Dirt: Desaturation point
Gray spaces everywhere.
Hayley Jean Clark on the plague that is overwhelmingly gray interior design.
It’s all gray out there. The floors are ash, the walls are dove, the table is slate, the rug is gunmetal. On real estate listings, glimpses of bedrooms behind influencers, home renovation “inspo” blogs, and homes of the wealthy in various publications, it’s all inescapably gray, gray, gray. It has come over us in a thick fog, seeping into every corner of life and dulling everything in its wake.
Historically, gray was the color reserved for serious business: office buildings, banks, and bureaus, the home being a place for warmer tones. But in the last decade it’s become common for people to abandon the warming, comforting colors of home for the same gray palette found in any given H&R Block.
This trend has gotten a lot of traction among urban elites. In looking across the staging environments in high-end apartments in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the units are outfitted in morose real-estate-developer-chic to cater to the tastes of the largest, most boring common denominator. In the New York apartments of Jeff Bezos and Walmart heiress Alice Walton, we find this desaturated palette.
The aesthetic is ubiquitous enough to appear in our popular TV shows— on Succession these chilly stylings are proudly on display, particularly in the apartments of Kendall, Siobhan, and Cousin Greg. Billions and Industry feature characters with similar decorating tendencies Perhaps gray is preferred among successful business people because it connotes stoicism or utilitarianism; maybe they just don’t care. The aesthetic indifference among the wealthy on display here is very depressing: not only have these people worked to gut the welfare state, ruin the environment, and suppress wage growth, but apparently they also have a hard time giving the public anything beautiful to marvel at so that we might for a moment be distracted from our plight. So now, we just have capitalism with the aesthetics of socialism at its most dour. How cruel!
A great number of gray-washed interiors have a false luxury about them. They’re expensive, and yet they look cheap, like a hotel for business travelers where rates include stale continental breakfast. If this style’s highest fidelity state is this flimsy and sad, this doesn’t bear well for the downmarket imitators.
Then there are the renters—the poor tenants mercilessly subjected to the cold tastes of developers. In both new construction and gut renovated apartments there are gray kitchens, gray bathrooms. My first New York apartment was compromised by gray laminate flooring. I was glad to move to a building with wood floors (even though they’re quite damaged). Many of my peers live in apartments with gray floors and gray-tinged white walls, having ended up there due to the vicissitudes of the rental market. In scrolling through Streeteasy, it seems that if the cabinets in the kitchen and bathroom are new, most likely they are gray, so there’s not much room to break free. My friends gesture toward these fittings and roll their eyes with a manner of resignation that says “Well, what can you do?”
It’s not just a scourge of the cities. Middle America had been seduced by the numbing properties of gray as well. For the first 10-15 years of this century, suburban interiors leaned broadly rustic, whether Americana or Tuscan-inflected, both conveying a kind of rural earthiness. But in 2019, Benjamin Morris reported the top-selling neutral paint as being dove gray. In 2021, Pantone’s color of the year was Ultimate Gray. The best selling couch color for the last couple of years has also been gray. Recently, I walked around the domestics floor at Bloomingdale's flagship location in New York and counted 20 gray couches, making up half of the couches represented. Ikea, ever the advocate for neutrals and bland interiors, has gray displayed prominently across their staged rooms. Gray wood flooring has taken off, a favorite of developers looking for a cheap solution to mask badly scarred hardwood floors.
On the interior remodeling page on HGTV’s website, there are photo galleries to provide inspiration. The first two galleries on the day that I looked were titled Gray Home Remodel and 6 Ways With Gray Interiors. In each of the slideshows, gray was often described as sophisticated and modern. In searching for “modern interiors” on Google, the dominant colors scheme among the images is overwhelmingly gray.
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In the contemporary imagination, gray is the color of modernism, but modernist design is not essentially gray. In his essay “Ornament and Crime,” urtext in modernist design theory Adolf Loos rails against the highly ornamental design of the Victorian era and nascent Art Nouveau movement. Although he comes down hard on ornament, he did not admonish against the use of color. In his own interiors, he employed bright, energizing greens and yellows, lovely, warm woods. Part of the modernist project was to create an architecture that inspired life and encouraged meaningful activity, not to just give a facile suggestion of sleekness and newness.
American architect Louis Sullivan once said that, “it could only benefit us if for a time we were to abandon ornament and concentrate entirely on the erection of buildings that were finely shaped and charming in their sobriety” (inspiring Loos). The overuse of gray today tends toward deadening rather than charming. But it’s not necessary for gray to be charmless—gray can be soothing to the overstimulated, or elegant if chosen in the right shade and paired with the right forms. There are modernist masterpieces rendered mostly in gray, such as in Paul Rudolph’s daring, sexy townhouse that he designed for Halston, or Eileen Gray’s Villa E-1027, where gray is deployed in cool, industrial accents. In these examples, gray is applied with restraint and paired with radical modernist layouts and furniture, which makes the spaces feel interesting in their coolness rather than dull. But the application of gray in most spaces today feels mundane, thoughtless.
Defenders of achromatic interiors never seem quite passionate about their preferences. When invited to advocate for gray, they claim it is “clean” and “chic,” all with an air of resignation. It seems indifference is the core of the matter; people want to achieve elegance without making difficult decisions. But it’s a false sort of refinement conflated with indiscriminate removal. The bargain is that if everything is washed out in variations of gray, the chance of committing some grave aesthetic error is diminished. But that also requires the laundering out of anything legitimately lively, artful, or inviting. So, in turn what we see here is a perversion of the original project: the sparseness of modernist interiors are supposed to give space for life to take place. It’s hard to believe there’s much of that happening between so many gray walls. — Hayley Jean Clark
The Dirt: Gray, gray, go away.
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