For House Beautiful’s 125th anniversary this year, we’re digging into some of our favorite spaces from our archive—including, so far, decorator Sister Parish’s New York Apartment and the West Hollywood home and studio of designer extraordinaire Tony Duquette, dubbed “the house of a magician.” Here, we revisit a conversation about color with Gloria Vanderbilt from 1977, which was first published in our February issue that year.
An artist, designer, writer, actress, and socalite, Gloria Vanderbilt was somewhat of a Renaissance woman. From a young age, she was catapulted to fame as a member of the affluent Vanderbilt family of railroad empire fortune. Much of her success, particularly as a painter and designer, can be attributed to the world’s response to her use of color—a subject she endlessly loved to discuss.
Here, in our latest archive dive, we look back at a two-hour-long conversation in which Vanderbilt shared her views on color in 1977. She believed we all see color differently (especially men and women), and that colors are like children—in that you love them all differently. Not only that, but she was adamant that colors aren’t seasonal and revealed some of her favorites (lavender) and absolute-nos in home furnishing (avocado green).
Explore the original story below. (And if you’re itching for more color-related thoughts from iconic designers, we have insight from Yves Saint Laurent in 1977, too.)
Gloria Vanderbilt’s phenomenal ascent to the Big Name contingent of American designers began with the colors of her artist’s palette. So House Beautiful listens when she gives her views on color.
By Marion Gough
In a serene white office far above the hectic carts and mad-house traffic of New York’s Fashion Avenue, Gloria Vanderbilt sat at a nobly carved, white enameled desk that must once have been a library table and, from the flattering wicker aureole of a white peacock chair, talked for two hours about color. Color, as everyone must know, is the lifeblood of design and of commercial design in particular, where public acceptance, i.e. sales, hangs precariously on the right choices of tint and hue at the right time. And Ms. Vanderbilt, apart from being a serious artist (one of her collages hangs on the wall above her chair), is a very serious and successful commercial designer.
Disabuse yourself if you have ever thought of her as a dabbling dilettante, trading in for a spell on the glamor of a famous family name. Her name was, of course, an asset, but her undoubted success can only be explained by the immediate popular response to the colors and patterns that are peculiarly her own expressions. She is a designer utterly engrossed in what she is doing—and that, in the seven years since her first fabric designs commanded the attention of the public, includes bed and bath linens, cushions, table linens, china, glass and flatware, kitchenware, paper goods, wallpaper, eyeglasses, watches, scarves and a line of women’s ready-to-wear.
She disciplines herself and her time strictly, normally up at five a.m. to work seven hours in her studio and travels widely to visit the stores that carry her designs. She has been an actress, has written poetry and literary criticism, her talent as an artist has commanded 14 exhibitions and three museum retrospectives and she has written a definitive book on collages. She is the wife of Writer Wyatt Cooper and mother of two children. A certain distinctive personal style and decorating flair, her warm awareness of family and what family life needs, along with her ability as an artist, first made her sought after as a commercial designer. Now she has more than won her spurs and when she speaks about color, she speaks on a subject of intense personal and professional involvement to her.
“Color—it’s a subject I really love to talk about. I am inspired by it, stimulated by it, but it’s a complicated subject to talk about. Are we talking about it as something to wear or something to live with, in an abstract way or as something we surround ourselves with? As an artist, I tend to think of color in terms of paint, how it looks on a canvas. You ask if I have a favorite color. I think colors are like one’s children—you love them all but in different ways.”
“I am really in love with white, which is not a color at all, but I see it as light, sunlight, as sunniness. White is supposed to be the sum of all color but it can exist for me as a color on its own. Gray is supposed to be all-color, too, and technically it should do the same as white, but it works differently with me. By itself, gray is down-pulling but I love it with another color—it’s marvelous with yellow, for example. I think of gray as an interacting color rather than as a color on its own, although I do not dislike gray alone if it has a lot of white in it.
“I like black when it’s used with white in clothes, and one thing I absolutely love is a black background used as a foil for pastel colors. I like Jordan almond colors, love lavender for home furnishings as well as clothes and generally like strong, bright, clear, vibrant color. I don’t relate to muddy colors at all. I don’t relate much to brown shades in home furnishings, certainly not to brown whenever I see it used in a harsh, geometric way.
“Two home furnishing colors I cannot stand are avocado and a certain kind of muddy gold that’s not unlike mustard but worse than that. You see this kind of color around and maybe it’s accepted by the public because nothing else is available to fill its purpose. It reminds me of the dreadful color I see in so many hotels. I’m conscious of this because I travel a lot and it seems so sad when you know it costs hotels a fortune to decorate. Here again, maybe it’s because there is no better color available to fill their practical needs. I would never do a room in beige for myself. I don’t think I could stand the beige thing. It doesn’t seem to work like gray—it seems so limited in what can mix with it successfully–although I don’t dislike it when it’s combined in a variety of textures. There’s also a certain shade of orange I can’t stand—an orange version of fire-engine red—and a certain Kelly green and chartreuse. They’re colors that put you out instead of taking you in. At least, that’s how it seems to my eye, but I think we all respond to color in totally different and subjective ways—we don’t all see the same thing.
“Many people may see muddy colors in a quite different way from the way I do. Maybe it’s psychological or physical or something in the genes. Women, I know, relate to color in a different way from men—their reaction is much more adventure-some and spontaneous. I remember that Diana Vreeland once said all men are color-blind. I don’t think I agree, but certainly their reaction is different. I feel very insecure, really terrified, of picking out a tie for a man. I can predict that what I like he won’t like.
“It’s a sad, tough world, so the furnishings of a home should be a lift to one’s spirits, it should be the world as we’d like it to be, and a comfortable thing for everybody. I feel, though, that in the bedroom, a woman should have it the way she wants. Women so frequently have to compromise. I’ve often heard women say, ‘I’d like to have this, but I don’t think my husband would like it.’ I think a husband should stay out of the decorating of a bedroom. I think it’s a shame that women don’t decorate in terms of their own coloration in colors that are becoming to their skin tones, the way they buy their clothes. I’ve a friend, Carole Mathau, who has a pale white skin and sugar-spun hair. She has done in her living room a pale apricot and it’s delightful.
“My dream would be to redecorate every couple of months and have new surroundings, but if I did change, I would probably find myself using the same colors I like to wear and enjoy having around me.
“In my work I have always used the colors that enchant and delight me and I’m grateful for manufacturers who let me have my way. I work in the colors I really get excited about. Only once did a manufacturer change my original colorations and they didn’t do so well. Certainly everyone isn’t going to accept my choices, but I’m glad when people respond to them the same way I do.
“From a merchandising point of view there always has to be something new, but I don’t think in terms of what’s in or what’s out. What’s in may be something you don’t relate to, And I don’t think there are certain colors for spring and fall—if this happens in nature, organically, that’s all right—but I can’t think of color seasonally. It’s year round.
“I have a watch collection coming out this spring in cyclamen, brilliant red with white, gray blue, white sprinkled with confetti—colors that make me joyous—and I think they’d be just as appropriate in a fall collection. For a fall sheet collection I’ve done pebbles on a sandy beach—a summery idea—but in pale, pearly sand colors that go with any kind of decoration, any time. China designs are for a lifespan, to use at Christmas or on summer patio tables. I paint the colors directly on it—that’s marvelous because I can see what’s going to happen on the finished piece.
“Very early on, my color sense changed when I saw bougainvillea against an adobe wall in Mexico. It was like having a door opened to see such freedom and spontaneity in color—houses painted in lavender and strawberries-and-cream color. I know this has influenced me in the way I work with color, and in the seven years I’ve been designing I feel that people generally are becoming more relaxed and freer in their choice of color.
“They’ve become much freer, too, in relating fashion to home furnishings. I see drapery and upholstery prints that a few years ago you’d have thought were only for fashion. Eight years ago, when I wanted a wide checked gingham to put on the walls of my house in Southampton, I had to get dress goods from a department store. It was a narrow width, but it worked. Meantime I have done gingham designs for home furnishings, a free decoupage of tulips and primroses on a calico ground.
“You asked me if I thought there were certain classic colors. That’s hard to say. Color exists as an entity and if certain colors become classics, it’s only because a large majority of people relate to them. I suppose the classics would be colors that don’t intrude themselves, don’t demand much attention from the eye. Beige would be one of them. A lot of people who don’t relate to color at all will accept this. That’s also probably why brown is such a popular color and gray, which is an enormously popular color in fashion, goes into the same category. If these are classics, they are shades that to my eye are the most colorless ones.”
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