Entirely unplanned, I’ve somehow ended up with a pop of red in all my homes over the past 20+ years. The decision at the beginning of my adult life to buy first one piece of red furniture, then others in quick succession, and the later decision to hold onto these pieces as we moved around the world (even though they no longer suited my taste), means there has been a red thread throughout all my homes ever since. Of course I could have rid myself of these pieces as my taste changed, but I tend to value sentimentality over aesthetics, at least to some degree, and holding onto certain things brings me comfort in their familiarity even if they no longer represent my current style. Thinking back to all my homes of the past twenty years and their red accent, it got me thinking about how there are very few examples of the successful use of red in interior design. Red gets a bad rap. Whether you associate it with Christmas baubles or Valentine’s hearts and roses, it’s unlikely to spring to mind when you think of stylish design.
While researching this post I was reminded of the concept of The Red Thread – a Nordic metaphor for a common element that runs through a creative work, be it a story, a film, or the design of a home. In interior design it can be a colour, texture, or material which links the rooms in a home, sometimes it’s obvious, other times more subtle (read more here about its role in interiors, by Kate Watson Smyth). Today I’m not actually writing about the red thread concept specifically, but upon realising that the actual colour red is the thread that connects all of my homes, it seems worth mentioning.
I no longer love the colour red as much as I seemed to 20 years ago – at least I don’t buy red things with quite the same frequency. In 1999 I was pregnant with my first child (just a year after graduating university) and had recently moved into a tiny apartment in Burbank, California with my then boyfriend. As we began fixing up our rented apartment before the baby came, I fell in love with and bought a red velvet wingback chair from the discount section of IKEA, on sale for $150 which was a splurge at the time for two 23 year old, broke parents-to-be. At the same time we painted the walls of our bedroom burgundy which we printed all over with a Fleur de lis stamp dipped in gold paint (Can I blame my ex for that decision? Surely I wouldn’t have made that choice…) I think there were also red brocade curtains draped over the bed (which was actually a platform of pallets) and our bedding set was a red botanical/paisley silk from Ralph Lauren which I bought with my first ever credit card (and subsequently took ages to pay off and taught me that credit cards are BAD). I need to dig up a photo of that room if I can. Not stopping there, I also sewed red chiffon curtains with navy tabs for the living room, (to go with the navy walls, obviously because yay, matching was awesome!) If you’re wondering if I was that person who also dressed in head-to-toe red, I promise I wasn’t. Although I did have red silk slippers bought in Chinatown, as evidenced above, which I paired with, oh – just a pair of knickers and a giant belly. Casual.
The red theme continued a couple of years later when we lived in Seoul, South Korea for two years and bought a beautiful red cabinet hand-painted with butterflies (opening image) for $350 – I seem to remember the price of all the significant purchases. When we settled back in LA a couple of years after that, the TV cabinet we chose for the house we’d just bought was red and I carried pops of red elsewhere in the house, on chair covers or light fixtures. And now I live in an apartment building whose exterior is painted bright red. Perhaps there’s some psycho-analysis needing to be done here to unpick my attraction to the colour, but for now we’ll keep that analysis purely superficial. I liked red, it made me happy, the end.
Two designers come to mind when I think of red in interiors, not because it’s their signature style by any means, but because of their deft use of it to make a stylish statement, be it bold or subtle. Ilse Crawford, whose interiors I’ve admired for many years, and Beata Heuman whose work I only discovered a year or two ago, both have brilliant examples within their portfolios which are simultaneously modern and timeless.
Many of Ilse’s designs prove the power of a single piece of red furniture, as shown in the below three images. It doesn’t have to be red walls, red sofas, red rugs. Small doses go a long way, particularly when the finish is glossy paint or enamelled metal. Red can be youthful and a bit funky, it can add a tongue in cheek playfulness to a more traditional setting, and it can work with a surprising variety of colours.
Beata Heuman has taken a varied approach to her use of red, from high impact to a gentle hint. At home, her summer house is decorated head-to toe with red patterned wallpaper and red painted woodwork. In another of her designs, a red and white striped headboard is paired with red-flecked artwork. And in her own living room, a red and white cushion adorns a shell rattan chair, a subtle and easily changeable way to begin to introduce red to a home.
The thing about using red in interiors is that it’s undeniably bold (duh) and it dominates. Unlike even a vibrant blue or an electric green, a red object or surface will always become the centrepiece of a room. The eye will automatically be drawn to it, whether it’s a glossy tomato red armchair or a cherry red throw on a sofa. It can also be challenging to find the right shade of red and to know what colours to pair it with, to avoid it becoming garish and reminiscent of a circus (although I’ve always loved the madness of circus style). Hint: don’t do floor to ceiling burgundy and gold like I did circa 1999. But with careful research and some experimentation you can hit upon the perfect combination to breathe warmth and vitality into a space. I know it’s not for everyone, but I also think it’s worth re-considering if you’ve always ruled it out as an option. A literal red thread in a home can be modern and joyful and bold in all the best ways.