Wine snobs, step aside: There's a new breed of aesthetes who believe that a bottle of rose is a bottle of rose, but a can of Sydney Harbour "La Vie En Rose" is intoxicating. These are the enthusiasts who get high on the color, clarity and depth of household paint.
Well, not quite the interior latex you'd find at the corner hardware store. With prices starting at $45 per gallon, you might prefer to call it an "architectural finish," as does Michael Kahn, proprietor of Sydney Harbour Paint Co.
Last year, Americans spent $131 million on premium wall coatings. That's a drop in the bucket compared to the $7.6 billion annually spent on household paint, but this high-end niche market is growing at twice the rate of the industry, according to the Paint and Decorating Retailers Assn.
In Southern California, where homes are as much fashion statements as clothing and cars, sales are brisk. Los Angeles is the largest market for the Vermont-based Fine Paints of Europe, which produces a Martha Stewart collection.
Ironically, many of these grand, new wall finishes have common roots, dating centuries to the European peasant class. These humble folks painted their homes in various combinations of milk, lime, chalk, pigments, binder and water, creating surface textures that took on a rich patina over time. This organic, gently distressed finish has captured the fancy of contemporary designers and do-it-yourselfers who for years attempted to replicate the look with modern latex paints.
Now, boutique manufacturers such as the Los Angeles-based companies Sydney Harbour and Portola combine old-fashioned ingredients with modern manufacturing technology to put the look in a can. The resulting finishes are ideally suited for sunny Los Angeles.
Premium paint manufacturers say they create the most vibrant or subtle shades through custom pigmentation that Home Depot can't replicate. And it's color that's driving the surge of interest in luxury wall coatings.
"Of all the reader e-mails we get, more are queries regarding paint color than anything else," says Margaret Russell, editor in chief of Elle Decor. The magazine recently featured a bathroom painted oxblood from the trendy New York-based Donald Kaufman Color Collection. A dining room in the same residence was done in "Mouse's Back," a mossy gray by the traditional English paint manufacturer Farrow & Ball, which earlier this year opened its first West Coast showroom in Los Angeles on Melrose Avenue.
"We've always been known as the place to go for the right color," says Martin Ephson, a co-owner of Farrow & Ball. The company bases its selections on antique color cards and paints developed for restorations of British National Trust homes. "We produce the shades we do because they work with traditional or contemporary decorating schemes. That's why they've survived."
The trend toward period decorating began more than a decade ago. Major paint manufacturers were slow to respond, opening the window for old firms such as Farrow & Ball and newcomers including Donald Kaufman, who created custom colors for contemporary architectural projects.
During the last few years, notes decor specialist Judith Miller, author of "The Style Sourcebook," "there has been a move away from the purist approach to period decorating. People are drawing inspiration from palettes from other regions, like the hot 'candy' colors traditionally associated with rural Mexican architecture and the earth-pigmented colors of the Mediterranean."
This is welcome news for Susan Sargent, author of "The Comfort of Color," who developed Grover Farm, a collection for Fine Paints of Europe. "For the last 50 years we have been in a dull cycle color-wise with neutrals and chilly white interiors," she says. "People have had it with that boring plain thing. Now if you want fuchsia and lime green, these high-end paints have much greater proportions of numbers of pigments in them as opposed to the universal tints that most manufacturers use. With luxury paints, you get these little specks of color that reflect when light comes onto the wall and that gives you something special."
For those who use premium paints, this seemingly subtle difference is worth every penny. Commercial paints often look muddy because black and white are used to make colors darker and lighter. Although the cost of reproducing the antique formulas may be high, the results are more dramatic. The ground-up limestone in a lime wash reacts with carbon dioxide to create crystals that absorb and reflect light, so the color changes throughout the day.
The market for luxury paint is built on such special effects. Metallic blends have a satiny sheen. Distemper has a powdery soft surface. Venetian plaster -- these days, that might be dry-wall mud impregnated with pigment -- is applied with a trowel and then sanded and polished relentlessly to resemble marble. Paint made with ground stone evokes a sparkling vista of wind-swept sand.