is mine and I can see it from my desk – and a picture of old Trafford because I am a huge fan and the two things are connected.
So for Prof Westland red is the colour of happiness and as long as he can see it from his desk that is where he finds his colour joy. So now all you need to do is make a list of things that make you happy and translate that list into your decor and maybe you will also start to see the connection between colour and happiness.
We ended the show by looking at a video by House of Valentina that Sophie found on the things that all stylish people have in their homes. It’s American so there will probably be some cultural differences, but I have listed some of them below and you can listen to the show to hear my thoughts as she quizzed me. I will say this though – all any stylish house really needs is a sense of welcome and comfort and you can feel that as soon as the door opens whatever the décor and colour.
But here’s the list:
Cute soap pumps
Baskets because everyday items become more stylish when put in a basket
Pretty doormats “super stylish and super cute”
Candles – but they must be lit. And there was a dispute as to whether you should have one signature scent or vary them in each room.
Coffee table books
Seasonal door wreaths
And I will leave you to ponder on that….
Thanks you so much to Harlequin for sponsoring this series and for sharing this fascinating white paper with us. You will be able to read in on their site from 1 July so do look out for it.