Color Me Red

Caliente Red and Indian Red – well, at least the two colors have the word “red” in common: for everything else, they couldn’t be further apart. Indian red, I’m sure you’re familiar with: it was the most easily made and the cheapest paint available in the early years of New England. It is totally familiar and is still popular, nearly 400 years after its first use. Caliente red, on the other hand, is Benjamin Moore’s “upcoming color of the year.” If you want to be up to date and ahead of your neighbor, use it in 2018 and all heads will turn in your direction.

Caliente red is part of a new trend in interior decorating, a trend in which “dark colors are in,” (“Scared of Dark Paint? Don’t Be,” Michelle Higgins, NYT 10/24/17.) According to Michele, dark paint derives from our need in 2017 at least, to “cocoon,” to make our homes “feel sort of nurturing and tender…homes that sort of give us a hug.” Dark colors do that, apparently, or at least to interior designers want you to believe they do.

But those of us who are used to light colored walls may find it terrifying to change to dark. If this is the case with you, a savvy decorator explained, “limit the [dark] color to the inside of cabinets, the backs of bookcases or (and I had to read this twice) the underside of a claw-foot tub.”

Just think for a moment about cocooning underneath a dark painted claw-foot tub – your troubles, along with your sanity, will have vanished in an instant. Me, I’d prefer a glass of brandy in front of the fire, but then, cocooning is not something I feel a strong need for – and neither, for heaven’s sake, is an interior designer!

My longstanding aversion to interior designers was reinforced by one who praised an owner of an antique Chippendale chest of drawers who had painted the inside of its drawers a rich aubergine. “What a color surprise every time you open a drawer,” she enthused. No argument there.

Standing Out or Fitting In


Where it’s red, a 17th- or 18th-century house is Indian red, not Caliente red. Caliente red is a new color made by mixing chemically produced colors in a way that no-one had ever thought of before. Indian red is the product of clay stained with iron ore in a way that everyone enjoyed because it was warm, cheap, and locally produced. Interior walls sheathed in Indian red certainly made the house inviting and relaxing, but I’m not at all sure that they stepped forward and “sort of gave us a hug.” And I’m even less sure that the Puritan master of the house would have approved if they did!

If there were such a thing as an interior designer in Puritan times (how on earth did we manage to live without them for so long?), she would not have recommended Indian red because it was so last-year – and the year before that, and before that, and…

Caliente red is a competitive color: it is designed for its users to be the most up-to-date, it thumbs its nose at the poor neighbor who’s never seen it before. It’s a weapon in a competitive, individualistic society where innovation is the key. Caliente red appeals to people who want to stand out.

Indian red appeals to people who want to fit in. Earthbound colors such as Indian reds, ochers, stone greys, are part of the same soils that nurtured the timbers from which the houses were made. The colors and the timbers are part of the same environment, so they encourage the houses to fit into it. The houses fit in to the environment from which they grew and return the compliment by becoming part of it.

First and second period houses all have very much the same architectural features and they are all very much the same size. They fit in together to form a community that is as architectural as it is social, and, of course, vice versa. I am lucky enough to live in a town where there are still visible remnants of a social-environmental-architectural community. And there wasn’t a single interior designer living anywhere within it.

Making Paint and Making Choices

When a painter used Indian red on interior sheathing or on exterior window trims and sashes, he had to start from scratch each day. He got powdered madder (iron-stained clay) and using a large pestle and mortar pounded it into linseed oil (from local flax) and white lead until he got the consistency and color that he wanted. He judged the amount to last just enough for a day’s work, because it would not keep overnight.

When a painter uses Caliente red, he pries open the can, uses as much as he wants, and reseals the can again for another day.

It wasn’t till the 1870s that paint was sold pre-colored in re-sealable cans. This was a sea-change in our color consciousness. Scientists in chemical factories produced a limitless variety of colors for the painter to choose from. Paint was now produced in a factory, not by an artisan.

So today paint color has become a deeply personal choice – but that is a recent idea. For the first couple of hundred years of New England, the palette was restricted to the colors that the earth could provide. But the advent of the paint factory made individual choice paramount (and for some people, agonizing) in a way that it never had been.


Chemical factories replaced the earth as the source of colors: they made houses stand out, not fit in; home owners had lost community and the environment as guides to color choice, and so the professional interior designer rushed to choose for them: At last, we had a professional to tell us which colors we really liked. So that’s how we ended up with a dark, frightening color on the underside of our claw-foot tub, something that no-one but a professional designer could possibly have thought of.

I’m quietly happy that we live in an old house with a threshold that no interior designer has ever crossed.

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