The people who paint the world

Saturday, March 10, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:57 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Johnston Paint & Decorating in Columbia offers almost a full wall of Benjamin Moore color swatches. Designers there can help you choose one for your house. Some tints, of course, are much more popular than others. And there’s a reason for that.

Right now, color experts in New York and in other large cities are already determining which hues you’ll likely pick in three years for your walls, your clothes and even your kitchen appliances.

And there’s a reason for that, too.

If no one made certain the colors for your living room, for example, were coordinated before furniture and fabric manufacturers went to work, your choices might be limited to neon orange, blood red and forest green, or other clashing trios.

That’s why national and even some international organizations forecast and create color trends years in advance. Only members and determined color enthusiasts can get their hands on these palettes, though. The fees, which range from several hundred to several thousand dollars per palette, deter all but the most serious.

Just what does that money get you? Silk-screened swatches of more than 40 colors specific to your industry up to two years in advance of when they’ll hit the market.

All we can say is, get ready for watery blues, earthy greens and sunny yellows.

If you think entire companies devoted to the topic are frivolous, consider the wide reach of color.

“When people are considering purchasing a product, 65 percent of that decision relies on color,” says Amy Larrabee, director of communications for the Color Marketing Group. “People look at the color first and decide if they like the color. Then they look at the product.”

To avoid extra inventory, retailers stock up on the colors people are looking for in any particular season, she says.

That’s where the color groups step in. Their palettes guarantee people are able to purchase dish towels that match their kitchen walls that match their pot holders that match their spatulas. The collaboration of fashion, product and interior designers benefits them all.

No detail is too small. Even candles can’t escape the pressure at Columbia’s Keeping Good Company, an interior design store.

“People might love a scent but might not love the color,” owner Cindy Herter says. “That sometimes dictates if they’ll forego it — whether or not it goes with what they have.”

Clashing hues may be left to languish.

“We have a great glass hurricane that’s kind of a kelly green, but people usually have sage or moss green in their homes, so it’s something that may not match their decor,” Herter says.

The Color Association of the United States, located in New York, has been forecasting colors for more than 90 years, beginning with textiles. The group started when World War I cut off communication from France and Germany, countries that usually led the way for U.S. designers. In the 1950s and 1960s, CAUS expanded into home furnishings and interior decoration, now its members’ most popular topic.

Every year, the association assembles small groups to work on an upcoming year’s palette. They come from industries for both soft goods, like clothing, and hard goods, which director Margaret Walch calls “anything you can’t squish.”

The downside of having colors determined so far in advance is that the practice doesn’t allow for much creativity when the trends arrive on the shelves.

Erin Keltner, owner of downtown Columbia’s Swank Boutique, says she is at the mercy of what designers are offering. The color trends she shows are “largely based on where the market is heading.”

Color panelists contemplate anything and everything in the search for inspiration, realizing popularity may be affected by many factors.

Panelists “explore what’s going on in the economy, the environment, any natural disasters that have happened,” Larrabee says. “Some of them do trend-spotting themselves: They go out on the street and take photos of people and storefronts, just what they see out there. They keep track of what’s going on.”

Exploring the world for ideas is common at Cotton Inc., the material’s major research and marketing organization. All 10 members of its forecasting board explore different cultures to uncover new revelations.

The global market will be reflected for spring/summer 2008. So will the reaction to that influence.

“As a countertrend, we’re seeing people pull into their communities,” says Erin Burke, product trend analyst at Cotton Inc. “Local grown food is becoming very important.”

The increasing importance of community turned into a color strip called “Bliss,” featuring upbeat yellows and oranges. Each color strip is a card showing the hues chosen to represent a particular theme.

When they sit down to construct the palettes, board members bring media clippings and thousands of yarn strands to the table. They spend the next few months sorting through them, searching for common themes.

The blues and greens that will be appearing soon stem from the increasing attention paid to environmental issues.

Joann Eckstut, an interior designer at the New York firm Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects PC, also cites an environmental inspiration for the rich browns on the Color Association’s most recently developed palette. In addition, she mentions intense shades, a mix between deep purple and maroon that stem from “deep red wines” from Mother Nature’s grapes.

Thom Ortiz, another member of the forecasting team at the Color Association, looks beyond trees and sky to the power of current events, like the possibility of the first female president, to influence the shades that become prevalent.

“There are no bad sounds or bad colors, only unfortunate combinations. There’s always a potential for any color to be in the spotlight, even if it’s only for a brief moment,” Ortiz says.

Ortiz and the Rockwell Group, a design firm in New York, believe that so strongly they named a presentation “The Final Days of Beige.” Color forecasters agree with the somewhat apocalyptic name.

"In the past 20 years, there’s kind of been an absence of color,” Walch says. “People have been very timid about it. One of the things that’s happening in the future is we will see more colors used.”

That’s a trend professionals are already noticing.

Johnston Paint & Decorating receives Pottery Barn’s trend forecasts for Benjamin Moore paints and customers do pay attention, says designer Glee Lemon. The featured colors don’t always apply to her clients, though, because they’re for the entire country.

“In California, trends are different than in Columbia, where people tend to be more conservative,” she says.

A lot of her favorite paint colors parallel those for women’s fashion.

“You see a lot of chocolate brown and blue in clothes,” Lemon says. “It’s the same for design. People are starting to put chocolate brown and blue together. They’re very soothing colors.”

Crate & Barrel is an extreme example of how far a store can go to make sure everything matches. The company wouldn’t discuss its process but says that every color is considered carefully. Each Crate & Barrel store displays huge Marimekko fabric hangings on the walls, and every product must coordinate or contrast with the Marimekko designs, according to a spokesman.

Right now, Marimekko employs teals, oranges and blues in a series of dips and swirls that defy description. Accordingly, advertises teals as its newest shade for spring.

If you’re still not convinced that all this fuss about color is justified, consider the matter from Nancy Noble’s perspective. She works at Fashion Handbags, a kiosk in the mall.

“I had a plum dress. It was the weirdest color,” the 21-year-old Columbian says. “Nothing would go with it. I finally found a pair of shoes that I thought matched, but I was kind of in a rush so I just went ahead and bought them.”

She wore the combination to a wedding, only to later discover that the shoes weren’t quite right.

“I looked at the pictures, and it’s just a shade off,” she says. “I was like, are you kidding me? It just bugs the hell out of me.”

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