Taupe - How this Color Kept me on my Toes
Updated: Feb 11
(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)
What color does your mind’s eye see when you think of “taupe”? A version of beige? Khaki? Gray? Pink? You’d all be correct.
But what is taupe exactly? According to Merriam-Webster, it’s an Old French word originating from the Latin word “talpa” meaning “mole.” Regardless of your feelings about this tiny mammal, the color taupe is most pleasing. It originally referred to brownish-gray but since the 1940s, it has encompassed a wider range of hues and intensities.
Taupe was a constant theme during my clients’ master bath remodel. Given all the design decisions Bruce and Patty would make, the one that never wavered was a desired taupe and white color scheme. But I was not sure which taupe road to take until Patty and I headed to Abbey Tile to choose floor, shower and tub materials. We considered a variety of taupe tile with tan, green, lavender or gray undertones. Dark and light. Polished and matte. Warm and cool.
I use the term “undertones” in its general sense. In the world of color theory, specifically, when a color is toned, it means that it has been mixed with a dab of black and white (or gray).
In doing so, the color is desaturated and more difficult to describe. By the way, when a color is mixed with just white, it is tinted and when mixed with just black, it is shaded. All of these mixes can either add depth and sophistication or can negatively muddy the original color.
Our time at Abbey Tile caused a few laughs and a bit of teasing. Where I saw taupe, Patty saw gray. Where Patty saw taupe, I saw brown or green or yellow. But I eventually saw, through her consistency, that she had a certain version of taupe in mind – a light, soft, warm gray. The warmth of the gray came from a drop of brown. So, in the end, Patty was true to the Old French word but with less intensity (that is, darkness or saturation).
True to form, the name of the eventual tile we chose was “greige” — another French word that describes warm gray or cool beige. We used the same greige tile throughout the bathroom in a 12-inch-by-24-inch format with the polished version on the shower walls and tub skirt and, to minimize the possibility of slipping, we used the matte version on the floor. The two sheens added a dimensional difference with tone-on-tone character. We put spliced pebbles on the shower floor called “tan.” Perhaps the manufacturer didn’t speak French. Interestingly, when the pebbles are wet, they look beige-brown and when dry, they look beige-gray — cause enough to celebrate with a bottle of pinot grigio.
After settling on these larger areas, we next looked for countertops and backsplashes. We would select them as a pairing because Patty was also consistent with her request to not make the room busy. So far, so good as our greige tile only had a smidgen of pattern. We looked at countertops with “movement” (patterns, streaks, veins) and solid-colored, simple backsplashes. Conversely, we looked at subtle countertops and more decorative backsplash mosaics.
Before we made our final decision, we considered a couple of givens already designed into the space, a contemporary, lead crystal chandelier and lead crystal cabinet knobs. The chandelier would be the focal point of the entire space and we did not want to choose anything that would interfere with its purpose.
Our ultimate countertop was a polished quartz called “clamshell,” which surely looked taupe. Because it had just subtle movement, we knew our backsplash could be a little bold. The perfect solution was a linear, three-dimensional mosaic marble called “silver streak”. It was virtually a solid color except for the natural variation found in marble. And, any danger of it being too one-note was balanced by the texture coming from the stacked, in-and-out layers of the mosaic.
Patty’s and my last task was to choose paint colors that gave us one final laugh. When I turned the sample around to record its name, lo and behold, it was called “shadow taupe.”
These days, when I think of taupe, I don’t think of its variations, or a small lawn predator, or an Old French word. I think of Bruce and Patty’s beautiful bathroom and the wonderful time we had creating it.
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