Color Part III: Using Color for Accent

Text and photos by Erica Fay.

There are as many ways to use a bit of color to create a big effect as there are reasons you might chose to do so.


“Firenza” fabric by Carole Allen.                                                                           

It could be that you’re in no way ready to spend money on the furnishings, paints, rugs or fabrics that you would love to have, but want to spice up your space. Or you like to change the feeling of your environment every now and then. Maybe you love the peaceful feeling of a room you’ve done in closely related tones, but begin to find it dull. Then there are those who are color timid – unable to jump into committing to color in a big way – don’t worry, it’s not a disease or a debilitating condition. Adding a splash of color is an easy, changeable, and inexpensive way to solve decorating doldrums.

And what do you want from this splash of color?  Do you want to brighten the scene, or remind yourself of what you love?  I think it’s important to have something you see upon entering your home that makes you glad to be there.  In the past, entries were planned to impress arriving guests, but I think you should impress yourself.  In many of our New England homes the formal, street entry is not what we use on a daily basis.  Where you actually enter your home should be designed to give you a happy greeting.  Yes, you need to take off mucky boots and snow covered parkas.  You need to put down your burdens, at least for a moment. But you can use a visual feature that makes you smile.  A fun color on one wall or a bench cushion in something bright can help as you rest your weary bones while removing those sweaty running shoes.

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The bright ‘Sounds of Nature’ green wall was only five feet across at the end of a long entry, which included the laundry. Without that fun color and fanciful rack at the end, it was a dreadful room to come home to.

Our homes need to serve us by being functional, and a big part of their function is to help us feel some contentment, even if momentarily. That can mean reminding us of aspects of life that get forgotten in the daily drudge. This is where a spark of color can be of assistance. Even a mirror or a reflective, shiny item can do this. But use mirrors with caution. I like to place them where I see the mirror but not necessarily my reflection.

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This accent came with the house. When selecting new colors for the entry and stairs, I chose a mellow brown for the newel post and gold for the walls with a soft white trim so that the stained glass would catch the eye.

Don’t forget that a piece of artwork, a hanging quilt, or poster of something you enjoy can serve this purpose. Even when there’s a color you love, you may not want to surround yourself with it by painting it on all your walls. It can function more like a brightly colored scarf, to add spice to your basic black outfit.

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The single bright blue planter (waiting for the growing season) catches your attention among the bright white Adirondack chairs on this deck in Sandisfield.

For those who fear color commitment, a couple of bright throw pillows can be a start. If you don’t like what you chose, just pass them along and try another color. If the budget allows, a small throw rug or brightly colored ceramic lamp base can do the job.

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Here is an alcove in a bedroom at the former Silo B&B in North Egremont. A deeper shade of gold was used in the recesses to create interest. Trim: “Cameo White”; walls: “Amber Waves”; accented alcoves, “Peanut Butter.” In the adjoining bath, the same colors were used in an opposite way with the deeper color for the main walls and the lighter for accents.

I have often assigned an accent color for the back of shelves. It works well for bookshelves as well as in kitchens. My dishes are white so I can use a variety of table linens to add the color to table settings. They also invite a bright color on the back wall of my upper kitchen cabinets.

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“Forest Moss” is used behind the open dish selves here in a kitchen in Egremont. The walls are “Yellow Squash” and the trim is “Acorn Yellow.” The oil painting is by Kate Knapp.

An accent color can be changeable, a spontaneous decision, or one carefully planned into a scheme. Just a splash of color — especially when unexpected — can be on a single piece of furniture, paint on just one wall or the trim, or fabric used on something distinct.

Use too much and it’s no longer an accent. I could show photos of some exteriors here in the Berkshires where a unique trim color was overused and lost its pizzazz. What could have been an exciting choice became a major component in the color scheme, throwing the elements out of balance. If I were to include photos of such homes it would be libelous, if not scandalous, and certainly bad form. But, if you look, you can begin to notice when something that should be fun is overused – not to judge, but to learn by seeing.

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The black and white fabric print of Florence rooftops by Carole Allen Design is accented with piping, the color of which is picked up on the frame of this simple chair. Before upholstering the chair was painted with Liquitex professional spray, “Cadmium Red Light” Hue 2, then coated with a satin clear spray finish.

And while you are noticing, you will see many more examples of choices well made. Often successful exterior color schemes use several closely related colors with something expressive on the front door.


This large barn-like post and beam home in Sandisfield is oriented to the natural setting out back and to the side. The view from the road where one approaches would seem austere without the bright red doors which give a mere hint of the stylish and unique interior. Exterior stain, “Seagull Grey,” doors “Bonfire.”

In the end, think of using an accent of color as a way to express your uniqueness. If just a glance at that special color you chose brings a smile to your heart, it’s a good thing. A bit of bright color can distract you from your habitual thought patterns for a moment.

I’ll say it again and again. Look around and notice colors, their use and your response to what you see.


NOTE: I select paint brands according to the preferences of the painting contractor doing the job. I have been happy with Pratt & Lambert, Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore. Unless otherwise stated all photos here used Benjamin Moore.

This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Edge on February 3, 2017





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Color Part II: The alchemy of combining colors

In the Century showroom at the Boston Design Center, the walls are Benjamin Moore “Shaker Beige,” everything else is neutral creating a sophisticated, serene setting.

And what would you like your interior color scheme to be? That’s a hefty question. Instead, you might ask: what do you want from your color scheme? The more one understands the effects of color, the more the effect can be your intention. Some people combine colors with a natural instinct. Some just go with what’s popular, not realizing they are simply following current market dictates. And then there is everyone else, forever questioning choices and combinations.

Colors Are Like Words. Alone, each has a definition, but when colors are put together they modify one another and create a more complex impression. Also, just as in sentence structure, placement modifies the overall meaning. And like well used adjectives, the varying proportions of color affect the impact within an interior.

Color schemes and combinations are all around us and we all have some firm ideas about these colors that we may not have considered. Noticing our emotional responses to colors can help expand what I refer to as our personal preference/reference library.

Flowers are often the best messengers to bring color combinations to our attention. Photo by Erica Fay

Flowers are often the best messengers to bring color combinations to our attention. Photo by Erica Fay

Notice, Feel and File it away. Your reaction can be based on how you respond to the colors of the Berkshire Hills on a cloudy November day. It can be from a favorite

photo in a magazine.

We are told that a healthy diet is color balanced. Inspiration is everywhere. Photo by Erica Fay

We are told that a healthy diet is color balanced. Inspiration is everywhere.
Photo by Erica Fay

We each have a vast library of associations with color. To make things easy, we might keep those associations in place instead of considering new options. Part of our catalog of personal color response comes from encounters in places where we were happy; some remain from unpleasant incidents. For that matter, the memory often includes more than color. We don’t consciously categorize those ingredients, but our emotional body remembers.

Color schemes tell stories. Just as individual colors evoke meaning and feeling, combinations do so even more strongly. What is your reaction to bright red and green together? Just try and put Christmas out of your mind.

The red of this antique Chinese chest provided the starting point for the mood and colors to decorate this room. Photo by Erica Fay

The red of this antique Chinese chest provided the starting point for the mood and colors to decorate this room. Photo by Erica Fay

We associate cultures with color schemes. Asian settings use mainly strong, warm colors such as reds, magenta and gold. For northern European interiors think of a soft grey or white background, pale blues and greens with whitewashed furniture. And there are the bright, gay colors of the Caribbean: turquoise, lime green, coral, and bright yellow.

When decorating, ask your room – are you for active or passive use? McDonald’s knew from their beginning that bright orange and yellow in a simple white area would entice their customers to move quickly to order, eat, and leave. It makes me wonder why using such bright colors in a child’s bedroom is popular. Libraries use subdued tones to create an atmosphere of peaceful study. Banks employ colors and décor insinuating stability.

Take a look at marketing and graphic advertising to see how color combinations are used to make us respond. In a toy store, go down an aisle for girls’ toys and see the abundance of pink and lavender; in the boys’ section, notice that red and black dominate. I don’t have to elaborate on the intentions behind these selections.

A lot of study goes into guessing what will make us behave for someone else’s benefit. We can do a little study ourselves to establish an atmosphere that makes us feel as we choose.

Interior designer Julian Alexander lets color set a playful mood.

Interior designer Julian Alexander lets color set a playful mood. 

When colors are used together, how closely related or extremely different they are drives our response. A monochromatic scheme is an interior where most of the items are within a close range of one color. This can be very calm if the colors are soft, or very intense if they are deep or bright. The more contrast you have between colors, as well as the strength of those colors, the more energetic the setting will be.

Deconstructing the colors used in this room from the house of M. Lucretius Fronto preserved from the ruins of Pompeii, mid 1st century.

Deconstructing the colors used in this room from the house of M. Lucretius Fronto preserved from the ruins of Pompeii, mid 1st century. Photo by Erica Fay

Fabrics with prints are good for this exercise. Notice two different programs. One is where all the colors of the design touch one another as in stripes or plaids. In the other, features of the design float within a field or background color. You can see this like a room with the background representing the color of the walls and the figures in the print showing how fabrics and accessories using those colors in proportion will look. The same can be done with a piece of artwork, a landscape, or photo. Inspiration is anywhere, even in the sunset or an ad that catches your attention.

Don’t forget that wood has color as this pop-up shop at the Boston Design Center clearly demonstrates. Photo by Erica Fay

Don’t forget that wood has color as this pop-up shop at the Boston Design Center clearly demonstrates. Photo by Erica Fay

 Don’t remain stuck in your opinions. What might be a fixed idea about colors, literally set unconsciously in the past, can be re-examined by experiencing color in new and unexpected ways. But you do have to notice. To become conscious of not just color, but all elements in interior spaces, look around yourself, take a breath and notice how you feel. Let the place speak to you with a new voice. By perceiving color in a new way you can expand your ideas and build a new, larger personal preference/reference library allowing your choice of color schemes to more finely suit yourself.

Once more, Julian Alexander shows us what fun it is to let colors play with each other.

Once more, Julian Alexander shows us what fun it is to let colors play with each other.


 Note: This first appeared as an article in the Berkshire Edge on January 27, 2017


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Color Part I:

The abundance of color

Erica Fay

Sampling the dizzying choices of paint colors.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of three articles on Color, discussing how to choose it and how to use it. 

There are a lucky few who can get up on Saturday morning, decide to paint the dining room, go to the store, spend five minutes picking a color from the thousands offered, go home with their custom mixed purchase, set up, paint and live happily with the results.

For everyone else, there can be a sudden faltering upon seeing all those well-ordered color strips happily nestled in their slots, each one hoping you will choose them above all others. Not only are there so many, but each strip has all those variations! Some brands offer single color cards – nice of them, but still, so very many choices. Of course you would immediately know that the bottom ones are just way too dark, but what about the lightest one     

Being creative with color. Why limit yourself to just one? Photo: Erica Fay


Let me offer some tips for the task of selecting paint colors for walls. These suggestions are aimed at repainting a room that you have already put together. In a later article, I’ll reveal some guides to choosing colors when you are assembling all the elements of a room. In that case, you may have a color in mind, but won’t select the exact shade until other items with fewer choices like fabrics, rugs and wood finishes have been chosen. Then the paint color choice can be narrowed to fit with your samples.

So, when repainting a room that is already furnished, you first ask questions. Do you want the walls to make a statement with color? Do you want the color on the walls to repeat or augment your overall scheme or some individual item in the room? Or, do you want the wall color to simply support other things in the room? What do you want to grab the most visual attention? This is part of establishing what I refer to as visual hierarchy.

How we actually see color is about the science of light, the eye, and how the human brain processes visual stimulation. But that knowledge isn’t helpful when you are nervous about which blue to choose. After all, even if you are doing the painting yourself, it’s expensive and it takes time.

Let’s say you’ve brought home several sample strips or chips from the store. You sit at your kitchen table and compare what you have, folding over the strips to isolate each color and considering its merits. You eliminate two of the strips; they seem greenish in this light – not what you want. You get scissors and cut the little rectangles apart sensing that this will get you to your goal. You slide several to the side – the reject pile – leaving about six remaining. You take them into the living room where the paint will be used. You put the candidates on the sofa to see how each looks, then put them down on the rug, then hold them up to the drapes. Some look better with one and some with another. Why isn’t this easy? Why do they make so many colors the same, but different? You can’t decide and it’s really irritating. Maybe you’ll just toss them in the air and see what lands face up closest to your feet.

In design school (it’s been a while, and I hope this is no longer true) we learned nothing at all about selecting specific paint colors. By making plenty of mistakes on my own walls, I developed good, reliable methods for choosing. This has made it easier for me to work with others and to teach, saving a lot of unnecessary pain.

A guide to matchmaking with color

Don’t rely on the tiny samples on the strips or the color cards for your final choice; they are just an introduction. Once a color is used over a larger area, the components in the specific mix of pigments become more apparent. If there is a lot of white in a formula, the color will seem to lighten as it spreads out. There may actually be a touch of black that modifies the clarity of the color making it more sophisticated, more muted.

Do use at least two larger samples of the colors you are considering. Many paint brands offer these – some on up to 8 ½ x 11-inch sheets. Ask the dealer or look at the brand’s website. There are some lines that offer small containers of colors already mixed or you can purchase quarts of your choices. I order the sample sheets for clients as part of color consultations.

The use of large color samples provides a more accurate representation and helps you feel more confident in your choices. Photo: Erica Fay


Don’t paint your sample colors in patches directly on your walls. Not only have I erred by doing this, but also have clients who did the same. Paint has thickness and you set yourself up for added prep work smoothing the edges, even if it’s the very shade you choose. If you paint an entire surface, that’s another matter.

Do use poster board which is cheap and can be cut into halves or quarters if you are painting your own samples. You can tape these samples right up on the wall. Be sure to use a “painter’s tape” (in blue or green) so the adhesive doesn’t make a mess when you remove the samples. 

Don’t judge your colors by looking down upon those that will be seen vertically – on a wall.

Do post your samples on both your lightest wall — usually across from a window — with another on your darkest wall — next to a window where no direct daylight shines.

Do view your choices in all the lights in which the room will be seen. In both daylight and with your various electric lighting schemes at night.

Don’t try more than one color at a time unless you have them far enough apart to avoid confusing your brain, which would rather compare than choose.

Don’t over-match colors. Twice I have had clients choose a color from within a print in a fabric used in the room. In one of those, it was a brilliant blue that in the fabric looked like a jewel. She picked a paint color that was perfectly matched to that little portion of the print. When that paint was applied to the walls, the room was completely overwhelmed by it. The attractive spot of blue in her draperies was no longer noticeable. I had the room repainted using the paint she had used, but I diluted it by adding one quart of her strong color to a gallon of white. The result allowed the walls to relate to what she had been drawn to, without drowning the room. I used some of the intense blue that remained on a side table for an accent.

Do try using modifications of a color in the same room. This works well with upper and lower sections divided by a chair rail or wainscoting. As a rule the darker color is used below – because it won’t be the entire wall, you can use something bolder. I usually cut the darker color (by half or a quarter) with white for the area above. You can also choose a lighter formula from the color strips.

Adding a portion of your chosen color to a white base will give you a richly muted tone of the same favored color. Photo: Erica Fay


Before you commit to a color, you might allow yourself to experience color in other environments and notice your responses. Trendy restaurants, museums and boutique hotels will put you in a surrounding that is not your ordinary style of decorating. Pictures in magazines or on Pinterest show you a color in use, but you can’t really experience it as you would if you were surrounded by it. We build our own design and color sense by experiencing and noticing.

I loved hearing about a couple who were invited to see their neighbor’s freshly painted dining room. They were awed to enter a room painted in a brilliant Chinese red. The accessories had an Asian feel making it all work together. The couple admired the effect so much that they decided to repaint the walls of their own dining room. They agreed that what they owned would fit well in a tropical interior, and they talked of the bright colors they saw in the Caribbean. But when it came time to buy the paint, they turned tail and ran for beige. Oh, well. A formal dining room and powder rooms are two places where being adventurous can be fun without being overwhelming. Try a little color adventure of your own!

Photo: Erica Fay


In the next article in this series, I’ll write about combining colors. In the third, I’ll explore using color as an accent.

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Bringing a 21st century kitchen into a house from the 1800’s

The task of modernizing, while honoring the history of an antique house, is never the same job twice for a designer or the contractor. A request to update and renovate the kitchen in an old house in Sheffield came with its own set of needs, restrictions and unforeseen problems. It also came with its own set of interesting details and unique possibilities.

In this case, it had been the family home of the husband of my client couple. The parents had lived with a 1960’s-style kitchen that was filled with their things and reflected their own taste and lifestyle. Now, my clients planned to offer the house for summer rentals. Their objective in calling me in was to redo the 1960’s, distinctly “country” kitchen on a tight budget, using as much of the existing cabinetry as possible.


The room was 15 feet long and 11 feet wide. Not bad for a functional kitchen, except that the number of openings put a crimp in most layout options. There were four doorways and the only full wall had two sets of windows. We pinned our hopes on the possibility of opening up to an adjacent room – a small space that one walked through to reach the main entry and living room. It must have had a specific use in the 1800’s, but now it was just a dark paneled place to put more stuff in, though it did offer one more window to the space.


The wife had mailed a collection of pictures torn from magazines showing the things she liked and the style she wanted. Some clients use Pinterest to show preferences, but those printed pages are still a great help in knowing what a client is imagining. What she envisioned fit beautifully with the existing antique house, so I was happy to work toward this. After measuring and taking photos, I returned to the studio and used AutoCAD to create some optional layouts based upon the removal of the wall to the little room. It would increase the length to nearly 22 feet.

My drawings were met with an enthusiasm that was quickly dashed when the contractor, Jim Waldman, began taking down the wall only to find it was needed to support the weight of the floor above. A portion of wall would have to remain. The ceilings were far too low to allow for a carrying beam. I returned to the drawing board to incorporate the needed support and make the new layout work. As it turned out, this was only the first weight bearing issue that would arise.

The existing cabinet units had been removed intact; fortunately their flush-door style is still available. Using blocks of their dimensions, I could try all of the units in various layouts. The wife wanted to move a much-loved hutch built by her late father-in-law from the dining room to the kitchen. I incorporated that in the layouts as well.

With the layout set and appliances chosen, down came the old acoustic tile ceiling to reveal a new need for support of the story above. When I saw the 2×4’s installed by Jim’s crew, it was easy to envision a way to incorporate that necessary reinforcement.



Display shelves were designed for the many small family treasures. The remaining two partial walls created a nook for the refrigerator.



No mid-century kitchen included space for a microwave, dishwasher, a beverage refrigerator or recycling. Paul Morgan of Cabinet Works in Great Barrington ordered additional units in the sizes we needed. Most of the original cabinets were re-used and Paul brought in the correct size base for the new apron-front sink. Once the cabinets were painted and capped with granite, everything tied in beautifully with the wife’s selection of practical appliances.



The kitchen in process: Before



The kitchen in process: After


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One Useless Room Solves Three Problems

Furniture isn’t the only thing you can rearrange inside your home. If the configuration of rooms doesn’t serve your needs, things can be changed. Most frequently, I am asked to open a kitchen to make a larger room for cooking, dining & socializing. But here’s an adventure in renovation that enhanced much more about living in the house.

The original builder’s plan for this house may have included everything on the developer’s checklist and everything the buyers were looking for, but the arrangement, in this case, didn’t make a lot of sense. Had I seen the plans before it was built, I could have pointed out the various problems with the layout. A conductor can look at a score and hear the music. A director can read a play and watch it unfold in the mind. I can do neither of these, but I look at building plans and can see how the space will be used and how it will be lived in.

I had to groan when I first saw this house in a 90’s development. The problems had been built-in, right from the plans. A couple from New York had just purchased this property in the Berkshires. They showed me what they liked about the house. It already had a spacious open kitchen and dining area with wide glass doors opening to a large deck overlooking a small pond.

Lead Photo Erica Fay.jpg

This view of the back deck and pond is a wonderful feature that came with the house.

Then we discussed the problems they saw. First, the front entrance had no coat closet. Second, they wanted an office area that was practical. The third problem was that the powder room was miles from the social areas and doubled as the laundry room. It was inconvenient and downright ugly.

While the main floor had all of the basic social rooms and a master suite, it also had one odd room – small bedroom size – that didn’t relate to anything, certainly not to how the house was to be lived in. In addition to the first floor master suite there were three bedrooms upstairs. This curious room was directly off the dining area and a long way from that powder room. If it were intended as a bedroom, using the bath in the master suite — which was closest — would have been awkward for any guest or family member.

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What were they thinking when this room was planned?

Initially the couple thought they would just use that odd room for their home office, realizing that its baby blue walls and plush beige carpeting would have to go.  I immediately sensed that this room was a pocket of dead energy — another problem. This is something you might also sense, especially if you apply the principles of Feng Shui.

The owners had dismantled the cheap closet organizers and tried laying out shapes and sizes on the carpeting with painter’s tape to explore what they might be able to do with that room. You will notice on the plan how the original closet in that funky room was beside another that was accessed from the master bedroom on the other side. The master suite already had a large walk-in closet so not only was this other one not needed, it made for difficulty arranging furniture.

After taking measurements and digital photos, I returned to my studio to make a plan (the bird’s eye view) in AutoCAD. With the problems in mind and the owner’s wish list, I created a number of possibilities.


In this plan, blue indicates what was to be removed, red shows what was to be added.

In the end, a hallway was opened into that odd room from the front entry. A good sized coat closet was constructed on one side and a powder room with a pocket door on the other. After removing the bank of closets, an office space fit at the end of the new area where the room opened to the dining area. The two windows within the original room fit nicely into the new plan keeping the exterior rhythm of windows intact.

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This view during construction looks toward the entry where the plastic hangs. On the right is the framing for the new powder room while the frame for the closet opening is on the left.

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Contractor Thom Whaley is shown finishing new trim in the space that became the office. Seen from the dining room, the new oak flooring matched the original.

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The completed galley-style office from the same view. Custom cabinets were installed above the desk top. The hall out to the entry with the powder room and coat closet is behind the seated gentleman.

Insert GInsert H

The decorating and finishing was fun and rather simple. I was giving the trim throughout the house a makeover with four inch flat stock for a “transitional” look (a catch-all term for a style that isn’t of any particular era but isn’t “modern” either). The new powder room received a band of 2 ½ inch flat trim 48 inches from the floor visually breaking up the small room. The lower walls were painted Ben Moore Raspberry Truffle. A silvery grass cloth from Kenneth James was used above and the trim was painted with Ben Moore Revere Pewter. The pedestal sink from St. Thomas and Toto toilet were white. When they were first installed, the owners were unhappy that the whites were not exactly the same. This is often the case when using fixtures from different manufacturers. I knew that once the strong red color was applied to the surrounding walls, that difference would no longer be discernible. The faucets, mirror, and glass shelf were selected from Renovation Hardware.

At the rear entry, the existing toilet and vanity were removed. What remained was enough space to create a nicely arranged room for the laundry, utility sink, pantry and a utility closet. Later, additional renovations solved other problems with the original plan. Voila! This house was beginning a new life as pleasant and functional.

Thom Whaley and his crew did a wonderful job with this small renovation that had a huge impact on the house, its use, and its value.

This article first appeared in the Berkshire Edge on July 7, 2017

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Color Combinations

What colors work together? This is an ongoing question. Color choice is the focus of most of the calls I receive.

We live in a colorful world and while we develop preferences, when faced with the cost and effort of painting (inside or out) many people are unsure of themselves. I am glad to help, but my method is only a little about looking at the setting and hearing what people say they like – it’s mostly about watching them and their responses when I show them options. We respond viscerally to the colors that surround us even though we may have grown numb to that response.

I would never have put these two blues together – until I saw it done in the right setting. I continue to see the world anew. Nothing awakens the joy of a new experience like seeing something you might not have imagined!

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About Erica

Erica Fay brings together the threads of her studies and experiences to assist others in creating the physical environments that best support their lives and their work. Her decades of interior and renovation design are enhanced by lengthy practices in both Buddhism and Yoga. These roads come together to help others feel better in their bodies, their minds and in their homes.  She is ordained in the Japanese Tendai Buddhist tradition and is a certified Kripalu yoga teacher.

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