Designing, like most things, has a lot to do with audience and market segment. There are several specializations to the design world, some of the most obvious being Commercial vs Residential or the subset of Healthcare. There are others that are less apparent, such as Geriatric design, or design for the aging community. There are many special concerns with this community: careful visual and auditory clues to compensate for impairments, adjustments to furniture that make sitting and standing easier, and many of the same concerns that come up with ADA are also relevant such as grab bar locations and wheelchair accessibility. Visual cues such as signage needs to be bold and easy to read so high contrast between lettering and background is a must. One of the most interesting considerations (and surprising to me) has been color.
Color is affected by many conditions in the natural environment. Knowing what light bulbs will be used in a space or how much natural light is available will drastically change how the color looks in the space. But with a geriatric design, there’s another level to understanding color and it’s related to my odd picture of the yellowed glasses.
As the eye ages it begins to yellow. This is a natural part of aging. What it means is that to some extent an older person’s ability to see color is altered toward the yellow end of the spectrum. Whites are seen as creams. As this example suggests, most colors read a little more muted. Reds are seen with a more orange hue. Blues and violets and some greens are turned a more muted color, or even read brown.
In light of this, it’s no wonder that when I talk to residents at the assisted living communities they want to see bright, vibrant colors, that they are tired of brown, and that they seem to be attracted to red. Don’t get me wrong, our committees still like to see plenty of other colors , but there’s something about a full red that the folks I speak to seem to really like. I think perhaps it’s the purity of the color. Maybe it’s also a part of the color heritage of that generation and that Northeastern region of the country we are in. Whatever other factors are at play, it is a perfect choice for geriatric design in terms of the aging eye.
To help keep in mind the affects of aging on the eyes, we keep a pair of yellow-tinted glasses around the office to assist when we’re making color choices for these projects. They are, without a doubt one of the oddest things I have ever worn (they’re a little too small and shaped like “John Lennon” glasses), but they make a real difference in judging what colors might be appealing to our audience. If I’m having trouble deciding what to take to a meeting, these do come out and help in determining which shade of blue or orange might read best to the most people. They aren’t the proverbial rose colored glasses, but they do a nice job at altering my perspective.
Bold Never Goes out of Style
As a designer, I have had a lot of time to look at products, trends, colors. It means that I have long since lost any attachment to say dark wood over light wood. I like both in the right context. Same with the sterility of the International Style or the more lavish Federalist. Both have a time and a place and both can be an equally inspiring basis for the style of a law office.
Yet I need to choose my words very carefully when describing styles or colors with a client. The word trend is a particularly dangerous thing to put out and I’d like to explain why I think that is, even through a trend is nothing to fear. It’s just a currently popular idea. There’s a delicate balance in every job to provide both freshness and longevity. Clients are usually coming in having lived with a space for years and part of my job besides function is to provide a facelift. Yes, creating the functional conference room that the team desperately needs is important and rebalanced the lights and HVAC after those walls go up is necessary, but part of the appeal of an interior designer is that you expect us to leave the place looking better than when we were hired, not just functioning better. (Like the roof replacement my husband and I did last year; it needed doing, but we didn’t “feel” or “see” the investment except by the absence of rain in our kitchen) But you, as a client, know you’ll be staring at the inside of those conference room walls for years. And that chair you’ll be sitting through all those meetings in needs to be comfortable and preferably nice to look at. Thus as much as designers plan to walk the balance between choosing something exciting and new, but not something that will get old. Trends get old eventually. Having a color or style become dated far beyond the end of the useful life of the product can lead to frustrations later on. It’s still in good shape, but if you’ve stopped enjoying the color, texture or pattern it gets old. This is true of any job, commercial or residential.
We live in a world where the word trend, is more related to clothing than furniture, however, and it seems many people are intimidated by the Speed of Fashion and consider that speed when they start to consider furniture and color choices. I often feel the concern about living with a color or other bold choice. But the Speed of Furniture is slower than the Speed of Fashion. While what teenage girls wore 5 years ago is completely out of style, the couch I bought at the same time doesn’t look dated. Shapes take time to go in and out. Color is more tricky, but we live in an age where I find the buzz-phase or trend of contemporary design color is what I call Neutral Plus Pop. I love this concept and employ it all the time. It allows me to be bold and energetic without fear that a client (or me) will outgrown the design decisions we made too fast. I just tend not to point out that this sensible way of thinking is also a current design trend.
Colors (the particular hues in vogue, although there are classic shades and tints that always have appeal) shift more quickly than neutrals (which do shift as well; think about the espresso wood tone that’s popular the last few years whereas medium oak or white laminate is my memory of the 80’s). So you play to your strengths. Long-lasting items that also tend to be more investment are done in neutrals. This includes built-ins, casework, countertops and the partners’ desk in colors and styles you love and know will never get old for you. Take, not risks, but have fun with with paint colors, task chairs, and the items that will wear out. Paint is not an expensive proposition and all the HGTV bloggers will tell you the same.
To me, Wow factor and boldness never go out of style. A rich, deep hue will always have wow because of it’s depth. Something unique and distinguishing will, while it may become humdrum to you on a daily basis, still impress newcomers to your space. Boldness creates variety and adds interest. It might be a leap of faith to try something different, but if done in the right materials it doesn’t have to be frightening but will make a lasting impression and wow you and your visitors for a long time.