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Beyond Design Basics:
The Beig-ing of America

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

Beige is a color that’s hard not to like.  What’s not to like?  It’s neutral and goes with almost any color. It won’t send our appetites into overdrive or offend unique color sensibilities.  It’s not cheery yellow or thought-inducing lavender. My fascination with the use of beige magnified when I walked into a clinic office one day.  The floor was carpeted in sleek beige cut-pile.  The smooth walls were a matching color of beige, as was the ceiling.  I fully expected each of the clinic workers to march out in matching shiny beige outfits and the same tone of pancake makeup.  I couldn’t help but wonder “Is there such a thing as too much beige?” 

I’ve heard some people say with tongue-firmly-in-cheek that if people were meant to fly, we would have been born with wings.  So in keeping with what comes naturally I started to look for the beige in nature.  Beige tends to be found in sand and rocks.  Think: Sahara Desert and the Grand Canyon.  Of course both of those are really more than just beige – certainly the Grand Canyon with its colorful layers of reds, browns, pinks and oranges.  Even the Sahara has water and palm tree oases ready to relieve both thirst and eyes of the sand-blinded desert traveler.  Another place where beige occurs is in dried plant material and occasionally in parts of flowers.  Think: ‘oceans’ of grain, baled hay, or the several plants you forgot to water when the temperatures exceeded 100 degrees.  Back to the clinic.  An oasis of green plants began popping up here and there much to the relief of this beige-blinded clinic patient. 

While in Tuscany and Provence this spring and summer, I noticed that, from a distance, many of the villages have a vaguely beige appearance to them.  Many of the older buildings are constructed of local rock.  Even ‘new’ construction in some cases reused deconstructed building material at the same site –the utmost in recycling. 

What makes all of these examples different from the beige interior I encountered?  Nature asymmetrically balances the amount of beige color with leafy green plants, blue reflections in water, flowers of every hue and changing tie-dyed skies. That is to say that while there is beige there are a lot more other colors on this planet.  Textural and value variation in nature also prevents beige from being flat and uninteresting.  Tuscan and Provencal architecture adds color in stucco, roofs, shutters, and doors.  Inside colors that preclude the blandness of beige are found in area rugs, walls, art, tiled floors, and beamed ceilings.  There is a richness and depth to their environment.  How much does an environment affect who we are?  Can a space devoid of color, texture, variety and other design basics influence our personalities and creativity?  Is it able to shape how we think?  Does it also affect our physiology?  Can we be ‘too beige’? 

Frank Mahnke’s book, Color, Environment and Human Response is based on studies of how color and light affects our psychology and physiology.  In it he states “nervousness, headaches, lack of concentration, inefficiency, bad moods, visual disturbances, anxiety, and stress usually are blamed on everything except a ‘guilty’ environment, which may often be the root cause.”  While he doesn’t describe the color “beige”, he does identify “pure gray as conservative, quiet and calm, but also dreary, tedious, passive and without life.”  Both gray and beige have color influences in them (i.e.: blue-gray, yellow-beige, etc.).  What causes them to become tedious is too little of their color influence and therefore low-intensity.  If you remember the three parts of color (hue, value and intensity), then you will remember that intensity is the brightness or vividness of a color.  You may also remember from Design Basics that it is important to create balance.  Does this mean that environmental balance can help keep our psychology and physiology balanced?  Studies seem to indicate that this is so.  Are more definitive studies needed?  I believe so.  Is it difficult to study?  We are complex creatures with individual emotional make-up.  We might all look at the same color, but respond differently.

As for my environmental preferences, I choose to mimic nature.  Yes, I have a few beige walls in my home, but most of the walls are full of colors that are appropriate to the function of each room.  There is no lack of color and I find it inspiring, exhilarating, creative but also quieting and thoughtful – things that I value in a human being.

RousillonThe color of local earth in Rousillon, France (right) provides inspiration for the pattern of color on the wall below.

patterned wall

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Rousillon houseFrom a distance, the town of Rousillon appears to be shades of beige (right), but when looking closer one can see the variation of colors (lower left).

Rousillon from a distance