Shelter magazines and decor TV have lavished attention on these lush, photogenic paints.
Retail is also responding. Many Southern California stores now carry Donald Kaufman Colors, which are made in New York, and Fine Paints of Europe from Woodstock, Vt. The Los Angeles showroom of the London-based Farrow & Ball also serves as a retail outlet and is specifically designed to show how various shades look under artificial and natural light. In addition, it offers hand-painted swatch cards and sells small pots with enough paint to cover a 3-foot-square section of a wall. Priced at $5, the annual global sales for these samples are well over a million pots, Ephson says.
The nesting juggernaut has created an educated consumer, who is more likely to appreciate that the higher-priced spreads are Earth friendly. With some of the strictest laws on the books, California limits the sale of oil-based paints, generally considered to be superior in quality and durability. The new water-based boutique paints have some of the lowest ratings for volatile organic compounds, or VOC, on the market.
"They aren't smelly," says Portola's Rizal Coleman, "and they don't give me a gnarly headache."
So what if they're expensive. "They're really an investment in your family's health," argues Organic Style editor Jeanie Pyun. "It's nice to know that you can have beautiful colors and interesting surfaces without bringing more chemicals home."
Sticker shock remains the big obstacle. "Everybody likes a bargain," observes John Lahey, founder of Fine Paints of Europe. "But that $12 gallon of wall paint with a milkshake consistency is basically chalk and water." The only federal and state standard that commercial paint manufacturers have to observe, he says, is not to use mercury and lead.
"I could open a factory in L.A. making red paint out of ketchup and water and be completely compliant with every regulation in the U.S.," he says.
Lahey, who in 1987 started the firm that now produces Martha's Fine Paints, is an advocate for quality control. "I'm old enough to remember what a great paint job looked like," he says. "We now have three generations who have never seen one."
The shift began with the advent of acrylic and latex paints in the early 1950s. They were user-friendly, but cheap, with built-in obsolescence for a new generation that changed residences more often and, consequently, painted more frequently.
In the midst of a shaky economy with sky-high real estate prices, today's homeowners are more likely than ever to invest in high-quality finishes. "Homes are fashion statements and we're seeing a return to elegance," says Farrow & Ball's Ephson. "Even though the redecorating cycle is shorter than the life span of paint, there still is no cheaper, more dramatic way to transform a room."
The argument is even more compelling if you paint by numbers, setting your budget for long-term value. According to Nick Cichielo, chief executive of the Paint and Decorating Retailers Assn., over 85% of the charges on a contracted paint job are for labor. The average room requires three cans of paint. The average gallon of paint costs $18.67. If you specify three cans of $50-a-gallon premium paint -- which tends to cover more square feet and requires fewer coats -- the additional cost will be less than $100 per room.
While Sydney Harbour's Kahn observes that a fresh coat of couture paint "can give your house a 10% to 15% additional valuation," the decision is more emotional than economical. "Why would a person spend that kind of money on a can of paint?" Kahn asks. "For the same reason a person would buy a good bottle of wine or a gourmet meal. The beauty of it enriches your life."
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It's a world of color out there
Some of the stores and manufacturers offering the new wall finishes:
Catalina Paints Inc.
6941 Topanga Canyon Blvd.
1130 Santa Monica Blvd.
Cox Paint Center
11153 Washington Blvd.
2820 Thousand Oaks Blvd.
Farrow & Ball
8475 Melrose Ave.
3534 Larga Ave.
1801 W. Sunset Blvd.
12442 Moorpark St.
1002 S. Pacific Coast Highway
Auro Natural Paints
by Miller Paint Co.
Fine Paints of Europe
Farrow & Ball
Sydney Harbour Paint Co.
Old methods for a new look