During quarantine, Maris Mann-Stadt, an environmental engineer in western Massachusetts, began using the dining room of her house as an office. She and her husband had previously entertained in the dining room a handful of times a year, but a workspace was a much better fit for the pandemic. Its paint color presented a problem, however. The dining room walls were a deep salmon hue, a kind of dark pink. As the sun went down the room got depressingly dark. “I have a bad habit of forgetting to turn on lights when I work late,” Mann-Stadt said. So the couple decided to repaint.
Stuck at home in quarantine for the majority of this year, non-essential workers have been forced to set up temporary offices on any spare flat surface, making repainting walls less of a luxury than a necessity. Any interior gets monotonous when inhabited 24/7; paint offers a way to dramatically alter your space without the need to break your bubble by bringing a professional into your home. Like exercise equipment manufacturers and sweatpants designers, house-paint companies have been booming during the pandemic. The luxury paint brand Farrow & Ball’s revenue has gone up 20 percent this year and online sales more than tripled, according to the company. “As soon as lockdown was introduced, we saw an increase in sales,” Edel Nicholson, the head of marketing for the Irish paint brand Curator, said. “Demand has grown exceptionally high, specifically because it was a product people could do themselves.”
Yet remote workers must make a very personal choice: which color best suits ongoing quarantine? Perusing Benjamin Moore swatches at a local store, Mann-Stadt and her husband first considered grey. “It turns out the grey I liked was way too dark once I primed and put a sample up,” she said. One shade of blue was too reminiscent of a bathroom. Their final choice was a light greenish-blue, organic but not obtrusive, adapted to the longue durée of the pandemic—dining-room entertaining isn’t likely to come back any time soon. “The color has really grown on me,” Mann-Stadt said. “It’s nice to have as the days get shorter.”
Curator is a two-year-old brand launched by General Paints Group, which was founded in 1953; it distributes across the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. Over quarantine, the company has had to add manufacturing capacity, splitting into morning and evening shifts. Aside from the increased demand, the staff also discovered that buyers wanted different colors than they did before. An entire quarantine palette has taken shape.
Like Mann-Stadt, many have realized that darker colors can feel claustrophobic when you have to stare at them all day. Curator’s most popular grey, a flat, dark hue called Shavehook, dropped by almost 90 percent between March and September of 2020, when compared to the seven months before Covid-19. It amounts to a rebellion against the 2019 aesthetic. “The grey from the twenty-teens,” said Garry Cohn, an independent designer and color expert for Curator. “Everyone has pushed that aside.” Browns and reds are out, too. What we want on our walls now are blues and greens; organic neutrals; and a handful of bold pinks, yellows, and purples that Cohn classifies as “escapism.” Glossy paint is seeing a surprising resurgence, too.
Global sales of Curator’s three most popular greens—Fisherman’s Boat, Dock Leaf, and March Day—increased by 59 percent during the pandemic while a few of its neutrals—Scalloped Silk, Soft Bisque, and Stoney Way—increased 57.8 percent. Rather than urban excitement, the selection conjures an outdoor adventure, or perhaps the waiting room of a well-appointed doctor’s office. We want to be reassured, not overstimulated, by our wall colors. It’s a contrast to Pantone’s 2019 color of the year, the electric Living Coral, which was described as “vivifying and effervescent.” “Everyone is a bit upset; they want things clean,” Cohn said. “They’re choosing positive colors because when things are negative, you want to be out there with something positive.”
Anxiety over the pandemic incites a desire for stability and timelessness, something beyond the chaotic present. Farrow & Ball likewise saw sales of blues increase 28 percent over last year, particularly Hague Blue and Stiffkey Blue, two warm, rich hues that wouldn’t be out of place in a cozy home library—which is perhaps the kind of environment we’re seeking to replicate during the oncoming winter. “Deep blues can help convey a feeling of calm and creativity, which is what people are looking for, now more than ever,” said Anthony Davey, the company’s CEO.
Another strategy of quarantine adaptation might be to make the walls as ignorable as possible to give the illusion of space. For Farrow & Ball, pale colors, like Down Pipe, Railings, and Cornforth White, are also new bestsellers. Laura Marsh, a magazine editor living in Brooklyn, repainted her apartment’s bathroom from off-white to ultra-white. “For me, it has got to be minimalism all the time if we are basically going to be trapped in here all winter,” Marsh said. If there’s nothing to notice in a wall color, maybe you can’t get bored with it.
The internet has made it easier to plan your own repaint, even before quarantine, with customers posting their own shots of rooms painted just about any color on social media. “Before you needed a color consultant and designer; now we have Pinterest,” said Sally Erickson Wilson, the chair of color and materials design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. But professional help is still in demand: Farrow & Ball’s color consultancy, which now operates by video chat instead of in person, has been more popular than ever.
“During Covid, people sat for too long and just thought about what they want to do,” the New York-based designer Amy Lau said. Her studio has been “slammed” with clients first calling to redecorate their Manhattan apartments after they moved to second homes, then redo their second homes, too, once it became obvious they would be there for a while. The materials Lau hears requests for follow the new mold of Quarantine Chic: “Light and airy, ranging from creams to blues and celadons.” Beiges punctuated with pops of color are popular, as is art wallpaper with aggressive patterns, especially in small spaces like bathrooms. Lau cites Calico Wallpaper, Fromental, and Artemis Walls, which makes peel-and-stick wallpaper—a less permanent option than painting.
Refreshing the walls has a way of turning your home into an unfamiliar space, tricking you into believing you haven’t been marooned there for eight months. We’re seeking any kind of novelty. Some of Lau’s clients are even nostalgic for that relic of global travel, the hotel room. They request hotel signatures like headboards with inset lights, recessed lighting, and outlets or USB ports hidden in drawers. The accessories evoke the feeling of “creating your own little universe, that anything’s possible,” she said.
Rayman Boozer, the founder of the New York design firm Apartment48, usually works with bright, saturated hues, but during the pandemic has turned to “softer, calming colors: silky blues, quiet greys, and subtle shades of pink,” he said. “Color therapy is definitely at play.” What kind of therapy are we looking for with this diaphanous palette, like a day at the beach or gazing up at a slightly cloudy blue sky?
“Green is associated with calm,” Wilson noted of the quarantine palette, citing Michel Pastoureau’s book The Colour of Our Memories. “Blue is also deeply embedded in the idea of trust.” According to a report from Interbrand, a third of the best-known companies in the world use blue for their logo color; trust is certainly something we could use given the constant variation of COVID-19 best practices. In the context of chromotherapy, green is said to bring a sense of harmony and blue reduces anxiety; blue lights have been used to reduce crime and even prevent suicide attempts. Maybe the painted walls bring a bit of these vibrations, too.
But the science of color psychology is shaky and abstract: “color is consciousness itself, color is feeling,” William H. Gass wrote in his essay On Being Blue. It might be better to look to symbolism, the ideas and objects that we want to bring into our homes while we inhabit them. According to Carl Jung, blue is “the color of water and can thus represent the unconscious.” “Blue is also the bluish-green sea that houses the spirits of the dead,” Jung wrote. Beyond evoking the missing outside world, maybe the quarantine palette is an attempt to adapt to our newfound mode of introversion and accept that we’re living within our own heads for the time being.
Whatever preferences evolve during the pandemic, it seems likely that the reverse will be popular whenever it’s over and the masks can come off: crowded restaurants, live events, bright hues instead of colors of comfortable insulation. According to Curator’s Garry Cohn, we can’t depend on the popular palette staying consistent—color is always a matter of fashion. Cohn suggests that our current trend is the reverse of the 1970s. Instead of moving from the sunny colors of the ’60s to Annie-Hall browns and neutrals, we’re going from neutral 2010s-era grey back to a wider rainbow. “We’ll be bold and colorful by the year 2029,” Cohn predicted.