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YELLOW FEVER The new neutral of the '90s is warming walls everywhere

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Open almost any home magazine and you can't miss them: Like sunflowers sprouting in a summer field, yellow walls are popping up all over the place.

They range from barely-there hints of parchment and buttercream to screeching shades of Mello-Yello and Post-it Note. They can be traditional, like the Dijon gold walls of a Greek Revival staircase in Country Home. Or funky, like the acid-yellow walls of a retro '60s kitchen in a recent issue of Home magazine.

If pale pink walls were the rage of the '80s, then yellow walls (especially the softer, golden shades) are the new neutral of the '90s, says Valerie Moran, executive vice president of Grange Furniture, the American subsidiary of the French Meubles Grange.

Like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, it's a "comfort" color, Ms. Moran says. "It's a color that was always popular when a lot of us in our mid '30s and early '40s grew up. My mother had a pale yellow kitchen my entire lifetime until I was an adult. Many of my friends' kitchens growing up were yellow and avocado green, or yellow and orange, or yellow and brown.

"It's a color we associate with warmth and harmony."

It's also a color that's tough to get right. A couple of steps up or down the color chart and you can end up with walls that look less like candlelight and more like a caution light.

"Yellow is particularly tricky if you haven't used it a lot," warns Washington designer Mary Douglas Drysdale, whose daffodil-yellow-and-white room for a National Symphony Orchestra Decorator Show House appeared in the March issue of House Beautiful. "It tends to be a lot stronger on the wall than one expects."

Ms. Drysdale rarely uses any color exactly as it appears on the chart; she usually asks the painter to tone it down a notch or two by decreasing the ratio of pigment to base. For her own dining room -- which features bleached oak floors, a cream- colored wainscoting, Empire table, and silk draperies in shades of gold and ocher -- she chose a bold yellow wall paint, Benjamin Moore No. 298, and decreased the amount of pigment by half.

"It's very French," Ms. Drysdale says of the resulting buttercup yellow. "It's a color that looks good in the day for anyone who gives a lot of luncheons, which I don't, although I'm always imagining that I will. It also works very well at night."

Obviously, a color that works well for one person won't necessarily do the trick for someone else. Natural and artificial light, wood tones, fabric and furniture choices all affect the way a color looks and feels in a room. Before buying several gallons of custom-mixed paint, bring a quart home and try it out. (To test a color, paint a 3-by-3-foot section on two walls and check it several times during the day and night.)

And don't feel bad if you miss the first time. Ms. Drysdale confesses that she usually samples at least four or five shades before she gets it right.

Here are other designers' picks for the "perfect yellow":

* Benjamin Moore No. 304. Baltimore interior designer Wynelle Seiler recently used this buttercream yellow in a dining room with clear oak furniture and floral prints. It would look equally good as a backdrop for mahogany or cherry woods, she says. "It's a pretty color that doesn't kill anything. It enhances rather than standing out in the foreground."

* Benjamin Moore Nos. 309, 332 and 322. The first is a peachy yellow, the second is a little stronger and the third is the color of sunflowers. "Use [the third] with caution," says Vicente Wolf, a New York designer best known for his all-white rooms. Mr. Wolf, whose celebrity clients include Twyla Tharp, Rita Morena and Richard Avedon, recently returned from a trip to Ireland, where he fell in love with the yellow rooms of the manor houses he stayed in.

"Since I've been back, I've done three jobs with yellow," he says, adding that the color looks best when accented with pure white trim. "It's a crowd pleaser. People immediately respond to it."

* Benjamin Moore Nos. 317, 318, 325. Mark Hampton prefers strong shades of yellow with glazed rather than flat surfaces. "The one thing that can happen with yellow that I don't like is it can look like kitchen paint or a schoolroom," says the designer, who was part of a committee that recently redecorated the Blue Room at the White House. A glazed surface adds elegance, Mr. Hampton says. To keep yellow from turning sour, he adds a touch of umber, ocher or even a tiny drop of red.

* Duron No. 4540-W (Sponge Cake). Crofton interior designer Kelly Sachette Long chose bright yellow as a backdrop for a bedroom done in strong shades of periwinkle blue and raspberry. Because the room also gets lots of morning sunlight, Ms. Long steered clear of yellows with hints of green or gold. "Morning sun is very yellow itself," she says. "So I definitely wanted a yellow that had a lot of white in it. . . . It's fresher and cleaner looking."

* Duron No. 4583-M (Lemondrop) or No. 4633-D (Glitter). Lemonade-colored walls may not be everyone's cup of tea. But if you've got the guts to pull it off, Baltimore designer Laura H. Karll suggests pairing it with orange, brown or even tomato red. "If you want a room to be cheery, this would certainly perk you up," she says.

* Benjamin Moore No. 335. Likewise, Victor Liberatore, of the Baltimore firm of Louis Mazor Inc., chose a shade of lemon-yellow for the bedroom of a client suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. "The first thing she wanted to see when she woke up was the bright color," Mr. Liberatore says. "It connoted warmth for her."

* Benjamin Moore No. 295. For the romantic bedroom pictured in a recent Grange ad, Valerie Moran wanted creamy butter-colored walls. (The room, which looks like it could be in a country home in Provence, features a cherry sleigh bed and armoire, filmy white curtains and flower-filled window boxes.)

Ms. Moran first rolled on a base coat of the primary paint, which had been toned down with white. Then she ragged on two more layers, each with a little less white but diluted heavily with water. Finally, she painted the woodwork pure white.

Ragging (applying paint with a rag) is a good technique to use when you're unsure of a color, because it allows you to build up the intensity a little at time, Ms. Moran says. (It also hides any imperfections in the plaster.) The result, even though this job was just for the camera, is a room that looks sunny and warm during the day and soft and romantic at night.

"It gives a feeling of candlelight," Ms. Moran says, "even without the candles."

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