With crafty use of colour, Joa Studholme can make a boxroom look palatial. She is a magician with paint. As Farrow & Ball’s international colour consultant, her remit is to help develop the famous paint company’s signature subtle shades, such as Elephant’s Breath, Lichen and Borrowed Light — “the colour of sunlight across shade”. However, she also advises clients who love the firm’s great-taste palette, but aren’t so sure how to make it work in their homes.
“If you’re renovating a house, decorating is the lovely part, but it can be overwhelming,” says Studholme, who advises starting with the hallway, and working floor by floor, to create a natural flow through the house.
The hallway in her west London home is painted Down Pipe, a flat charcoal, which might seem a shade too far but, as Studholme points out: “You pass through the hallway, and when you come into the rooms they seem enormous, because you’re coming into them from the dark, into the light.”
She applies similar logic to the small rooms that most of us have — a bathroom, maybe, or a boxroom — and which we immediately paint white to try to make them appear bigger. “If you have a small, dark room, and you paint it white, it will end up a small, dark, dull room. You’re not going to make it lighter or brighter so don’t fight it, go with it, and create drama with a strong accent colour or a flamboyant wallpaper.”
'Treat the ceiling as a fifth wall, taking the paint up and over the cornice - this will immediately give you more height'
The traditional way of decorating is to put colour on the walls, and a sympathetic white on the woodwork, but if you want to create light and space, which most of us want, Studholme suggests swapping the paints around.
“Put the lightest colour on the wall and the stronger colour on the woodwork and the skirting, keeping it all in a flat eggshell. And because you’ve got the lightest colour on the biggest surface, the whole room feels bigger, and the darker colour on skirtings and door frames makes the room feel more finished, more decorated.”
The third option is appealingly simple: use the same colour, on both woodwork and walls, ignoring dado and picture rails, painting right over them. “There’s an enormous historical precedence for this and it’s what I do everywhere in my own house. It means you can’t read the confines of a room; everything merges into one, which makes things feel bigger and creates a sense of calm. I use eggshell for the woodwork, and emulsion for the walls.”
Gloss paint has been sidelined for some time but there is, however, a good case for using it, says Studholme. “The best way to get light into a room is to bounce it off the floor with a white gloss paint. Light fittings hang above, and the light hits the floor, so if the floor is white, it bounces right back. I love to use a gloss ceiling because it does the same thing, particularly in a dining room. If the table is candlelit, you get a wonderful flickering light. White with a little grey, like Cornforth White, works incredibly well; don’t use a yellow white, because you’ll get a nicotine look.”
She suggests treating the ceiling as the fifth wall. “It’s the forgotten wall. People paint it white because they think it lifts the ceiling, but it actually does the opposite — and you’re so aware of where the ceiling begins and the wall ends. You should feel as if the walls bleed into the ceiling, so there is a graduation. Taking the wall colour up and over the cornice will immediately give you more height.”
For children’s rooms, she visually drops the ceiling height, so you feel as if you’re in a tent: “For a girl, I will bring the colour across the ceiling and down, making a scalloped edge, and if it’s a boy, I will paint pendants so they look like bunting. It’s simple to do, but very effective.”
Instead of making a feature wall with wallpaper, which Studholme says tends to distort the proportions of the room, and isn’t very relaxing, she suggests papering the ceiling. “If you decorate the ceiling, when you enter the room, your eyes go to the walls first, and then the ceiling, and you go, ‘Wow!’ It has far more impact.”
Another way Studholme likes to create impact is by using a bold accent colour, in full gloss. “Many people have open-plan living, but I think gradually they’re realising they don’t want that all the time. I’m coming across lots of renovated houses with pocket doors which you pull across to make more intimate spaces. I love to paint them with a knockout colour like deep purple Pelt Full Gloss. Most of the time the doors are tucked away, but you sit down for dinner in a neutral room, pull them across and they have real wow factor.”
What are the new neutrals? Farrow & Ball is famed for leading us away from bright white to “sympathetic” whites that complement specific colour groups, and for steering us from warm, creamy magnolias and trendy taupes into cool, cutting-edge greys.
“Our perception of neutral has changed; what we felt was white 15 years ago is now incredibly yellow to the modern eye.
“We’ve gone greyer as time goes on. All our greys are selling like hot cakes — and these are becoming the new neutrals; soft and organic, as in French Gray or Pigeon, or darker, even going into Off-Black walls with Pitch Black woodwork. What has replaced magnolia as the classic neutral is a cool, chalky Cornforth White, which has a grey undertone.”