When it came time to convince my family that I wanted to paint the dining room brown, I decided the word “chocolate” would be my secret weapon. In fact, I had the specifics in mind: I would add that it was the paint equivalent of my favorite Valrhona Guanaja 70 percent, melted with a bit of French butter. Not too dark, not too milky.
What I didn’t tell them was that I’d already found the paint, and that it was arriving via FedEx from Dorset, England, the very next day.
It had all begun a few weeks earlier during a conversation with Patrick O’Donnell, also known as Paddy. Paddy is the brand ambassador to Farrow & Ball, the popular British paint company, but I think of him as more of a color-whisperer with an archivist’s memory, who happens to have something of a psychic ability to read people’s innermost color fantasies. Paddy and I were on Zoom for a color consultation, discussing my new apartment. And more specifically, the dining room, which faces north and gets little light. I knew I wanted the room to be a library by day, dining room by night, and key to that was finding a color that would never fall to shadow.
I had come to the meeting with only one firm idea: I wanted the ceiling to be painted in a high-gloss Tallow, a warm, creamy, glowy color from Farrow & Ball. We’d just moved from our house in Brooklyn, where I’d painted the living room in Tallow. Every time we returned home in the evening, I’d look in and see that soft glow through the windows and know I was home.
Paddy directed me to a color in the Farrow & Ball archives called Wainscot. It was a shade of chocolate: rich, warm, timeless, comforting. I’d been spending a lot of time with chocolate, creating and testing recipes for my upcoming cookbook, Gâteau—with its ever-expanding chapter on chocolate cakes—and there’s that moment in melting dark chocolate and butter together when the two marry and become this silky, sensual, irresistible color. Wainscot was that color. It was also the last color I’d ever expected to consider for my walls.
Paddy, no doubt sensing both my hesitation and intrigue, nudged me toward boldness: “It’s one of the smartest color groups in an interior decorator’s handbook, running the full gamut from gently warm, earthy neutrals and ox-blood-tinged drama through to rich chocolate. Brown also has good color psychology associations: The color of earth, it represents growth and renewal, safety and protection.” I wasn’t seeing growth and renewal, though; I was seeing ganache. “You had me at chocolate,” I murmured in reply.
Next up, the bookcases that I assumed we’d paint a less glossy Tallow or perhaps the milky color Pointing, another favorite, but Paddy was rummaging through the samples on his desk for something in particular. He finally held up a piece of wood painted Deep Reddish Brown. “This is my go-to shade for a brown that packs a lot of warmth. Because of its red notes, it’s a great choice for a poorly lit or north-facing room.”
To carry the brown theme into the entryway, another low-light room, Paddy held up Mahogany, a deep brown that, when painted in a high-sheen finish, shows the undertones of eggplant skin. “Cocooned by this rich brown as you enter the apartment, your eyes will adjust to the dark and then you will be hit by the light-filled hall as a brighter counterpoint,” he explained. This is the other beauty of brown: It can make a small, dark room feel cozy. The mistake so many of us make is in thinking that painting small rooms white will make them feel bright and bigger, while the opposite often holds true.
Of course, no sooner did I feel like a pioneer than I quickly realized that brown is everywhere. It’s in the zeitgeist. A few weeks after my conversation with Paddy, I went to see a friend in an apartment designed by Todd Klein. And there it was again—a library painted in Benjamin Moore’s Classic Brown. I called Todd to ask what had led him to choose the color. “I think we loved the warmth of this brown even more since we painted it a nice semi-gloss and skim-coated the walls extra smooth. We used a paint brush instead of a roller to give the appearance of a real Willy Wonka chocolate bar with the lovely sheen good chocolate has. And the brown really made for a perfect backdrop for the prints, paintings, and wonderful books.”
If my first discovery about brown paint was how well it keeps north-facing rooms bathed in warm comfort, my second was this: Brown is an ideal foil for artwork. The shine of a gold-leaf frame will pop against a dark brown, but so will the timeless simplicity of a black and white photograph. It is essentially a neutral, but a soft one—far warmer than the pale grays that have been so popular these past 10 years. It’s striking when paired with white trim, and contemporary and energetic when matched with blue. And when paired with beige, parchment, or camel, it conjures the quiet luxury of cashmere.
If baby steps seem like a less-daunting foray into a new color spectrum, know that one of the easiest ways to go bold with brown is to use it as an accent, either painting one wall in an otherwise pale room or creating a panel of color to turn an awkward space into a graphically dynamic one. Think of it above fireplaces and between built-ins, or even on interior and exterior doors.
When I told my friend, the architect Kate Platt, about my new love for brown walls, she whispered in excitement: “Brown has been a favorite color of mine for a long time—except you can’t really say that in polite company, for fear of looking like an idiot.”
"Try calling it chocolate," I whispered back.
Farrow & Ball Mahogany
Veering closer to eggplant than chocolate, it brings flair to a dining room or library and can lend jewel-like beauty to a small space. Pair it with Inchyra Blue for a contemporary edge or off-white for a cleaner elegance.
Farrow & Ball Wainscot
Think melted chocolate. Warm and elegant, it works as beautifully against white for contrast, as it does deep reds for drama and beiges for unfussy elegance.
Farrow & Ball Jitney
The brown for those dipping their toes into this color spectrum. Relaxed and soft, it’s the color of sand right after the sun has dipped under the horizon.
Benjamin Moore: Classic Brown
Exactly what its name implies. A very dark brown, it is as striking as a dark charcoal or dark navy when paired, as it should be, with white or blue. This is a true neutral with no visible red undertones. It is an excellent foil for contemporary art.
Donald Kaufman Color: Richard Serra Surface/Foundry Brown
Just as American sculptor Richard Serra is able to conjure warmth from industrial metal, Kaufman has created a dark brown that feels a bit as if the evening sun were hitting it.
Donald Kaufman Color: Umber
This is the most earthy of the colors, conjuring rolling hills with just-plowed soil. Best suited to light from the southwest or to cozy country-style rooms with a fireplace.