Color is about visual relationships and what makes our world
vibrant. That means choosing colors is generally the last and most
difficult choice when making design decisions for the kitchen and
bath. It’s always easier to work on the space, the plan, the shape,
and all the details of a project in a black-and-white world before
Choosing colors is like staging a play and then choosing the
right actors to bring complexity and subtlety to the characters,
giving the play focus and balance so that it truly reflects a slice
of life. Color is built of layers of tones, hues, chroma, and
intensity all unpredictable, subtle and complex. It can also reveal
character in materials; and some color theorists claim that color
can affect mood.
There are no wrong colors in
nature. However brash, bold, extreme or subdued, nature’s colors
always seem right, or appropriate. A brief snorkeling excursion in
the tropical waters of Hawaii reveals the broad range and depth of
nature’s palette. From the pink coral and purple urchins to the
teeming multi-color banded reef fish and tangerine starfish, there
is no hesitation, no restraint.
On the other hand, in the upper valley reaches of the Grand
Tetons by a river in the early winter, the colors of the river rock
and sand or the bare branches stripped of foliage are often an
assortment of subdued, washed-out grays and browns. The only bright
color to be found may be a single leaf clinging to a twig
displaying the faded red rust of late fall. It all seems and feels
In nature, color follows the seasons and geography. Color is
constantly changing in the natural world and, yet, is relatively
static in our homes. We alter our dress to accommodate the seasonal
weather and fashion dictates of the latest color trends. However,
we usually don’t change our wall colors to match the seasons, nor
do we change the cabinet or countertop colors.
Therefore, our selection of finishes and fixtures for our homes
are choices we must live with through all the seasons, year after
year. We simply don’t have the luxury of changing finishes and
fixtures at the whim of trends. And that is probably what makes
color decisions and choices in most aspects of our environment so
daunting and fearful: We know we have to live with our choices for
a relatively long time.
When it comes to which color choices work and which do not, it’s
all about context. While in a commercial setting, countertops can
be flamboyant with flashy colors that excite one’s visual sense, I
believe that good design in residential kitchens and baths is about
choosing materials and colors that are appropriate (less intense
colors) to the overall feeling of the project.
The fear of making the wrong color decision can cause paralysis.
However, after many years of imposing my decisions (with plenty of
trepidation on both sides, I might add) on my clients’ homes, I
have learned a few things about what colors seem to work best in
the kitchen or bath.
When developing an overall color palette for a project, I aspire
to reflect the delicate balance that occurs so effortlessly in
nature. This is a range of colors one might find scavenging stones
at a beach, or walking the shoreline and happen upon a piece of
beach-washed glass, or sifting the bed of a forest floor for
numerous natural treasures.
When I first started making concrete countertops, I was tempted
by all the color possibilities with pigments and white cement. I
soon learned that white cement powder didn’t mute the color
intensity of the pigments. Naturally, I wanted to explore the
potential freedom of expression with a bright color palette. In
fact, a few of my fellow pioneers in concrete countertops were
exploring the same avenues and subsequently introduced a great
variety of colors in their countertop projects.
But after considerable color exploration, I came to the
conclusion that nature’s colors are the most appealing for the
kitchen and bath. This is one of the things I love about working
with concrete; the material really has a wonderful, earthy quality.
What defines “earthy” is obviously quite subjective, but I suspect
that it’s something that you know when you see it, feel it and
touch it. Consequently, using bright, intense, pastel-like colors
with concrete did not seem appropriate to the material itself. It
seemed to me that intense colors, although at first spectacular,
would soon become outdated and wearisome.
Blending color and texture provides a universally appealing
surface that is both subtle and timeless. In concrete, these two
elements blend with the mass of the object to create something that
not only looks good, but feels good. Like a natural object, the
subtle refraction of light from the sand, fines, and rock in the
concrete is what gives it life and depth. The pigments are, for the
most part, made from iron oxides (basically rust) or minerals that
occur naturally as well.
Because concrete is fundamentally from the earth, when using
concrete, I go for a color palette that works with the timeless
feel of that earthiness. Of course, these are colors that work in
all aspects of the kitchen and bath not just the countertops. Even
better, they won’t go in and out of style with the trendiness of a
fashion statement. Finally, they work well with today’s trend
toward natural materials in the kitchen and bath, making them a
perfect, timeless design choice.
Texture adds another
interesting element to a well-designed kitchen or bath. This can
also be used to enhance the feeling of nature in a design. To add
texture and imbue projects with a sense of natural beauty, I have
used semi-precious stones (turquoise, amazonite, jadite, and
others) as decorative aggregates in some of my concrete
countertops. They are generally too expensive to seed throughout
the mix so we use them sparingly by sprinkling them on the surface
of the molds and broadcasting them onto the top surface of site
The intense colors of these aggregates can provide a tasteful
accent to the warm or cool tones of concrete. The variegation
produced by exposed aggregates, sand and fines creates an overall
effect that is inspired by nature but does not imitate nature.
For those seeking some additional color accents in their
countertops, consider creating a mottled or variegated surface.
This look can be effectively achieved with concrete that parallels
the texture that naturally occurs in granite and marble.
In choosing concrete colors, keep in mind that it’s difficult to
precisely match specific colors. I inform my clients that we cannot
do so because there are simply too many variables. These include
everything from aggregate quarry differences to multiple sources of
cement; ingredients from different geographic locations tend to
yield slightly different color results.
I take into account, too, that concrete exposed to sun and
weather will change color over time and any coloring I use will
tend to become muted. For example, concrete colored with
ultramarine blue, blue green, or with organic black pigments (lamp,
or carbon black) are prone to fading.
Color must always be
considered in the broader context of the overall design of the
kitchen. I’m very conscious of how color plays out in cabinets,
backsplashes, floors and ceilings. To use color more effectively,
I’ll create a hierarchy of attention, or focus. For example, if the
countertop is the primary focus of the attention in a kitchen, due
to its size, form or color, I might specify a neutral material for
other counters in the room, possibly black granite, stainless steel
or, for a more traditional kitchen, ordinary tile.
Finally, I think it’s important to note that within certain
parameters, there are no hard-and-fast rules for good and bad taste
in the use of color. Color that naturally evolves from one’s
creativity might be the most appropriate. This approach also gives
us the freedom to be comfortable with our choices rather than
always measuring ourselves against what, in the end, is a
Perhaps we do best by celebrating those expressions of our own
creativity and leave it at that.
Fu-Tung Cheng heads the award-winning firms of Cheng Design and
Cheng Design Products in Berkeley, CA, and is the author of the
best selling book, Concrete Countertops: Design, Forms, and
Finishes for the New Kitchen and Bath (Taunton Press).
His firm’s work has appeared in a host of publications, and has
been honored with numerous awards, including the Architectural
Record’s Record Houses; “The Look of Gaggenau” Award for Kitchen
Design; the ASID Interior Design Specialty Award; the Stellar
Award, American Society of Interior Designers)/Sunset Magazine
Design West Awards; and first-place honors in the American
HomeStyle & Gardening Kitchen & Bath Design Contest, the
NKBA Design Competition, the Fisher & Paykel Design
Competition, the Sub-Zero Kitchen Design Competition, and numerous
He can be reached at Cheng Design, 2808 San Pablo Ave. Berkeley,
CA 94702; Tel: (510) 849-3272; Web site: www.chengdesign.com
Editor’s Note: Beginning this month, Fu-Tung Cheng will be
addressing inspirational design ideas for kitchens and baths in a
regular column, appearing exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design