Color Unblocking

Marshall Erb, lead designer at Marshall Erb Design in Chicago, takes on our rainbow-bright Q&A—and schools us on colors that pop, colors that flop and the hues that are soothing to the soul.

By Elise Hofer Shaw


How do you feel about Colors of the Year?

When the color of the year is announced, it’s the to-the-public declaration of the trending color or colors that are launching across all of the design industries, from fashion to home decor. As interior designers, we’re definitely watching to see how, for example, the fabric vendors use these projections to color their collections—the collections that then end up on display in the furniture markets that take place around the globe. Just like the top fashion houses around the globe, the design industry is working six months to a year out. Right now we’re seeing the Fall 2021 collections that are dictating next year’s trends, color, and otherwise.

Do brand Color of the Year selections influence your design decisions?

They do, but sometimes it’s subliminal! For example, when I’m touring the High Point Market, I can begin to see the repetition of color from showroom to showroom. Maybe it’s a combination that we haven’t seen before or an exciting take within a shade. That visual memory will surely find its way into our work.

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When a designer’s work is published or you see a furniture collection in a catalog, those colors of the year sneak their way into your subconscious and eventually your repertoire, and suddenly consumers want to use these ‘new’ colors in their own homes. Remember that pivotal scene in the Devil Wears Prada when Anne Hathaway scoffs at there being a difference in the color of the two blue belts? And Meryl Streep launches into a dissertation on the genesis of that particular shade of blue? Well, it’s like that in the interior design business, too. There is so much that goes into making a particular shade a star. It’s not selected to be the one on a whim.

Would you use a Color of the Year in your design work?

Because the trade is seeing the next season’s colors in advance at market, we’re already using the ‘Color of the Year’ before its stardom is announced—or sooner based on our own predictions. Pops of pink? Did that two years before millennial pink was born. Designers think alike—and we’re always on the hunt for new color combinations and inspiration. We get tired of seeing black and white, so what do we do? We start packing a punch with a palette that makes us smile. Once the consumer market begins to warm to the idea of color, we start to see it incorporated in everything from bath mats to wall decor.

Are your clients paying attention to Colors of the Year?

In a way, yes. Right now, all of my clients are saying that gray is over. Everyone is tiring of the whole ‘50 shades of gray’ look. The truth is, they don’t want to follow trends, they want to be on the forefront, which is why they choose to work with a designer who has done his or her homework—gone to market, met with the important vendor reps—and can predict what’s coming down the pike next.

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What do you think about the hues that have been announced for 2021?

Farrow & Ball and Valspar released palettes, while Benjamin Moore announced Aegean Teal; Sherwin-Williams announced Urbane Bronze, and Glidden announced Aqua Fiesta. I love them. Who doesn’t love the color of the ocean or a deep bronze patina? Teal and aqua are a natural progression from the sapphire blues we saw in the past year or so, and mixed metals are still trending in furniture, cabinetry hardware, and plumbing fixtures. Consumers will pick up on the cues that they see in advertisements and magazines, and suddenly they have an interest in bronze colors and pops of color—and want them for their homes.

Are Colors of the Year grounded in real consumer and designer interest or simply a marketing gimmick?

I think that by the time the color is announced, the industry already saw it coming. It is the penultimate moment in the lifespan of a color trend. It is a validation of the trend that drives consumer interest.

Any tips for using a Color of the Year successfully?

A few years ago, purple was the Color of the Year. I had a hard time with that one. It’s never a color that is easy to do in an interior. It can come off looking juvenile or cheap if you aren’t careful. At Marshall Erb Design, we like to use color for impact, like lacquering the interior of a bar or a ceiling.

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How does the use of color affect design?

Make no mistake: Color can make or break a room. Color has the power to change your emotions—both good and bad. Color is terribly important, and interpreting how a client feels about and reacts to different colors is part of how I personalize my design. I mean, who wants to live in black and white when you can live in technicolor? The answer is that some people actually do have a physical response to quieter environments. That said, it’s my job to see if I can get them to take risks they’ll be happy about.

What shades do you think will be popular next year?

I predict that a rich green with a bit of olive in it will be trending next. There was a show house design from two years ago that used this color to great effect, and the images of the room are trending on Instagram and Pinterest. It’s only a matter of time before vendors see it and begin working it into their colorways.

Which paint colors are the most soothing?

When clients describe tranquil color palettes, they typically reference ‘soothing neutrals’—whites, cream, taupe and variations thereof—and are still widely receptive to blue tones mixed with warmer neutrals like taupe. I have been specifying Benjamin Moore’s Simply White, White Dove and Chantilly Lace quite a bit in the last year. For taupes, we love Farrow & Ball’s Stony Ground and Benjamin Moore’s Revere Pewter.

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Tell us more about these blue tones…

I think everyone has a picture in their head of crystal clear, blue tropical oceans, and it conjures up memories of past vacations, relaxation and fantasies of returning to the beach now that we all can travel again. Just as everyone enjoys a clear blue sky, homeowners all agree that blues are soothing and calming colors for their homes. Typically we would only use a bold, deep blue on walls as light blues can be too juvenile or pastel. Hague Blue from Farrow & Ball is a perennial favorite of mine.

Neutral palettes are so popular today among homeowners because of their proliferation on Pinterest and Instagram. I think the clients are drawn to the ‘all white’ interior as a reaction to the overstimulation we deal with on a daily basis. White rooms are bright, clean and simple during the day yet become cozy and moody in the evening when properly lit. But, there is also such a fear of commitment these days—especially when it comes to color. Every DIY show on television designs with thoughts of resale. Thus, because of these shows, homeowners tend to live in fear of each and every decision they make. Oftentimes they opt to play it safe, to only add ‘pops of color’ in accessories or artwork.

Which paint colors are the least soothing?

I just had a client tell me this at our first meeting: “Oh, one more thing… I hate orange. Unless it is a Hermès box.” Bright, bold colors like yellow, red and orange seem to be the bane of every realtor’s existence because it isn’t what buyers want. My best clients know that they are creating a home for themselves and not for some imaginary buyer—and that paint is an easy thing to change. That said, these stimulating tones are best left to the professionals to carefully and thoughtfully incorporated into interiors. I am working on an incredible country home project right now featuring kitchen cabinetry in RAL’s Sun Yellow with mudroom cabinetry in Benjamin Moore’s Greenhow Vermillion—and I cannot wait to see it all come together. Using bold, stimulating colors in corridors, as well as in workspaces like kitchens, laundry rooms and mudrooms, can be super fun.