Color Theory and Living Room Design

Designer tips on using the color wheel and best bets for mood-evoking combinations.
Contemporary Red And Gray Great Room With Patterned Rug

Contemporary Red And Gray Great Room With Patterned Rug

Stimulating red is a design tool that heightens the senses. Photography by Eric Rorer.

Stimulating red is a design tool that heightens the senses. Photography by Eric Rorer.

By: Julie Cole Miller

Like an artist with a palette of paints, interior designers know that the thoughtful application of color is one of the most effective ways to get what they want: to evoke a mood, solve a design challenge or raise the sophistication within a room. Color plays an integral role in the way people feel about a space — it even plays a role in how they feel in that space. We intuitively and subtly register the effects induced by a cerulean blue or a vibrant red and, as a result, our subconscious urges us to either relax and unwind or pulse with excitement.

When choosing colors for a living room, think through the details, like its dimensions and degree of formality, the amount of light available, the pros and cons of the layout, and the mood you want to encourage: cheerful, relaxed, formal, introspective, whatever the case may be. Most importantly, choose a color palette as a toolkit of sorts, one that will help solve design issues as well as help you feel most at home in your environment.

Living Rooms That Pop With Color

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Pink, fuchsia, red and green are grounded by the honeyed tones of hardwoods and a caramel sofa. Designer Andrea Brooks says she prefers to wrap the room in one color and bring in bursts of punchy accents through art and accessories. "This look can translate in both modern and traditional spaces," she says. Photography by Nancy Nolan Photography

In a tailored chocolate-brown room, a futuristic light fixture lightens the bold tones and solid lines. "I like using bold color all over in small spaces," says designer Ann Lowengart, "with high-gloss walls and trim and the same color repeated in the upholstery. Then layer in a couple more complementary colors, but keep your focus on the main hue," she advises. Photography by David Duncan Livingston

Evoking a fern glade or a woodland retreat, a room rich in greens takes its cues from a fresh green velvet sofa. "I love a comfy sofa to sink into, so that's my go-to living room piece," says designer Lauren Liess. "I start planning the room by selecting the major upholstered pieces and then add in vintage and one-of-a-kind smaller pieces, like lighting and end tables." Photography by Helen Norman

Photo By: Helen Norman

Balance, texture and proportion play a large role in making a small space work. For a cozy room that includes seating for 10, careful consideration was given to selecting the just-right sofas. Pillows and draperies bring in punches of color. It's a sophisticated palette that could be changed on a whim. Design by Ann Lowengart; photography by David Duncan Livingston

Teal and yellow accents bring a lighthearted vibe to a room where deep, dark browns and burgundies anchor the space. Design by Ann Lowengart; photography by David Duncan Livingston

For a small room with narrow proportions, designer Lisa Teague painted the ceiling, trim and walls one shade of white while adding a midtone color to the wall behind the sofa. "It brings the wall a bit closer, making the room look less narrow," she says. "The circular architectural detail visually helps to push the side walls out.” The paint colors, Sea Glass and Whisper, are from her collection of colors. Photography by James Salomon

Never underestimate the impact of fabric. A space defined by green and blue — given depth by the clusters of deep, dark floral arrangements — is anchored in soft, weathered tones on walls, wood and stone. Design by Ann Lowengart; photography by David Duncan Livingston

Photo By: Dacian Groza

Cobalt blue and acid green bring interest to a room otherwise outfitted in white, gray and black designed by Jennifer Reynolds. "I chose this particular style of window treatments to elongate the very small, odd windows," she says. "The drapery panel color was chosen as the accent color in the room to add the most impact."

Balance — not only in the arrangement of furnishings, but also in the use of dark and light tones and patterns — makes a space by designer Rachel Cannon Lewis of Sohaus Interior Design work. "Knowing where to position color and pattern in order to get the most drama requires planning," she says, "but will yield the most alluring result." Lime green, brown and white bring color to the forefront without exhausting the eye. Photography by Rachel Cannon Lewis

Simple, elegant and serene: Neutral walls, ceiling and floors provide the backdrop for a charcoal velvet sofa, dusty mauve chairs and a punchy raspberry bench. “We add color with smaller accents such as upholstered benches or ottomans and custom accent pillows,” says designer Jennifer Jones. A glass coffee table keeps the small space airy and light. Design by Jennifer Jones, Niche Interiors

CI-no-resize-Susan-Jay-contemporary-brown-garage-living-room_s4x3

CI-no-resize-Susan-Jay-contemporary-brown-garage-living-room_s4x3

Orange can create a friendly, approachable feeling for your interiors. Photo courtesy of Susan Jay

Orange can create a friendly, approachable feeling for your interiors. Photo courtesy of Susan Jay

Barry Dixon Interiors

Barry Dixon Interiors

Yellow adds optimism to your home, prompting feelings of happiness in all who enter.

Photo by: Edward Addeo

Edward Addeo

Yellow adds optimism to your home, prompting feelings of happiness in all who enter.

Interior designer Lisa Teague, designer of Quiet Home Paints, says most people know their color preferences — they just don't know that they do. "It's an intuitive process," she says. "My job is to explore with my clients their reactions to color. Do they lean toward clean colors or do they like a little earthiness?"

Barry Dixon Interiors

Barry Dixon Interiors

Green represents renewal and lends a calming feel to a room.

Photo by: Edward Addeo

Edward Addeo

Green represents renewal and lends a calming feel to a room.

You can identify these preferences on your own. Experts advise pulling inspiration from a variety of sources. Collect photos of rooms that appeal to you. Find inspiration in a piece of artwork or fabric where you can already see how the color relationships play out. And don't forget to look inside your closet. Is there a scarf, a blouse, a wrap or a tie that you gravitate to again and again?

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DP-no-resize_Tobi-Fairley-traditional-blue-living-room_s4x3

Blue evokes feelings of calm and freshness. Design by Tobi Fairley

Blue evokes feelings of calm and freshness. Design by Tobi Fairley

Changing how you think about color can give you the confidence to make bold decisions. Designer Andrea Brooks says she approached the design of her own living room by starting with her long-time favorite color. "I’ve always loved pink," she says. "I know I feel my best and most confident when I'm wearing pink, and because of that, I wasn't afraid to bring it into my own living room."

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BPF-no-resize_make_room_gender_neutral_apartment_living_room_from_hallway_h

If you long for serenity, using the color gray in your home decor is a great place to start.

Photo by: Brian Patrick Flynn

Brian Patrick Flynn

If you long for serenity, using the color gray in your home decor is a great place to start.

But Brooks didn't just pick just one pink, and she didn't count on it to do all the work: "By layering different shades of pink and layering in different textures through fabric, the pink reads as a neutral," she says of the room where she entertains friends or works on design projects. "It gets my creative juices flowing. It's an instant pick-me-up."

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CI-no-resize-West-Elm_Living-Room-Cowhide-Rug_s4x3

If you want a color that encourages your family and friends to slow down and relax, brown can be the solution to your problem. Photo courtesy of West Elm

If you want a color that encourages your family and friends to slow down and relax, brown can be the solution to your problem. Photo courtesy of West Elm

Brooks' careful approach to color combining and textural layering speaks to the interplay of all the painted surfaces, the fabrics, the wooden furniture, the accessories and the art that sets a good room apart. Some designers even take the wall color (or a paler version of it) into surprising territory. "Nobody wants to notice a big white geometric shape [the ceiling] when entering a room," says Lisa Teague. "I often carry my wall color up and over the ceiling so that you see the color rather than the shape of the wall. And of course, there are some architectural features that one wants to enhance. Color is a great tool for doing so."

Reds, oranges, lime green and turquoise tend to bring excitement and stimulation to a space. Whites and pale blues and greens tend to soften it, expand it and give it a restful feel. Grays and blacks bring moodiness and drama. So choose with care. The palette you choose for your living room could excite you enough to make you want to throw open your doors with enthusiasm — or sigh with relief at such a heavenly respite from the outside world.

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