A plethora of pastel shades are parading on the big screen this summer. First, in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, which features an all-star cast and the filmmaker’s characteristic sanguine color palette. Then in Greta Gerwig’s take on Barbie, a frothy cinematic concoction shot in a spectrum of pink, with lighter tones appearing alongside the bubblegum and magenta. But while pastel hues are being celebrated in summer’s hottest movies, they’ve been a long-time favorite in interior design. We ask four designers for their expert advice.
Find the right environment
“I find pastel shades to be particularly joyous because they ooze freshness and bring a sense of lightness” says Linda Boronkay, the former design director of Soho House who now leads her own studio. “They are perfect to use in bedrooms or other rooms dedicated to relaxation.” While they are often associated with children’s rooms, pastels can also give a refined air to a space where the mood should be soothing, or to give a more muted backdrop to let maximalist elements sing. “Pastel shades tend to have a reputation of being overly sweet and sometimes a bit sickly,” says Lucy Barlow, co-founder of Barlow & Barlow. “However, used in the right way and the correct environment, pastels can also be chic and sophisticated – particularly on walls and joinery, creating a calm backdrop for the bolder pieces you might want to use.”
I always like to wake up pastel colors with warmer, more energetic ones to avoid a corny, old-fashioned feel”India Mahdavi
Keep it calm and avoid corny
“I like the sense of calm that pastel, washed-out colors can bring to a space,” says French architect and designer India Mahdavi. “There’s something soothing in them, like a peaceful energy, that I believe is very much in line with today’s taste for a slower pace, for something more contemplative. However, I always like to wake up pastel colors with warmer, more energetic ones to avoid a corny, old-fashioned feel.”
Mahdavi found herself drawn to the pastel tones of French painter Pierre Bonnard’s work when designing a large-scale scenography for the artist’s current retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi. “Bonnard’s obsession with light and the colors that subsequently emerged from his paintings is what guided me when I built the color scheme for the scenography. Not all his colors are pastel shades, far from that; we actually share an appetite for rich and complex palettes. But I did let myself drift into the soft tones that are to be found in some of his interior views.” It was by playing with pattern juxtapositions and perspectives to give some kind of ‘clash’, “rather than using pastel tones in large swaths”, that Mahdavi felt a sense of modernity emerge in the use of these shades.
Contrast the colors
“There is danger in using pastel shades in that they can feel a bit candy store, but as long as you don’t mix more than four or five different shades, the result will be lovely,” advises Boronkay. “I like to just use two pastel colors and mix them with a punchier or deeper hue. For example, if your walls are in Mizzle [gray] by Farrow & Ball, I would add a chair with a stronger coral-toned seat or have the same accents in the artworks to contrast.”
A pitfall to avoid is overusing pastels “without incorporating sufficient contrasting elements,” concurs Torregrossa. “This could give the impression of a washed-out space or one lacking depth.” The softer, lighter backdrop “allows you to be a bit more daring when it comes to adding alternate colors and textures,” adds Barlow. “Layering pastels is a lot less daunting than layering bold bright colors. To create an extra playfulness, we love adding contrasting colors to our pastel schemes – this might be a bold border on a pastel curtain or a bright skirting board lining a pastel-coloured wall.”
Look for balance to create warmth and elegance
“With their soft muted hues, pastel tones bring an understated elegance to interior design,” says Laura Torregrossa, founder of Marbera, an interior-design company that specializes in precious natural stones. “When designing a space featuring marble and onyx furniture, pastel colors can bring harmonious balance. They highlight the boldness and natural beauty of these materials without overpowering them. The soothing backdrop of pastels allows the intricate veining and brilliance of marble and onyx to take center stage. This interplay between soft pastels and dramatic stones creates a sense of balance and visual interest in the space.”
Torregrossa continues, “In addition to serving as wall colors to highlight accent furniture pieces, pastels can also be used in various decorative elements such as textiles, art and accessories. For example, pastel-hued throw pillows, rugs or curtains can add warmth and texture to the room, softening the robust nature of stone furniture. Also, pastel-colored marble or onyx can make for a unique, eye-catching statement piece. The idea is to blend pastel shades with the strong characteristics of marble and onyx in a way that brings out the best of both worlds. This combination can create a striking visual balance and add a layer of sophistication to the overall design.”
If you go pale and earthy enough, two tones almost work like a neutral. This pairing can look particularly effective in a kitchen – fresh but fun”Lucy Barlow
Play with pastel pairings
“One of our favorite color combinations is a blush pastel pink with a pale-sage pastel green,” shares Barlow. “If you go pale and earthy enough, the two tones almost work like a neutral. This pairing can look particularly effective in a kitchen – fresh but fun. When using these colors together it’s important that texture and depth are also created, otherwise it can look a bit flat, so let one of the colors dominate the space. Aim for a ratio of 40/60.”