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University of San Carlos – Technological Center

College of Architecture and Fine Arts – Interior Design

ID 313 Color Dynamics and Period Color


In the early settlements of colonial America, interior spaces were dominated by

the natural color of the woods that made up floors, ceilings, and the paneling of
most walls. Natural brick was the material of fireplaces and chimneybreasts.
Plaster was used occasionally, usually of the beige or tan tones of the sand in its
make up rather than white. Chromatic color sometimes appeared in colors of the
fabrics used in making braided rugs and quilts. With the increasing wealth and
sophistication that developed in the 18th century, English influence and English
design practice introduced more use of chromatic color. Wood paneling was
sometimes painted in tones of gray, soft blue or green, or occasionally in red –
brown. Wood trims including moldings and trims around the doors and windows,
and doors themselves were frequently painted in colors selected to relate to the
textiles of upholstery or drapery. Floors were sometimes painted in solid colors or
in patterns of varied colors. Colorful stenciled decoration was often used on
plastered or wood-surfaced walls. Textiles and wallpapers with elaborate
patterns came into use both as imports and as domestic production developed
American made. Chinese motifs became well known and popular, often using
yellow as dominant color or with the soft tones of Chinese landscape painting.
Toward the end of the 18th century, the Federal period introduced a rising use of
varied colors drawn from the increasingly available colorful textiles for drapery
and upholstery, which used bright greens, deeper blues, gold and tones of red.

The term “American Colonial” is applied to all permanent buildings constructed in

the American Colonies, from their initial settlement in 1607, to their gaining in
independence from Britain in 1783. Covering virtually a 200 – year span, the
description is thus very broad and really embraces two distinct architectural
phases: the Settlement period, up to the 1720’s; and the Georgian (or Palladian /
classical) period thereafter.



The American Colonial style took root in the

early 1700’s, and was a reflection of the dreams
and aspirations of the early colonists – and of
their growing affluence. This attractive style
continued until the American Revolution, when
its appeal subsided. It was revived in the 1880’s
and since then its popularity has continued
The early 1600s saw the beginning of the great tide of emigration from Europe to
the North America, with the first of the English colonist arriving I Jamestown,
Virginia on May 14, 1607.

Often leaving their homeland to escape political and religious persecution, and
with few possessions, the early colonists nevertheless did bring something with
them – the architectural and decorating styles of their homelands.

The Colonial Style of the early – to –mid 1700s was a blend of contemporary
English influences – William and Mary (1689-1702), Queen Anne (1702-1714),
Georgian (1714-1830) and the furniture maker Thomas Chippendale (1718-
1779), intermingled with a new American vernacular.

Notable architectural traits include a pitched

roof, a centrally placed chimney and entryway,
and evenly spaced, shuttered windows and sit
directly beneath the roofline.

This classic Colonial look is almost an

architectural expression of early American
ideals: simple, with forthright lines, attractive
but unaffected colors, and minimal
ornamentation, perhaps in the form of
decorative trim or a weathervane.

Both inside and the out, the American Colonial style is more traditional and
conservative, with less formality and ornamentation than the English and
European styles of the same period.

Multiple colors were often used when painting home interiors and exteriors. The
paint hues selected tended to reflect the status and affluence of the household.

Interiors – in the less affluent Colonial homes, earth toned

colors were most often chosen. White creamy yellows,
almonds, ochre’s, reddish and chocolate browns, beiges,
taupes, and muted greens were common. The pigments and
dyes came from native plants, soils, and minerals.

In affluent homes, color choices were broader. Because blue

pigment was rare and therefore expensive, it was a color
many people aspired to. It became one of the signature
colors of the era.
Also common were various shades of green, ranging from clean pastel, sea and
grass shades, to deep muted olives. Pink were also popular – especially in
bedrooms, dining rooms and parlors. Red was most often used as an accent
color, notably inside cabinets and china hutches.

Shades of gray, black and deep brown were employed for wood trim and
floorboards, and were common to nearly all homes.

Interior Colors

Windy Pine

Roasted Pepper

Strawberry Rose Aspen Aura

Pecan Sandie Topiary Tint

Peach Bud Rejuvenate

Vermont Cream Pensive Sky

Fossil Butte Seven Seas

Gold Buff Distance

Calm Air Blue Fox

Oat Straw Anonymous

Dark Ash

Powder Sand Beluga

Exteriors – White was the most common color used. For wealthier households,
blue were the popular choice for home exteriors.

Beiges, grays, yellow ochres and cream were also used. Dark chocolate brown,
reddish brown, and deep green were often seen as exterior accents for doors,
trims and shutters.

Exterior Colors

Mayan Red Mesa

Spanish Raisin Warm Glow

Chutney Brown Hampton Green

Toffee Crunch Ocean Pearl

Ashwood Billowy Down

Lemon Pepper Heron

Woven Basket Gray Area


Colonial 18th century interior décor was simple, conservative and restrained,
typified by elegant woods, graceful curves and colorful painted surfaces.

Furniture – Middle and lower class homes tended to use more American-crafted
pieces. This comfortable, elegant furniture was often made out of walnut, maple
or pine, in classic Queen Anne styling (with curving cabriole legs), or simple
Windsor styling (saddle-shaped seats and spindle backs).

More affluent homeowners aspired to sophisticated European tastes. They

imported rich Georgian wall paneling, elaborate Chippendale furnishings, finely
woven Oriental rugs, luxury fabrics like silk damasks, and British and French-
loomed brocades and tapestries, often in vast cost.

Fabrics – Wool was the staple fabric of the time, but cotton and linen became
more prevalent towards the end of the 18th century. These fabrics were often
hand-dyed and were used for curtains, table and bed covers, and handcrafted

Wealthier families sought out rich, imported fabrics patterned in paisleys, flowers
and birds. Embroidery was a valued art, with designs raging from simple leaves,
flowers and vines, to complex samplers portraying landscapes, bible verses or
village scenes.

Floors and Fireplaces – Floors were generally simple, unpolished wide-plank oak
or pine. Fireplaces, the center of the household and essential for light and
warmth, were a decorative focal point. They were surrounded by wood paneling
or cabinetry, either stained (if high quality), or painted to match the walls.

Accessories – Pewter and silver accessories were popular throughout the period,
and grandfather clocks were prized family possessions.

Multiple colors were often used when painting home interiors and exteriors. The
paint hues selected tended to reflect the status and affluence of the household.

Collections. Look for pewter accessories, such

as candlesticks, pitchers, vases, mugs, and
other items.

Tip: Group pewter pieces along with heirloom

china or glassware in a simple cabinet or hutch,
or on a high shelf surrounding the room.

Quilts. Handmade traditional quilts are an icon of

Early American craftsmanship.

Tip: A wall-hung antique quilt will add great

presence to any room. You can also use small
remnants of a larger quilt as cushion covers.
Portraits. Straightforward family portraits in oils
were an important part of the Colonial home.

Tip: For a traditional look, frame oil portraits with

a simple frame constructed of wooden molding.
Finish the molding with a coat of flat black paint.

Lighting. Candlesticks and wall sconces made of

silver or pewter were essential for light in
Colonial homes.

Tip: Use simple white beeswax candles

(preferably tapered) to create a period look.

Ceilings. The earliest American Colonial

houses had low ceilings with exposed joists
and beams, between which the wooden
floorboards of the floor above were left clearly
visible. By the late 17th century, plain lath-and-
plaster ceilings began to be installed in new
houses. The favored finish was flat-painted
lime-washed – usually white or pale off-white
colors. Towards the end of period, more
flamboyant plaster ceilings appeared in
grander houses. It is interesting to note that as
the colonies moved closer to establishing
independence, native North American motifs,
such as tobacco leaf were increasingly
incorporated into these designs.

Walls. A variety of wall treatments was employed in colonial houses. Plain

plaster, and lath-and-plaster in-fills with the studs left exposed, appeared early on
the Colonial period, while in the 18th century, plaster fields were sometimes
combined with dado wainscoting. However, given the abundance of timber in the
Colonies, full height wall paneling was particularly prevalent in larger and smaller
houses alike – although the grander the house, the more elaborate the paneling.
For example: unpretentious, chamfered, tongue and groove planks are used
bordered at the ceiling with a simple cornice molding. Made of soft wood, they
are characteristically flat painted in green – a favorite color from the Colonial
palette that also includes earth tones of red, brown, almond yellow and slightly
brighter blues. Fashionable and more decorative paint finishes includes marbling
and grained simulations of expensive hardwoods.
Paneled doors, typically with two panels in low relief began to appear in better
colonial houses in the late 17th century, and more elaborate Georgian style raised
panel doors with classical surrounds became increasingly common from the
1730s onward. However, most 17th century houses had simpler battened doors,
constructed of vertical boards nailed together with two or more horizontal boards
at the rear. Most were made of softwood and painted in one of the darker colors
from the colonial palette, notably earth browns, reds or greens. Better quality
hardwoods were usually stained in a natural wood color.

Floors. Although the earliest colonial houses had compacted earth floors, the butt
jointed pine floorboards, unstained and unvarnished is typical of most houses.
Marginally more sophisticated variations include tongue and groove and spline-
jointed boards – the latter consisting of grooved boards joined by thin strips of
wood. In the late 18th century, some wooden floors were painted in imitation of
stone. Real stone floors were rare and were usually confined to halls and

While European or Oriental carpets were laid

in the finest houses from the early 18 th
century onwards, rush matting rugs or
painted canvass floor-cloths were the staple
floor covering of colonial houses. The
diagonal check pattern which was sometimes
marbled was particularly popular.

Lighting. Chandeliers and pendant lamps

were very rare in Colonial houses prior to the
1750s and were mainly made of wood, iron or
tinned sheets of iron, rather than glass and
crystals. Thus the primary source of lighting
for most of the Colonial period were the glow
from the fireplace, rush candles, oil lamps, Betty lamps (boat or saucer shaped
lamps filled with grease or oil) and candle sconces. The simplest were made of
tinned sheet iron; more elaborate versions incorporated small concave mirror to
enhance the illumination.


Neo-classical styles of architecture and decoration began to cross the Atlantic

from Britain to mainland Europe through the émigré architects and pattern books
just prior to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, generally referred to as
Federal style. American neo-classicism was initially based on Adam style, with
exteriors characterized by delicate columns, arch top windows and fanlights,
pateras rosettes, urns and scrolling foliage. However, early federal style also
embraced a purer, sterner, Roman based neo-classicism which by the end of the
18th century had largely superseded Adam style. Promoted by Thomas Jefferson,
third President of the United States, as an appropriate architectural language for
the new republic, this “Roman Revival” was partly inspired by English Palladian
models, partly of French neo-classicism during the reign of Louis XVI and partly
by original Roman buildings that had recently been discovered in Southern

During the first three decades of the 19th

century until the emergence of the Greek
Revival style, French neo-classical
continued to exert a considerable
influence especially in the adoption of
Empire style for the interior decoration
and ornament of finer American houses.
Empire style originated in France in the
late 1790s under the patronage of
Napoleon Bonaparte and his Empress
Josephine, and through designers
Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine’s post revolutionary restorations of French
palaces. Inherently opulent, the style was characterized by the use of Imperial
Roman ornament and decorations augmented with Etruscan, Ancient Egyptian
and military motifs, applied not only to architectural fixtures and fittings but also to
furniture, wallpapers, carpets, curtains, light fittings and decorative artifacts.

Ceiling. Federal ceilings were ranged from wooden boards (usually whitewashed)
in the simplest houses, through flat plaster in large dwellings to flat plaster
embellished with decorative moldings in the grandest houses. More flamboyant
ceilings were also bordered or segmented with bands of neo-classical motifs
such as guilloche or scrolling foliage sometimes highlighted with gilding.

Some cornices were relatively plain and were derived from the concave cyma
recta moldings used in classical orders of architecture. Deeper and more
elaborate cornices featured rows of other classical motifs such as anthemia,
swags and tails, vases and beading.

Walls. The most notable development in wall treatments during the Federal
period was the gradual elimination of full-height wainscoting favored during the
Colonial era. Instead, many walls were divided horizontally into a dado, field and
frieze. Some typical configurations included a wainscot or papered dado (above
a wooded skirting board), a flat painted or wallpapered field and a plaster or
papered frieze. Whatever the material in the finer houses the dado and frieze
were usually embellished with neo-classical motifs, popular wallpaper patterns
for the field were floral, stripes and pictorials of either classical or contemporary
scenes. The alternative and more austerely classical arrangement was to divide
the walls vertically into panels – the division marked by the paper cut-out or paint
moldings. Flat paint or painted faux marble were usual finishes for the areas
between the divisions.

Federal windows were distinguished from their Colonial counterparts by thinner

glazing bars and larger panes of glass. The windows in grander houses often
extended from near ceiling to the floor and feature architrave embellished with
neo-classical detailing such as fluting and corner pateras, some were also set in
recessed arches.

The best Federal fire surrounds were made of marble, although painted wooden
ones (with marble slips) were also in widespread use. Some are relatively plain,
more decorative surrounds featured neo-classical motif such as vases, swags,
garlands, pateras and mythological scenes.

Floors. Pine boards were the standard flooring in Federal houses and often
stenciled with neo-classical motifs or diamond patterns. Floor coverings include
straw matting, stenciled or marbled floor-cloths and in the grandest houses
carpets with floral or neo-classical motifs set in geometric patterns.


The Empire style overlaps the Federal era and dates from 1820 to 1860. The
period is officially known as Greek Revival, which was the exterior architectural
style of the period. The interiors, however, are known as American Empire.
Overall, this style has became more popular than Federal today, inspiring the
design of countless contemporary traditional interiors.

American furniture makers began to break away from things English, and took
inspiration from Neoclassical, Grecian style of French designers of the French
empire period. Napoleon’s admiration for the Roman Empire, his trip to Egypt,
and several archeological expeditions to Greece and Rome all influenced
French, and then American styles and décor. The general appearance is often
related to neo-classicism since the elegant lines are similar to the classical forms.

Fewer architects made their marks during this period. Rather, every thing was
adapted to look Empire. The Empire style developed in America about the same
time as the Victorian era. Both enjoyed the display of vivid design, sometimes
refined, sometimes overwhelming, but both rich and fearless.

American Empire encompasses the period of 1805 – 1830. Late Empire refers to
pieces made between 1830 and 1860, however, this term is often questionable
and in debate among furniture collectors and experts due to the anomalous form
of the later period which served as transition to the Victorian style. These pieces
had very little in common with their French counterparts.
 Strong, bold forms and furnishings similar to those Napoleon himself
would have used and looked like a revival of classical Rome.
 American version was much plainer than the French style.
 Simple often massive, yet graceful curves and dark woods and veneers
 The curved lines of ancient Greek furniture (klismos) were used in leg of
tables and chairs.
 Interesting transition from the simplicity of decoration and the line found in
the 18th century furniture to the more ponderous and heavy ornamented
styles of the Victorian era.
 While many consider the period to be excessive in ornamentation, careful
study and searching can produce some marvelous finds of beautifully
decorated furniture with crisp lines.

 Lyre motif and occasionally a bird’s wing shape or dolphin’s head and
eagle (become popular after the adoption of the United States Constitution
in 1789).
 Fruits (pineapple), flowers, foliage, cornucopias, Pillars and scrolls were
often incorporated

 Mahogany, oak, pine maple and ash was common wood used in American
Empire style
 Stains are often in very bright red-mahogany
 The dominant decorative medium for American Empire pieces consisted
of painted designs and stencils. Often the painting or stenciling would be
gilded. These types of inexpensive but decorative chairs were known as
“Fancy chairs” or “Hitchcock chairs”. Most of these pieces were painted
black. After 1820 stenciling was used almost exclusively.
 Tables were made with marble top.

Two palettes existed side-by-side – one strong and powerful, the other muted
and subdued. The strong colors include imperial red (rich orange-cast red),
empire green (a deep green), Napoleonic gold (rich, clear), purple, tobacco
brown (medium value, lustrous).

Fireplaces were painted black then streaked with white to imitate white marble. In
the White House the Red room and the Green room are prime examples of the
American Empire style.

Softer versions of these intense colors were preferred by some who felt subtle
hues to live with. Known by today’s name, these hues include mauve (faded
imperial red), sage green (neutralized empire green), spun honey gold (pale
Napoleonic gold), and gray violet.
Long draperies were the order of the day, and they were seen as pairs of
asymmetrical panels. Drapery pairs were operable as traverse hardware become
available during this era. Stationary panels may have paddled on the floor but not

Asymmetry was in vogue, and draperies took on the look of Roman toga, often
draped across the entire window and tied back on the side with ropes and
tassels. Layers of fabric were in fashion; semi-sheers beneath and decorative
fabric on top.

Broadloom carpeting became widely available in strong colors and geometric
designs, although some Oriental and French rugs were still used in many rooms.
Marble floors and floor-cloths faux painted or stenciled (with Greek fretwork)
were popular.

Walls often were covered with wallpaper, murals of distant places to architectural
or faux stone design. Marbleizing and other faux paint technique were popular.
Moldings became very deep and sometimes elaborate. Cast plaster anaglyptic or
decorative detailing, were frequently used on walls and ceilings.

American Empire – the heavy, masculine
and commanding pieces, many of which
were very popular today as adapted by
The Regency pieces designed by Duncan
Phyfe and others show refined curves as
seen in tables and chairs with splayed leg
and scrolled, turned backrests evoking
Grecian elegance.