How Architecture Inspired a Color Palette
Updated: Feb 11
(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)
When Ellen Riaboff, owner of the office building at 3260 Beard Road, asked me to help her choose new paint colors for its exterior, she had “wine country colors” in mind.
Being a Napa native, I am familiar with the valley’s colorful environment. As I drove to meet Ellen, I pictured our yellow mustard fields, red apple orchards, green olives, purple grapes, orange autumn leaves and how the Mayacamas Mountains look blue from afar. I even thought of our neighboring county that grows so much lavender that it holds festivals to celebrate its harvest.
Colors aside, when I pulled up to the front of the building, I was immediately struck by one significant feature — its portico. It led to the offices on one side and a colonnade along the parking lot on the other side. The architectural style transported me from Beard Road all the way to ancient Greece. The front of the building had five brick columns forming four arches. The five columns made it a “pentastyle portico” and the particular semi-circular shape of the arches made them “Roman arches” (the Romans stole this from the Greeks).
The second thing I noticed was that the color scheme was monochromatic peachy-tan. The previous owner must have wanted to de-emphasize the lines and elements of the building. Painting it all one drab color did the trick. But Ellen wanted her building to stand out and proudly shine. Many wine color combinations would accomplish this but because the portico and colonnade were so strongly Old World, anything colorful seemed inauthentic and out of place. That is, most ancient structures were made of neutral-colored stone.
Another factor inhibiting a quick color selection was the roof of the portico. It made the area dark. By the way, the roof is what makes the structure a portico. Otherwise, it would just be an open porch. This lack of light ruled out the darker wine country colors, and the pastels were too weak for such an architectural force.
I was over-thinking and over-struggling. But once I let go, a word that represents both a place and a color came to mind. Cordoba. Cordoba is a city in Spain where fine leather, in a deep mahogany brown color, has been produced for at least 12 centuries. We know the color as “cordovan.”
One option was to paint the overall building this rich, beautiful color and then highlight the columns and arches in an ivory hue. But Ellen wanted the building to stand out rather than recede — which would happen with such a dark color. So we reversed the plan. By painting the columns and arches cordovan and the area right above them (the architrave and frieze, so to speak) ivory, we’d create a strong contrast and make the building notable, as intended.
There were two benches in the portico that finally gave me a chance to introduce a wine country color. I showed Ellen and our painter, George Forster, a few shades of burgundy and we all agreed on one called “garnet.”
I made my final recommendations knowing that Ellen will be re-landscaping next year. There was a round, brick flower bed, filled with overgrown ferns, in front of the benches. With approval from Van Winden’s consultant, Gary Sampson, we moved all the ferns to the colonnade, which would not only save the ferns, but also give guests a pleasant, living-green visual as they parked their cars.
George then painted the brick bed our same luscious cordovan. Next, with classical Greece in mind, we came up with a formal design for the round bed using three concentric circles. The outer circles would be white impatiens or begonias (depending on the season), then a circle of black mondo grass and a three-tiered boxwood topiary in the center. Just to amuse myself, I specified the quantity “three” in honor of the Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, who believed it to be the noblest of numbers.
The white flowers next to the cordovan brick mimicked the same colors and contrast as the portico’s white and cordovan elements. The black mondo grass, next to the white flowers, repeated the contrast and added new shape and texture. And, the tall topiary reigned as a significant focal point.
Once the makeover was completed, it created a typically inevitable problem. It looked so good that it emphasized the age and woodiness of the existing old hedge along the front of the building. Although not ready to fully implement Ellen’s 2016 landscaping goals, I called on Leal Landscaping. Javier Leal’s team, who had planted the portico’s centerpiece and the colonnade’s ferns, would replace the old hedge with undulating rows of white, star jasmine.
The structure at 3260 Beard Road proves that you can’t go wrong choosing a color palette that is authentically suited to its architectural style. The results will be strong and classic — just like ancient Greece.
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