Monday, December 6, 2010


What could be more personal than a favorite color?  Yet more and more frequently, people choosing exterior colors for their homes are finding this most individual of choices being restricted by their local design review board.  It’s an imposition that’s no less outrageous than having some stranger dictate what colors you can choose for your clothes or your car. 

All this is justified in the name of that contemptible concept, “good taste”, which at any given time is nothing more than the sum average taste of the status quo.  Despite what history teaches us about the transitory nature of taste, design review boards profess to have some inside track on what's tasteful and what isn't--wisdom that they self-righteously deem to impose on the rest of us.  To their great dismay, not everyone’s color preferences are as sedate as those of central Europeans like me.  And thank God for that, or America would be a pretty boring place.  

Vivid colors are an integral part of many cultures, and always have been.  The deep burnish of Chinese red bespeaks the whole rich history of that ancient culture, while the sherbet-toned facades of Moroccan hill towns evoke the warmth and humor of the Mediterranean.  The Swedes have a delightful tradition of painting their rural houses a blazing red--not, as I’d always thought, to furnish some winter color, but because the historically high cost of red paint long ago made it a status symbol.

Even the pristinely white temples of Greece, long held by highbrows to represent the apex of good taste, turn out to have been originally tarted up in an eye-popping array of primary shades.  So much for aesthetic pronouncements.
Colors have played such a large role in design history that some have lent their names to historical periods.  In the United States, the proliferation of brownstone architecture during the 1870s earned that era the name Brown Decade, while the 1890s were dubbed the Mauve Decade for their love of that royal shade.   

Times change, however.  Since Modernism swept the U.S. after World War II, mainstream architectural colors have seldom wandered too far from off-whites or mild pastels. Unfortunately, this fashion--and make no mistake, that’s all it is--has been institutionalized by civic officials who now feel entitled to nix any colors outside the tonal range of Butter-Mints.  
Consequently, cultured people who deserve the freedom to make their own color choices must instead submit to having “acceptable” colors dictated to them on the grounds of good taste.  

But whose good taste?   Tastes vary the world over, and America is an ethnic microcosm of the globe.  It’s no coincidence that the colors often frowned upon by design review boards are the same vivid hues favored by many people of African, Hispanic, Asian, or Pacific Islander heritage.  It’s nothing short of veiled racism to discourage such colors on the basis of some arbitrary standard of taste most likely established by a bunch of Wasps decades ago.  

When confronted with this obvious bias, defenders of color restrictions hide behind the same tired hypothetical question: “Well, how would you like it if your neighbor painted his house purple with green trim?”

I’d much rather live beside a purple and green house than deprive any person (including myself) of the right to make such a personal choice.  It’s nobody’s business what color I paint my house, nor is it any of my busines what color you paint yours.

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