Commercial Color Trends 2011 - February 2011

By Kaye Gosline


Another tough year for the commercial interiors business has come and gone. While there are some uneven signs of hope on the horizon, many interior designers are still unemployed and budgets are still tight. Consolidation among design firms continues as the big get bigger and the fees get smaller. The new economic reality has settled in as a part of our daily lives whether we like it or not.

Around us, the world continues to rapidly change on all levels as trends evolve and new ones emerge. In an age of economic volatility and an obsession with “newness,” the Heritage movement has become a trend in fashion, consumer products and even interiors. Designers seek to emotionally connect with a client base hungry for fresh interpretations of iconic looks. This sense of heritage can be seen in quilts for the home and traditional furniture with a hint of modern lines. Fashion houses like Missoni are resurging under the leadership of a new generation that capitalizes on their long history while tapping into the vein of today’s client. Likewise, companies are searching their archives for meaningful stories such as those embodied in the old-line names like Carhartt, Dickies and Woolrich. Durable, honest clothes represent safety and comfort in turbulent times. Authenticity is a rare commodity but that’s what the world craves in materials, products and interiors. Sites like Etsy pair crafts made by old fashioned methods with modern e-commerce. In day to day life, authenticity, community and craftsmanship will play a central role.  

Personally and professionally, conspicuous consumption (read “bling”) is out but the need to show off success through memorable experiences is in. For the rich, that means an expedition to the Arctic Circle to photograph polar bears. Saatchi & Saatchi reports that luxury is evolving to be about personal importance and ways to express oneself as an original, creative, complex and unique human being. In our fast paced, techno-driven culture, we all look for innovative, unique things that have enduring meaning.

For the middle class, “locavore,” or buying local, is becoming more mainstream and carries a status symbol much like recycling did in the early days of that movement. In consumer goods, clever reuse of materials creates an instant audience and is being used in more than just novelty items. Consumers want to know more about where the products they use come from, how they are made and what happens at the end of their lifecycle. Likewise, designers want to know the pedigree of important finishes, like flooring. The questions are getting more complex.

Corporate America has accepted sustainability in much the same way that they did quality in the ’80s. It’s become a cost of doing business, but, make no mistake, it’s not done just for PR. There has to be a cost savings or penalty avoidance rationale. Better yet, it needs to be part of the customer experience with a company’s brand.

The need for new experiences also expresses itself in different ways generationally. Gen Y and the Internet Generation after them are far more interested in recommendations from their peers than they are in print advertising or other traditional media sources. Take for example the emergence of “Haul Vloggers,” who post video of their shopping exploits. Dozens of popular sites follow these Internet celebrities as they shop the spectrum from high fashion to the Gap.  

Having four generations in the workplace is creating opportunities to craft collaborative environments and to make more flexible, smaller spaces for office workers. Worker retention is not a high priority today with an abundance of job candidates, but productivity and training costs are still very important. As companies reconfigure after a downsizing, it’s a chance to incorporate more wireless technology and video conferencing equipment. Corporate travel budgets are still tight and the virtual meeting platforms are drastically improving. Face to face will always be needed but in the global world it’s becoming more efficient to use technology.

Last year, design’s response to the weak economy was to gravitate towards cleaner, clearer, more optimistic colors balanced by a mid range palette of softly tinted complex warm and cool neutrals. This year, those colorful colors are going somewhat darker and a hint of coolness is winning out over the warmth of the past decade. For several years, we’ve come to accept the paradoxical need to create timeless spaces using neutrals with just a splash of easy-to-change color versus the need to constantly be fresh, different and artistic. The balancing act continues with the creation of broader palettes and higher contrast combinations.

During a recent roundtable discussion on the future of collaboration as it pertains to the built environment, an end user said, “Thankfully, the whole notion of color trends is dead. I’m tired of being told what forecasters think is THE color this year.” Another designer friend of mine described trends today as “anything goes.” While there is a measure of truth in both statements, I don’t think it’s the whole picture. 

Color forecasting is not what it once was. There are some excellent services that provide color trend information for a fee and there is a wealth of free information on the Internet, so access to data is not an issue. The problem is being able to use those trends to create products and environments that are edgy enough to be interesting but not so slavishly predictable as to be boring. That requires far more art than science, more authentic stories than data analysis. With color combinations, it’s about creating harmony and then challenging it. Making colors that resonate within the space and keeping the eye moving to find equal parts of rest and delight should be the goal.

So when I dust off the crystal ball, the future looks a little like the ’80s to me. No shoulder pads or bad hair, ladies, but look at Beyonce’s latest tour with 58 custom Thierry Mugler costumes and ask yourself if it doesn’t remind you of Madonna or maybe Cher. Fashion is rediscovering color blocking, and silhouettes are getting a bit more angular. Furniture and accessories are using more mirrored and faceted surfaces for a mosaic aesthetic. The chaotic architectural approach of Frank Gehry with multifaceted surfaces is spilling into the interior. The look in fashion and interiors is heading toward a sleeker version of the ’80s where the colors are also cleaner, more techno influenced. Darkened teal looks wonderfully new when used sparingly, and even mauve is returning in a soft, dove grey version or more cosmetic hue—but the two should not share the stage together! The jewel tones are coming back with an ionic charge to them, fresh and influenced by the textiles of the Near East.

Although there are some pundits who, tongue in cheek, declare a color of the year, we know that contract colors by nature are not trendy colors. Contract designers employ dependable workhorse color palettes that change slowly, but certainly they change. It’s like when you’re in one of those revolving restaurants. You can’t tell you’re moving unless you pick a spot and watch closely. Tweaking a color a bit in hue or value is the difference between success and failure in product development.  

White has become the default choice in interiors because it provides a perfectly clean canvas on which statement colors can shine. Despite maintenance headaches, white and even high luster white continues to grow in acceptance. It represents purity and honesty in a world that clearly needs reassurance.

Black is just as important because it defines shapes, anchors all that white and plays well with the ever popular greys. Mysterious, dark blackened brown is also a good alternative for holding a palette together. A touch of black is also added to other colors for sophistication and depth.

Green based neutrals are utilitarian musts. They range from khaki to green-hued grey. The acid greens are still strong but are beginning to give way to a more primal forest green dug up from the ’80s again, just not as heavy. Because greens can tilt in so many interesting directions, they are the perfect color family for an ambivalent world.

Greys are staples, too, in both the cool and warm varieties. Even the once frowned upon pink tinged greys are welcomed back in the right context. There’s also plenty of room for the warm greys and taupes, especially the harmonious mid value ones. Pairing these with beiges and browns provides instant elegance. Grey plays off of wood tones and natural hues to create toasted beige or touchable cashmere colors. These browns and beiges show no hint of green undertone but are a decidedly more cosmetic foundation shade (not blush).  

Blue is a great component color but a hard sell as a feature. Deep inky blue and red-based blue mid-tones work well in combination with neutrals. Teal is certainly back and making a splash in European style combinations.

Reds and oranges are pure excitement and much needed to lift the more somber neutrals into life. No blue influence here, just delightfully clean basics. Where red does meet blue, we get a fresh look at mid-tone lavender tilted more toward red than blue.

Yellow appears to be taking a little holiday in commercial applications. The palette is not really ready for gold finishes yet, and yellow or gold seems just a bit too optimistic.

With color, it’s still combination, combination, combination! Putting together an interior landscape that uses new and old colors in ways that respect the past, reflect the current reality, and bridge to the future is not easy. It requires a deft eye and constant challenge to the status quo.

Designers, likewise, challenge the notion of colors for segments. Product designers acknowledge that what sells is certainly driven by the segment in which it’s specified. That being said, it’s hard to get designers’ attention if your palette is too much like every other product in your category. For example, a corporate palette with a flourish of pastels from consumer or fashion gets noticed. It’s risky to cross the lines between segments but done well it works to establish your brand in the market.

Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) predict that 2011 will be about on par with 2010 for new non-residential construction. Healthcare is one of the few bright spots. At least in the flooring category, the market also largely depends on refurbishment. Even with economists now predicting unemployment to stay at just under the 10% mark in 2011, businesses of all types have to spend funds on their facilities.

Corporate remains the most conservative segment as businesses struggle with uncertainty. Colors can be driven by brand but also by locale. Facility managers and owners are risk averse and practical minded, so the palettes here must be carefully considered.  

Healthcare and senior living remain strong even in this downturn. Color here is influenced by traditional psychological factors mixed with a new sense of freedom to create pleasing environments for today’s patients and caregivers. Spa colors remain strong when grounded with neutrals pleasing to the senses.

Education at the university level has suffered from cuts in endowments and state funding but K-12 has fared better. Palettes here are more multi-colored and geared toward creating vibrant, high impact spaces that facilitate learning. Today, it’s less about just mascots and school colors and more about the community, people and good design.

Many design firms have tried recently to broaden their reach into government because this sector has remained strong. Many states are going to be cutting funds in 2011, so the outlook here is becoming cloudy. LEED is mandatory in many places, driving lighter colors to help make the spaces seem larger and brighter. The new version of jewel tones should be perfect for this market, which is conservative (at least in color preference).

Hospitality is the most experimental of all segments, as designers can enjoy exploring exotic themes or creating luxury at every price point. Playing with scale and pattern, designers are seeking easy-to-coordinate packages that allow them to create custom looks in less time. Clients want unique designs but expect them on a shoestring budget. More contrast and larger scale are needed for convention centers and expansive open areas. With custom as the norm in this segment, trends come and go quickly.

What is there left to say about regionality? In the U.S., the relative preferences among regions haven’t really changed that much in decades. The East Coast prefers darker colors than the West Coast. The South and Southwest like warmer colors. The frozen Northland needs more bright colors just to survive. Atlanta and Chicago will always be more conservative than Los Angeles.  

Isn’t it interesting that all the demographic shifts haven’t honestly made a dent in those strong biases about color? That says to me that these differences are founded on the sense of place and our unconscious desire to maintain that sense of place.

As always, NeoCon will be the show to watch to see which way 2011 is going to go. Watch for the ’80s redux, including those blasts from the past—mauve, jewel tones and teal—but expect to see products staying chock-full of very safe warm and cool neutrals. While interior designers will use broader, more nuanced palettes, the overall contract palette may actually shrink as we prepare to welcome “new” colors in 2012. 


Copyright 2011 Floor Focus