Seeing red: Emotionally intense color has a place in any home’s decor

A twist on a red dining room.

Today we celebrate red as the color of love. Between roses and hearts, candies and lingerie, boxes and wrappings, it is certainly today’s most visible and traded color. And who knows, a heartrending red sunset may just wrap up the day, as on cue.

But red moves well beyond the paper-heart love of Valentine’s. It is the color of appetites of all kinds and the color of excitement that treads into danger. Indeed, red also is the color of alarm, anger and true fear. It is a color that channels ardor and life, and this continues to make it an alluring color for home decor about which, not surprisingly, everyone has a feeling.

Though home trends these days lean toward the calmer and more sober mid-tone colors, away from extremes of feeling perhaps, red holds its place on the palette of decorators who say its judicious, and sometimes liberal, placement can make for a happy house.

“Red is a stimulating color, an active color that demands a response,” says Jane Jilich, a longtime Charleston designer who uses color liberally. “It is impulsive, vital, physical. You want to touch it. You want to own it. A house that uses red is full of lively, passionate people.”

Red may have its associations with anger and even alarm, but, says designer Paula Adams, “Red is an absolutely positive color. ... Red is personality, romance, warmth, coziness, comfort and it is exciting. It welcomes one into a house and into a space.”

When our brain registers red, our senses shift into action, says color strategist Leslie Harrington, principal of Connecticut-based LH Color and an oft-quoted author and commentator on color and its power.

It is a simple fact.

Red is an emotionally intense color unlike any other, reflecting, at its best, an unparalleled combination of brightness, brilliance and depth. Physiologically, it enhances human metabolism, stimulates the release of adrenaline, increases respiration rate and raises blood pressure. It increases appetite, for all sorts of things.

Psychologically, it demands attention and evokes raw feelings, both positive and negative, including erotic urges as well as feelings of alarm. In several languages there are expressions of feelings associated with the color red. Those include the Italian expression, “Ci vedo rosso dalla rabbia!” — I see red I am so angry! — and the same in French, “Voir rouge!”

And naturally, it mirrors, if not elicits, feelings of love, built perhaps through lifelong marketing associations with red apples and red hearts. For 97 percent of people, red equals love, Harrington says.

“Red is a double-edged sword. If you paint red on a heart, it is love; if you paint the same red on a caution sign, it is fear,” she said.

Red in different hues elicits different emotions: browner reds elicit more negative emotions, pinker tones elicit more positive, innocent emotions. In the middle is the pure candy-apple red, the red of crayon and our childhood, which is the purest, most neutral red of love.

Through history, red has signaled power and wealth, think cardinals and the Vatican, interestingly enough.

“It is attractive. If you wear a red dress, everyone wants to hug you,” says Jilich. “It has the same effect in a room.”

While individual associations with color, shaped by our perceptions and experiences, trump all else, Harrington says the physiological responses to red are inarguably true and scientifically supported. “It stimulates,” she says.

So, when it comes to the use of red in your home, she says, “the best dose, that’s the secret ... There are many ways to bring red into a space depending on how long you want the effect of the color to last or how you want to leverage its impact. ... If you don’t want the kids running around in that room, don’t paint it red!”

“It could be your secret weapon,” she said, “or a great mistake.”

Jilich, who describes her colorful but elegant style as reflecting her clients’ wishes, has used red in parlor rooms, powder rooms, living rooms and drawing rooms.

After all, even the White House has a red room, a parlor and music room whose shades of red in walls and furniture have moved over the years from burgundy to cerise and scarlet to carmine but stayed nonetheless red.

Recently Jilich did a kitchen with cabinets in an explosive cadmium red, which opens to a partially red dining room. She likes the continuity of the appetites flowing from cooking to eating and from one room to the other. If one has a neutral kitchen, Jilich likes to add red in the form of red canisters on the counter, a vase of red flowers or a bowl of red apples, and certainly one can always use red kitchen linens.

Libraries are perfect places for reds as are dining rooms — if the intent is to make them vibrant places for activity, be it socializing or reading.

“It is a color that makes people feel good. They talk more, they eat more, they want to do more, they spend more money,” said Jilich. “People are more friendly and more stimulated.”

Powder rooms are perfect for variations of red, often with gold, Jilich said, though not for master bathrooms, generally, where people want to see themselves against a more neutral background. There they lean toward more relaxing, spa-feeling shades of color, often dictated by materials such as marble (though there is plenty of red marble).

When it comes to bedrooms, well, some people think of them as places of rest, but Jilich does not shy away from red there either, and she reminds us of the science behind the color. “Remember, it raises your blood pressure,” she said.

She once used red for the bedroom of a single professional woman who had recently become widowed. “She wanted red in her bedroom because she wanted to feel really alive when she woke up every morning,” says Jilich.

She also used red for a couple from Texas. “They wanted their bedroom to be a haven — and not to read books,” she says.

After all, if you really want to rest, she suggests, turn off the light and color no longer matters.

But the truth is, says Harrington, “The walls don’t have to be red: the sheets can be red, or the flowers by the bed can be red. It depends on whether you want it to be temporary or lasting and how you want to leverage its power.”

Interior designer Paola De Camillis Thomas, whose style is contemporary, clean-lined and inspired by Charleston’s earth-toned nature, said she considers red to be a “classic” almost like black and white.

“I like to use red as an accent color on a neutral palette. It can be a throw or pillows, a lamp shade, a rug, a Chinese lacquered piece of furniture,” she says. “I remember what a client told me one time about the use of red as an accent color: ‘It’s like a woman with a little or no makeup but with a red lipstick.’ ”

Indeed, red can be used in small doses to enrich a space, draw the eye and awaken the senses, much as it does in nature with flowers, sunsets or blooms on a tree, says Adams, who has been decorating in Charleston for 40 years.

A beautiful red chandelier or lamp, or a plush red chair or a red couch can be an enriching addition to an otherwise neutral-colored space. Think Louis XIV with lush crimson brocaded fabrics.

Red draperies — red velvet curtains — can be a dramatic way to create visual interest and contribute a note of luxuriousness and warmth to a room, Jilich says.

Or a rug, says Adams.

“The power of red in a rich oriental rug is a way of grounding a room so that everything else you put in it will be grand,” says Adams, who also describes her style as a decorator as mirroring the style of her clients. “A rug sets the tone to build up from there.”

Rugs with shades of red have been used for centuries in foyers, family rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, libraries and even the kitchens of homes throughout the world, says Neşe Zinn, whose Zinn Rug Gallery in Mount Pleasant carries a dizzying assortment of rugs from the Middle East, India and Pakistan, all hand-knotted or hand-woven.

“Red, the color of love, derived from the madder root in the dying process, evokes feelings of coziness, intimacy and the warmth of a mother’s arms,” says Zinn, who is Turkish. “Happiness, beauty, courage, joy and luck are all attributed to the color red in rugs.”

Perhaps more than any color, reds vary dramatically in light of what’s next to them. Jilich recommends pairing reds with greens, the color of calmness, nature and security, or blues, the color of peace and trust, or golden ochres, vibrant and grounding. All enrich red.

White makes red more stark and lighter, but steals its brightness; black makes it darker and also dampens its brightness. If you are pairing red with other colors, the cooler the room — toward the blues — the more dramatic the red will appear; the warmer — toward the yellows — the more muted it will appear.

In Jilich’s opinion, the cooler reds, those with more blue, are more sophisticated. Though, she says, thinking through the colors in her mind and leaning into the oranges and the Tuscan reds, “silk curtains in those colors can be fantastic, too ... They are all stimulating. In all its variations, you can take it up or take it down.”

And don’t forget the entrance to a home, or the “facing side.” Red front doors send out a sign of warmth, welcome and hospitality, and are used the world over. In feng shui, the front door, which symbolizes the mouth through which the home draws energy, should be red if facing south to draw positive energy, abundance and opportunity.