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Banish the beige and color us confident

May 27, 2003|MARY MCNAMARA

Larry WILCOX and Kathy Harrison painted their house the same color as their garden hose, which was accidental -- who knew garden hoses were colored "lily pad"? -- but it turned out exactly the way they wanted it. A bright, bold aquamarine reminiscent of Brighton resorts and motels "down at the shore," the two-story home beams from a hillside just above Silver Lake Boulevard like a forgotten Easter egg. At midday, Wilcox says, the street that is their frontyard glows an almost disco-like blue.

"On this street all the houses look the same," he says, pointing to a block of homes all Band-Aid drab in those buffs and light grays so inexplicably popular with local developers and real estate agents hoping for a quick turn-over. "We were tired of being the house in the middle. Now you can't miss us."

True, but for how long? All over Los Angeles, people are ditching the beige, the white, the cream, the off-gray gray and splashing on fire-engine red, orange, deep brick and acid yellow, dark purple, Miami pink, greens of all shades and deep, royal blue.

The Pacific Design Center was once so easy to spot, so poignantly alone in its cobalt majesty; nowadays, the Blue Whale is surrounded by a school of fin-flashing pilot fish decked out in the colors of the Caribbean by way of Whoville. Condos in Santa Monica are bright ochre with slate blue trim, storefronts on east Sunset Boulevard are stacked up in fall colors like a new batch of turtlenecks from Lands' End. Even Park LaBrea, once the industry standard of inoffensive beige, has gone gold, if only to compete with the Italian-villa-orange walls of its Vegas-style offspring, the Palazzo, which has recently risen beside it.

In a decade, this city has changed color not just demographically, but literally. When the now-defunct Red restaurant opened its crimson doors on Beverly Boulevard 10 years ago, people drove from miles around just to see it. Now red's the new gray, and if you really want to stand out, you'd better throw on, as one house not far from Wilcox's has, an emerald green trim.

At the rate we're going, in 2013 "lily pad" may be what they're painting the hospitals and penal institutions.

Deep hue, deep meaning

Color, like any form of fashion, is cyclical, and as with any form of fashion, there are many people happy to tell you what it all means. Some of this is fairly obvious.

Neutral colors are considered "safe," which basically means no one will egg your house just because it's beige. The same is not necessarily true of fuchsia. Pale colors are also much easier to categorize and control, which is why some of the more power-mad homeowner associations come equipped with color charts that tend toward the clapboard Colonial -- the understated elegance of more refined times.

This is a slight misreading not just of history itself -- how elegant, by our standards anyway, could a society with slavery and no indoor plumbing really be? -- but of the history of paint, according to John Lahey, owner of Fine Paints of Europe, which is based in Vermont. Colonial towns were almost always brightly colored, he says, because deep, bold colors are a sign of confidence in the future.

Lahey's company specializes in rich colors, and Los Angeles is its biggest market, which he finds a tiny bit surprising given the current economic climate. "I would expect to see a return to the safe colors, the blacks and whites and beiges," he says. "But that is not at all what's happening."

The de-beiging of Los Angeles may be more reflective of emotional than economic mood. Bright colors are a way of announcing ascendancy. The high crosses of Ireland, the temples at Machu Picchu and the Parthenon were all once painted with brilliant reds and blues and yellows. In the collective imagination, however, they are gray, which makes drab colors seem somehow more significant, more permanent.

Too often we think of color as childish, whimsical, frivolous even. Historical landmarks in this country tend to be on the pale or brickish side -- it's the White House, not the Ochre House -- as if by settling into gray, beige and pastel we assumed a mantle of late adulthood and maturity.

Which may explain why this city has for many years been stuck in stucco, trapped in terra cotta. Even the houses that were not strictly Spanish dutifully followed the pale color coordinates. A seashell pink, perhaps, a very light firefly or, for your more traditional clapboards, that Cape Cod blue might do.

Other than that, it was taupe, strictly taupe, as if living in Los Angeles was quite

wild enough, thank you very much.

Our cars could be cherry red, our clothing tangerine, our hair pomegranate and puce, but our homes remained the color Crayola once mistakenly called "flesh," and that would prove to the rest of the world that we were boring old grown-ups, right? Right?

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