Red elicits many images, none of them shy. Fire engines and Ferraris, stop signs and stoplights, Valentine's Day hearts and the devil himself: Red is arresting, warm and evocative.
And yet, the apparent duality of the color's characteristics -- that it can be both stimulating and comforting -- has made it one of the most enduring hues in home furnishings.
Like a -- of chili pepper in a stew, red can spice up a room, but its strength can also be intimidating. Those who can handle red as part of an Oriental rug pattern may hate it as a searing color in a black-and-white modern setting.
"I heard someone say years ago that every room should have a touch of red," said New York interior designer Mario Buatta. "It energizes. It makes you look good, too, because of the way it reflects on your skin. It gives a room zip, and corny though it may sound, heart. Red sort of underlines everything. I often use a deep red ribbon on the bottom of upholstery, because it gives furniture a lift."
The color does seem to inspire deep emotions such as passion, love, anger, courage and embarrassment. According to the Pantone Color Institute, red actually makes the heart beat faster, the pulse rate increase and the adrenalin begin to flow.
The questions are: What shade of red, and just how much red do you want to use in your home? What we're talking about is the red that most of us were introduced to as toddlers with our first box of Crayolas. From its purest primary hue, red can assume a number of shades when it's blended with other colors. Add yellow and it moves toward orange and even sienna browns. A little blue can bring it to the shade of red beets. A touch of white with pure red or blends can produce rich roses or peachy pinks.
Brought into the home, red can be as important as you let it be. At a minimum, you can introduce a glint of red in a pillow fringe, a carpet weave or a single flower. Go a little bolder with place mats on a table or a chair or sofa. Play it to the max, and cover walls, ceilings and even floors.
However you use it, the versatility of red is one reason for its long-enduring appeal in the home. The color suits equally period rooms reflecting Colonial Williamsburg or high-tech Italian design, interpreted in red leather and red enameled steel. It plays a key role in Oriental design. And it's at home in Western or Southwestern American country style.
History of warmth
"Red has an almost unbroken history of warmth, comfort, and a sense of richness," said Margaret Walch, associate director of the Color Association of the United States, which is based in New York City. "It literally was present from the first cave painting."
The secret of red in the home is knowing how to use it. The most intense application is all-out red-on-red, in which walls, window treatments, rug, and all upholstery fabrics feature red. This is perhaps the trickiest to pull off. It requires an ability to put together complementary patterns in a way that isn't overpowering.
The bordello risk
An all-red room can run the risk of looking like a bordello. Even the White House got mixed reviews when Little Rock, Ark., decorator Kaki Hockersmith chose to decorate some of the rooms in the Victorian excessive style of mid-19th century, featuring large doses of red. Time magazine called it "risky." Newsweek sniped at the deep red silk drapes of the Lincoln Sitting Room, describing them as "Scarlett O'Hara Memorial swags."
Perhaps a safer way to use red, if you like a lot of it, is to create a backdrop with paint or wall covering, especially if most of the furnishings are neutral. Red walls were Chicago interior designer Janet Schirn's choice in her library. It's a small room, and the red cozies it up even more. "It is not possible for me to sit in my red study," said Ms. Schirn, "regardless of what I'm doing -- reading, listening to music, watching TV, writing letters -- more than 10 minutes and not feel better."
For a much grander look, Ms. Schirn heightened her rich red living room walls with creamy accents, in crown moldings, trims, silky draperies and a pair of damask upholstered chairs. The red is part of the Oriental rug, an identifying mark on the calligraphic paintings. A softer shade of the red upholsters another chair and graces a pillow. A crystal footed bowl is filled with red apples.
Or you might choose red to play a supporting role in a room, even though it doesn't play second fiddle very well. A single piece of furniture, such as a chair or a sofa in red, makes a dynamic statement. Even La-Z-Boy shed its conservative image with its red leather recliner, which makes a high-end look more affordable.
If you're uncertain about living with red for a long time, you might consider red slipcovers. In the Expressions Custom Furniture catalog, a pine dining table is enlivened with dining chairs covered in bright red with contrasting amethyst welting. That color burst calls attention to the red in place mats, napkins and the kilim rug.
Red pops even when it's used with other primaries. In a child's room designed for the furniture manufacturer This End Up, for example, red dominates other bold hues, grabbing attention on cafe curtains and valances, an area rug, top sheet and pillows. The solid red fabrics are even more intense than they would be in a pattern.
Accents are easy
If you are still shy about the color red, the easiest way to integrate the color into an interior is as an accent. Just see how touches of red in a mostly curry-colored room make it sing. Expressions shows a curry contemporary leather sectional that is hardly timid. The entertainment center in the room has diamond raised panels of aged ocher highlighted in eggplant. A sisal rug reflects the gold tones and adds texture. But the piquant flavor comes from the red -- the hand-cut maple screen, the geometric fabric upholstering on the channel-backed tub chairs and the red-tinged flowers -- in this case, ginger plants. Here, red clearly adds pizazz to a mostly monochromatic interior.
Red also is an effective accent to gray and black. Barbra Streisand's Malibu guest house, featured in Architectural Digest, was designed in art deco style in a palette dominated by #F different shades of red, from rose to burgundy.
"Red is the quintessential accent color," said Margaret Walch.
Even as part of a pattern, red stands out, especially when used with red accessories. In a setting that consists of the colorful beach glass vases that are available in such stores as the Pottery Barn and in its catalogs, the red vase stands out and, in turn, brings out the richness of the pretty multicolored fabric that is part of Eisenhart's "Interior Landscapes" collection.
Getting more play
With an increasing availability of furnishings, fabrics and accessories that feature red, the color is getting more play in home magazines today. Even manufacturers of utilitarian products have been seeing red -- as a fun accent. KitchenAid's classic mixer is available in red. Kohler has introduced a red sink set into a white kitchen counter for a sassy look.
We're emerging from one of the most conservative periods we've experienced in decades. As we hope for economic relief, we're ready for a color that will give us a lift.
"Red certainly fits the bill," says Ronna Griest, president of Expressions Custom Furniture. "Consumers are becoming more confident and daring in the colors they use in their homes. Red is a calling card for change because it is so dramatic and focused."
Screaming for red
Perhaps there's something in all of us that screams for a little red, whether it's an apple sitting on an end table, a vase filled with red gladiolas, a lush red blanket, a red sofa. Dress an English sitting room or a modern loft with a hint or a veil of red, and you'll feel its warmth.
Designer Schirn believes the color red transcends style trends. "If red was good 7,000 years ago, it's good today."
* Capel Inc., 831 N. Main St., Troy, N.C. 27371; (919) 576-6211
* Eisenhart Wallcoverings, P.O. Box 464, Hanover, Pa. 17331; (800) 726-3267
* Expressions Custom Furniture, Suite 103, 3636 I-10 Service Road South, Metairie, La. 70001; (504) 834-9222
* Kohler, Kohler, Wis. 53044; (414) 457-4441
* La-Z-Boy, 1284 N. Telegraph Road, Monroe, Mich. 48161; (313) 242-1444
* This End Up Furniture Co., 1850 Appleblossom Dr., Winchester, Va. 22601; (703) 665-0534