Wonder walls: how to transform your home with colour


It’s hard, stuck inside for weeks on end, not to notice how much your four walls could do with some paint – if, like me, you haven’t had them done for a while. To be honest, it’s been troubling me for ages – lockdown has just made it worse. As long ago as February I’d wandered into a Farrow & Ball shop wanting advice for my daughter’s small bedroom. It was still decorated for a young child, but she’s 16 now and she yearned for something more grown-up – a calming escape where she could study and relax with friends. And I spied on a Farrow & Ball noticeboard an advertisement for their colour consultancy service.

Colour curator Joa Studholme has worked at Farrow & Ball for 24 years, inventing colours that have become legendary among decorators, including the charming Nancy’s Blushes, named after her daughter’s pink cheeks.

She started advising on decorating after her children were born, having previously worked in advertising. This unlocked a real passion for colour. “When I was a child, I was obsessed with colour,” she says. “My father bought me a box of Caran d’Ache crayons and it was literally my pride and joy. I would spend hours rearranging them in the tin. At 12, I painted my ceiling yellow because I wanted it to be sunny, and I painted the inside of my cupboard in stripes.”

What would she recommend for us? Our house is a typical London Victorian terrace. It’s painted in various shades of elegant off-white that my husband says have always bored him. As she enters our porch – pre-lockdown – she exclaims: “Oh, this is crying out for colour!”

She sets off for a wander through the house, notebook in hand. At the end, she lines up colour swatches on large pieces of card representing a harmonious journey through the house: muted whites, grey-blues, pinks and greens, yellow and black. For my daughter’s room, she chooses a wonderful dusky pink that she devised and named Peignoir – feminine but not sugary – which she promises will turn to grey in the afternoon light. “It has a big dose of black in it,” she explains.

Joa adds an accent of a darker pink (Sulking Room Pink) behind the bookshelves. “I love adding bits of hidden colour, where you’re not expecting it. It’s the equivalent of a bright green lining in a sober black suit.”

Painting a house from top to bottom is expensive. So we pick out a few key rooms to focus on. An easy start is the front door and porch. She recommends creating a space quite distinct from the open living room that comes after by painting the front door (inside and out) and inside the porch in a blueish grey called Pigeon. For the small downstairs loo, currently a pale blue that feels cold in winter, she selects a deep muddy pink (Dead Salmon).

Our next project is the office in the converted loft, where my husband says he’d like yellow. Fine, says Joa. Being at the top of the house, the office is a kind of final destination rather than a part of the journey through the house, and needn’t conform so closely to the overall colour mix. She prescribes a cheerful shade called Hay for the walls and ceiling, with a few accents of dark brown on woodwork. He looks delighted.

The most dramatic elements are the staircase spindles (currently white), which she’d like to see painted deepest black (Railings). This, she says, will give a structure rising all the way up the house.

“Your house is a treasure chest of opportunity,” says Joa. “I am not in the game of changing things for the sake of it. I want to create something you’ll be comfortable with, to reflect your personality, but with a bit more character. To make you smile!”

But the colour should make its presence felt differently in each space. For our bedroom, she suggests a soft mix of blues and greens (Cromarty and Grey Blue), “so you barely notice the colours and your shoulders relax as soon as you step into the room.”

The aim in these troubled times, says Joa, is to create a sense of wellbeing, as though your house is giving you a hug. “There has been a seismic shift in the way we are using colour in the home,” she says. “The huge popularity of the neutral home is on the wane. When the world is in turmoil, what better way to comfort ourselves than embracing stronger colours that have an air of nostalgia and nourish not only our homes but also our souls?”

I ask if she has ever made mistakes with colour. “I did once make a big mistake with the children’s bathroom. I wanted to make it look like a 1950s caravan. I used Churlish Green, which has yellow in it. When the children got in the bath, they looked so ill! I had to change it quickly.” She painted it pink instead, “which made them look very bonny”. Now our Pigeon-coloured porch is bonny, too.

Colour codes: Joa Studholme’s easy rules for living with brighter hues

1. There are three basic ways of decorating: a) using colour on the wall and a complementary white on the woodwork; b) using the lightest colour on the walls and a darker tone on the woodwork; and c) use one colour on both walls and woodwork.

2. If you have an entrance hall or porch, then consider painting it a dark colour. You will create some drama on entrance and everything after it will feel lighter.

3. Think about the light and how and when you use different rooms. Large, light rooms used during the day usually work best in a light colour, while darker, smaller rooms painted in strong tones create inviting spaces for you to retire to at the end of the day.

4. If you are wary of colour, start by using stronger tones in smaller places, like the back of a bookcase or even inside a cupboard.

5. Strong colours are much easier to live with when they are used below the eyeline. More dramatic colours used on kitchen islands and the underside of baths is a classic way to ground a room and add a little bit of excitement.

6. If you have a low ceiling, paint your skirting and your coving the same colour as the walls to maximise the height.

A Farrow & Ball in-home colour consultation costs from £195 per hour. At the moment, consultations will be offered online. For details, visit (farrow-ball.com). For more advice on decorating and colour choice, see Joa Studholme’s books How to Decorate and Recipes for Decorating