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Beyond Design Basics:
Seeing Red

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

The instant the matador waves his red cape at the otherwise disinclined bull, the bull becomes a thundering, dust-disturbing machine in its quest to attack the red cape.  Contrast that with a zipping, chattering hummingbird pursuing a delicate, tubular red flower.  As a color in nature, red is an attention-getter and supports an energetic response – whether it’s a bull, a hummingbird or us. 

Perhaps because red has the most power of any color to capture our attention, at its most intense, red inspires extreme emotional responses: aggression, ferocity, passion and strength.  Ho-hum it’s not.  Our psyches typically have built-in links to red.  The expressions “red-handed’ and ‘red-blooded’ are derived from the color of blood.  Power, vivacity, war and death are associated with the color red.  Christian cardinals wear crimson robes symbolic of the blood of Christ.  Sacrifice and sin were personified by red for the ancient Hebrews while the ancient Greeks wore red robes to symbolize sacrifice and love.  Red is also symbolizes love.  It can be sensual and erotic.  ‘Red-light’ districts are associated with prostitutes.  In The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the scarlet “A” was worn by an adulteress. 

In the book Color, Environment and Human Response author Frank Mahnke tells us “the lens of the eye has to adjust to focus the red light wavelengths; their natural focal point lies behind the retina.  Thus red advances, creating the illusion that red objects are closer than they are.”  Red is also a warm color.  Warm colors advance, while cool colors recede.

If we are knowledgeable about the effects of color, it allows us to make better choices about how we use color in our environment.  How can we employ the effects of red to our best advantage?

Red, as an intense warm color, advances or makes interior walls seem closer.  The perceived effect is a smaller room.  Why would we want to do that?  If a room feels smaller, what effect does that have on how we feel in the room and how we use the room? Smaller rooms tend to feel cozier, comfortable, and cocoon-like.  They can also feel oppressive, stifling and confining if they are ill-suited to the function.

Defining the goals of a room before the space is designed is helpful in determining its design direction.  What is the primary function of the room?  Will we dine in the space, watch TV, sleep, use a computer or cook?  A vision comes to mind of my beloved spouse, munching oatmeal cookies while watching TV on the sofa and falling asleep.  Most spaces are multi-functional, and my living room is a perfect example.  After functions are determined, evaluate whether there is adequate space to perform all of the functions.  If there is more space than needed, or if the functions are such that we need to feel protected to perform them comfortably, the room could be a candidate for having walls feel closer.

Once we decide that the room is indeed a candidate for coziness, how do we decide on the use of the color red? Remember that red instigates more intense emotional reactions. Is that what we want?  If we’re in a dining room, chances are that with food in front of us our hunger reaction will be heightened.  If we are watching TV our reactions to what we are viewing could be stronger.  Because red increases our alertness, it could be a little more difficult to fall asleep in a red bedroom, unless the red also increases the desire for hanky-panky, and its sleep-inducing after effects.

How much red we use and whether the red is warmer or cooler alters our response too.  If we use more red, the stronger the response will be.  Think of a field of red poppies versus a single poppy.  Red is often used only as an accent as with berries or flowers.  A little goes a long way.  Larger amounts of red are not for the faint-of-heart.  The more a red is closer to purple, the cooler it will feel.  If the red is closer to orange, it will feel warmer.  With cool, rainy days ahead of us, the warmer red might be just the ticket to create a cozy space in which to curl up for the winter.

Seeing Red-1This red wall at the rear of an elongated Rome hotel lobby advances the wall to minimize the length of the space.



Seeing Red-2 The intense red of this cozy den is balanced with the use of black, white, and natural fibers.


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Seeing Red-3Nature's natural quantity of green allows a red flower to take center stage.