Image Credit: 1970s wallpaper

In the Seventies of my memory you had two choices for walls:

White paint, or brown and orange swirly wallpaper.  Or just possibly purple if you were an 18 year old hippy.

Then at some point between The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen and Hall and Oates’ I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) everything went a little bit…beige.

Dulux Magnolia

Image credit: Dulux 

No, not beige, in fact, but Magnolia

It was the thing.  (My Know-It-All Friend says that, contrariwise, the 80s is famous for bright colours, but that’s not how I remember it.)

These days I don’t know anyone who’d admit to a penchant for anything so common and dated as magnolia walls. But almost everywhere you look you see whole rooms decorated in what have become known as ‘neutral’ colours. Or in the queen of modern magnolia Kelly Hoppens’ phrase ‘cloud colours’. 

With names like Gesso, Wax Myrtle, Ecru, Flax and Ash these colours riff on the creamy-or-pinky off-whites that magnolia was based around. They somehow make us feel more sophisticated and modern than those unimaginative people who resort to outdated stuff like avocado bathroom suites and peach bedrooms (although you might get away with accents of Butternut Squash or Siena Oscuro, which are peaches by any other name).

So why are we so influenced by the names we give things? 

Well, it might be as simple as the fact that we’re really easily led.  We’re social creatures and we want to fit in.  Our lives have all at some time depended on being cared for and included in our group, whether that’s our tribe in pre-history or our family when we’re young and helpless.  Being ostracized or – heaven help us! – laughed at can feel like a dangerous thing.

So powerful is our need to belong.

There are now whole departments dedicated to influencing (some would say manipulating) our natural inclination to fit in.  For instance our own Inland Revenue put out a message a few years ago saying simply Most People Pay Their Tax on Time. No threats or inducements or finger-wagging, just a reminder that most of us are conscientious tax payers.  The result was a 7% increase in tax returns filed before the deadline. Amazing.

So in interior design, as in fashion and food and everything else, we are naturally inclined to go with the zeitgeist so we can feel part of the gang. 

Of course sometimes this impulse goes rather wrong. 

I remember one hysterical afternoon when a friend and I were considering names for paints we might produce.  It started as a serious conversation about a range of PaperBoy paints but quickly deteriorated into giggling and we crossed a line when we went from naming a soft, subtle taupe Cat Paws to musing on the descriptive powers of Hair Ball. 

After that, chide ourselves as we may, our minds took a tumble to the absurd and faintly obscene: Hair Ball led on to Mangey Dog which provoked Phlegm and Old Catarrh which developed into things like Trapped Toenail and Old Man’s Dandruff.  Nobody surely would want to decorate their house in colours with these associations! 

And yet…

there are rooms all over the country sporting walls of Dead Salmon and Arsenic. Or how about Baby’s Bottom, Hamster Cuddles, Atomic Vomit Green or Old Canal? All real colour names!

arsenic farrow and ball

Image Credit: Arsenic Farrow & Ball

Of course you wouldn’t expect me to be a magnolia walls kind of person myself, but next time you’re leafing through colour charts, see if you’re responding to the colours or the names they’ve got.  You might see them in a completely different way.

Victoria x