THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

What is the color of hope?

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / March 19, 2009
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One of the first things Michael Hoyle did last fall when he started as chief financial officer of Lasell College — besides meeting with colleagues and learning the details of the school’s finances — was paint his office. It may sound frivolous for a CFO to be picking paint colors his first month on the job, especially as the economy began a precarious slide, but there was a reason why Hoyle had two walls in his office painted in a color that he describes as ‘‘a bright, cheery blue, like a deep blue sky.’’ ‘‘The idea was not only to keep myself upbeat in these challenging economic times,’’ he says from his Newton office. ‘‘But I also host a lot of meetings here. People come into my office and notice the color. It helps change the tone of the meetings. I really think it puts people in a slightly better mood.’’

While consumers are spending less on everything from vacations to haircuts, they are not skimping on paint. Many, like Hoyle, see paint as anti-depressant in a can.

Manufacturers, meanwhile, are spotlighting a range of vibrant colors. Benjamin Moore declares "The Color of Optimism" to be a blazing citron yellow called St. Elmo's Fire. Pittsburgh Paints is attempting to fight the blues with a vibrant palette inspired by bright Mexican haciendas, and color marketing group Pantone Inc. declared a warm, sunny shade called Mimosa Yellow as its 2009 color of the year.

"What we're seeing is that people are going to the brighter side of the color palette," says Jackie Jordan, director of color marketing at paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams. "We're seeing yellows, reds, and oranges - colors that are energetic and more optimistic - finding their way into more homes."

It's the reason why Cambridge resident Angela Chen painted her bathroom electric green this winter. Tired of miserable weather and depressing headlines, she said she wanted to have at least one place in her house that "could evoke a smile when I have to drag myself out of bed in the morning."

Top-selling paint colors remain whites and beiges, something that hasn't changed in five years. But look past the whites, and do-it-yourselfers are gravitating toward bigger and brighter. At home improvement chain Lowe's, the top five colors from November 2008 to January 2009 - after the whites and beiges - were all reds.

"People are very mindful of what's going on around them," says Leatrice Eiseman, a color psychologist, trend forecaster, and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. "In times like this, people have an inclination to go in one of two directions with paint color. One is to burrow even further and use color in a very soothing way. The other direction you see is that people are using color as a way to boost their mood. Either way, people are being more mindful of the colors that they're using."

This split reaction explains two colors that are experiencing a comeback on the scale of Mickey Rourke: soothing gray and warm yellow.

"The perception of gray has changed quite a bit," says Sonu Matthew, senior manager of color and design at Benjamin Moore. "It's a color that has traditionally been seen as very stoic, but it's becoming more organically inspired."

"Everything is graying," adds Donna Schroeder, color marketing and design manager at Dutch Boy. "But it's a warmer, and more weathered gray."

Mark Woodman, a Washington, D.C.-based decorator who sits on the board of directors of the color forecasting organization Color Marketing Group, says yellow is coming back into favor because it "connotes happiness, good times, sunshine, warmth, and puppy dog tails, something we could all use a little more of these days."

"Our customers have been on a yellow kick," says Jeanne Babel, co-owner of the local Babel's Paint and Decorating stores. "This most definitely may be a result of the long dark winter and the depressing effects of the economy."

Color forecasters, who look at everything from fashion to politics to determine color trends, started predicting bright colors as a trend for 2009 last year. In fact, Benjamin Moore came up with its "Color of Optimism" campaign last summer, after the economy had begun to cool, but long before the stock market plunged dramatically. Forecasters are already working on their 2010 trend report, and say that next year's shades will be just as vivid as 2009's.

The idea of paint colors changing one's mood and affecting brain function has been proven scientifically. In a study published last month in the journal Science, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that rooms painted red helped the performance of test subjects on detail-oriented tasks, while blue enhanced the performance of subjects with creative tasks.

A 2006 study, conducted by interior designers and color researchers, found that wall color affected the amount of food and drink that subjects consumed in a cocktail party setting. The study - which divided subjects into blue, yellow, and red rooms - found that those in yellow and red rooms gestured, fidgeted, and circulated more, while those in the blue room were more still.

People preferred the yellow room to the blue room by a ratio of 2 to 1, but tended to leave it more quickly than the blue room. The study also found that those in the yellow room ate twice as much as subjects in the other rooms. (Could be something to consider before painting the dining room sunshine yellow.) And although yellow was once frowned upon as a color for a child's room, Pantone's Eiseman said the claim that yellow irritates babies and toddlers is an urban legend.

Whether they prefer soothing colors or chipper ones, consumers are not cutting back on paint purchases. Both Sherwin-Williams and C2 Paint say they've experienced an increase in sales over the past year. Industry trade group the Home Improvement Research Institute expects paint sales to rise this year, bucking a trend recently reported by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, which found that spending on home improvement projects dropped more than 16 percent over the past year and is expected to continue to fall.

According to Eiseman, part of the reason why paint sales are weathering the downturn is that people are cutting back on bigger purchases, such as sofas and other furnishings, and instead freshening their surroundings less expensively with paint or accent pieces like pillows. People are growing more adventurous with color, she adds, because fewer people are putting their homes on the market. As a result, they're experimenting with colors that are more personal.

"Even though paint is more expensive than it's been before, all and all, it's just paint," she says. "If you get bored with it, you can change it pretty easily. Which is quite different than buying a red leather sofa or a new carpet. We're all spending more time at home, so it's natural that we're looking to change our mood and escape through color."

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