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No Neutral Ground? Why the Color Camps Are So Opinionated

We Houzzers are very opinionated. And it seems like no other topic brings our opinions to the surface as much as color. Photos on both ends of the spectrum — with a lot of neutrals or a lot of color — always seem to get an instant, powerful reaction. But why?

In a recent poll on Houzz, 44 percent of Houzzers said they liked neutrals, 15 percent said they liked lots of bold color and 41 percent said they liked both. As the poll shows, many people do say they like both neutrals and color, but most of us still have strong feelings about the topic.

"Neutrals always feel safe to people, as indeed they are," says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. "Color doesn't behave," adds James Martin, president of Color People. "You can never count on it to do what you want." The split personality of these two color camps certainly has something to do with palette preferences, but why else is this such a hot-button subject?
A Passion for Color

Among all the other controversial topics on Houzz, why does this one continually rise to the surface? "Color is so intrinsic to our lives," says Leslie Harrington, executive director of The Color Association of the United States. "Every waking — and in some cases sleeping — moment, you are interacting with color." The fact that most people have an intimate relationship with color makes it an easy subject to have an opinion on — particularly when the options (neutrals and bold colors) are polar opposites.
Color also tends to immediately stand out in today's designs. Many interiors today have a transitional style that can be hard to peg or can appeal to many different tastes. Color is completely different and warrants an opinion right off the bat. "You can't always identify a style as easily as you can identify the color," says interior designer Jeff Culbertson.

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But sometimes our opinion isn't completely our own. "We're sort of taught that understated is tasteful and overstated is not," says Martin. "I think a lot of people really like color but have questions about how it will be perceived."

Mark Woodman, president of the Color Marketing Group, agrees. "What people seem to fear the most is other people's negative opinions," he says.
Negative but misinformed experiences with colors — bold or neutral — can have an effect as well. For those who tend to stick to neutrals, adding a big pop of color somewhere random probably won't feel right. "You might think that you made a color mistake," says Harrington. "But you didn't. Live with it first and add more color."
Neutralizing Neutrals

There's a reason most people prefer neutrals in their homes: They're usually easier to live with. Neutrals "are the perennials of color — not subject to trends as much as brighter colors, timeless and dependable," says Eiseman.

The dependable side of neutrals makes it a safe choice for big-budget items like sofas and more permanent material choices — especially for those who can't make up their minds. Color tends to be a big commitment that needs a lot of confidence, so neutrals work well for people who want to change their accent colors frequently. "Color just isn't for everyone," says interior designer Ellinor Ellefson.

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"Sometimes people are afraid of color because they can't visualize it," says interior designer Marlene Wangenheim. Envisioning a bold purple on your walls can be difficult when your home is all gray and white. So often those who do chose color already have quite a bit of experience using it. Color tends to get better with use and experience. "The more color you have, the more color you can use with it," says Martin. "With monochromatic rooms, you'll find there is only a very slim margin for error when selecting a color or even neutrals to go with it. With color, you become liberated."
Considering color but feeling nervous? Start small. "Area size sometimes has an effect on committing to a strong color," says Harrington. "We tend to shy away from large areas of color, even if it is easy to change or not expensive to do." Try using color in a small space that you don't use that often — like a powder room or even the inside of a closet. "This can be a jumping-off point for braver attempts in other rooms," says Woodman. Or find a color you like and tone down its intensity by asking your local paint shop to add some gray, suggests Wangenheim. This can make it both a color and a neutral.

"Is it possible for color to go awry? Absolutely," says Woodman. "I like to think, however, that there is no wrong color, just color used wrong."

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