Dead Salmon and Elephant’s Breath: How the eccentric colors of a British paint manufacturer redefined luxury



Lea Dolan, CNN

“The col-ouuur wall is ‘Lulworth Blue’,” Aidy Bryant says on “Saturday Night Live” sketch, “New paint”. Leaning into a bizarre British pronunciation of ‘color’, she continues, explaining that the shadow is named after the ‘swirling British mists of beautiful Lulworth Cove’.

” What color ! “

After finding out that Bryant’s beloved “Lulworth Blue” costs $ 110 a gallon, comedian Beck Bennett – who plays his visiting brother – is dismayed. He doesn’t understand why someone in their right mind would spend so much on a paint bucket, but his sister is adamant:

“It’s not just paint,” cries Bryant. “It’s Farrow and Ball!”

Famous for its wacky shade names (“Rangwali”, “Elephant’s Breath” and “Dead Salmon” among the most eccentric) and lavish prizes, Farrow & Ball is ripe for parody. Yet it is also a huge success.

The prestigious British label, founded in 1946, has splashed its paintings on countless prestigious walls, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to Queen Elizabeth II’s weekend residence, Windsor Castle. Despite being headquartered in Dorset on the UK’s south coast, the rural operation of Farrow & Ball has an unmistakably cosmopolitan appeal.

It has been used on the sets of acclaimed TV shows like Netflix’s “Sex Education” and has been ditched by celebrities from Padmia Laksmi to Shay Mitchell. In 2014, “Mad Men” star January Jones was pictured leaving a Farrow & Ball showroom in Los Angeles, her latest purchases looking more like designer handbags than tins of paint. of a gallon.

The company has an annual turnover of more than 100 million euros (118 million dollars). In May, Farrow & Ball was acquired by Danish coatings maker Hempel for £ 500million ($ 692million), according to the Financial Times, although the company has not confirmed the announced sum.

So how did a gallon of paint with an unusual name become the ultimate aspiration statement?

An art history lesson

In the aftermath of World War II, the West was shaken by a DIY boom. IKEA was founded in 1943, with its first catalog of flatbed furniture released a few years later. In 1954, Time magazine devoted its August cover to the phenomenon, declaring DIY “the new billion dollar hobby.”

Color dominated the decade. Garish primary hues were all the rage, but traditional linseed oil paints failed to deliver the desired sparkle. As a result, the paint industry began to shift towards petroleum-based and acrylic resin-based materials, inexpensive to manufacture and encapsulating the bold post-war optimism that had infiltrated the decor. interior.

Farrow & Ball, however, avoided acrylic, instead sticking with simple linseed oil, which was purified and mixed with a powdered pigment. In acrylic paints, solvents are added to ensure the finish dries faster and longer lasting, but at the cost of toxic chemicals. Farrow & Ball’s method was solvent-free and remained unchanged until 2009, when the company switched to a water-based recipe.

“They pioneered a ‘chalky’ matte look for walls and a soft eggshell look on woodwork (which) is less ‘plastic’ and shiny than modern paints,” said Victoria Wormsley, interior designer and owner of the French company based in London. Brook Interiors, in an email interview.

But it wasn’t until the 1990s that Farrow & Ball achieved the commercial success it enjoys today. The Dorset painting business saw a big breakthrough in 1992 when Tom Helme, interior consultant for the National Trust – a non-profit organization that conserves historic buildings and beauty sites across Britain – took over control of Farrow & Ball with corporate financier Martin Ephson. .

Farrow & Ball began working on cultural heritage projects, providing the National Trust with “cool” colors with period decor rather than true to history. From awe-inspiring stately mansions to quaint cottages, UK’s upscale estates have been restored to their former glory with a fresh coat of carefully prepared Farrow & Ball paint. Once the perfect shade was created for a property, it was canned and sold as part of the brand’s Heritage line. “Picture Gallery Red”, for example, was first developed to redecorate the Attingham Park Photo Gallery in Shropshire, England.

“Farrow & Ball is considered the original designer paint,” said Wormsley. “They were one of the first companies in the UK to market the paint as an ambitious product connecting it with the wonderful architectural heritage of Great Britain.”

Flowery decor had dominated the 1980s, and the fanfare for fuss and frills continued into the 1990s. magazines like Architectural Digest and World of Interiors – the older the better. It was the ideal consumer landscape for a brand like Farrow & Ball, which built its image around the opulent iconography of British homes.

Amid increasing pressure to adopt cutting-edge manufacturing technology – the production of Australian paint manufacturer Dulux, for example, has been fully automated since 2017 – the operation of the Farrow & Ball factory still relies on human involvement. at each step. Pigments are hand poured, then each batch is sampled and meticulously inspected by a Farrow & Ball chemist. This know-how may partly explain the brand’s designer status – and explain its extravagant price tags.

The paint was positioned as a luxury by association: while it was good enough for the lovingly maintained homes of yesteryear, it was good enough for everyone (provided, of course, you could foot the bill).

The stamp of the country club

Farrow & Ball has become ubiquitous in affluent neighborhoods (the brand has 61 showrooms in the US and Europe and more than 220 dealers in London and Manhattan alone) while making customers feel like they are part of a exclusive coterie.

“These are the kinds of things we discuss over dinner parties,” interior designer Sophie Richardson said in “Inside the Posh Paint Factory,” a documentary about the company’s operations. “And I think if you can say you’ve got Farrow & Ball, that means you’re in the cool club.”

But not everyone considers Farrow & Ball to be the epitome of luxury. The prestigious paint maker even ended up on an infamous tongue-in-cheek list, created by high-society interior designer Nicky Haslam, detailing the most insufferably “common” things (a posh British term for something that is neither fancy nor sophisticated). Haslam confidently, if not arbitrarily, placed Farrow & Ball among the entrances including self-pity, ATMs, swans, and hedge funds.

Nonetheless, Farrow & Ball has a loyal following. One of the paint brand’s dedicated Facebook groups has 55,000 members and is used to share application tips, color tips and proud photos of users’ work.

The particular shade names help foster a sense of community, Wormsley said, helping to create a sense of being in the know. “I think (the quirky color names) make Farrow & Ball customers feel like they’re cognoscenti,” she added, “because the colors cannot be chosen from the names.”

Joa Studholme, color curator at Farrow & Ball for 25 years, agreed that the shade names are “very, very, very important.”

“People get attached to a color and the stories they tell you,” she said in a phone interview. Take “Sulking Room Pink”, a dusty pink color meant to evoke the sultry glamor of European bedrooms. “When we did it, everyone was like, why is it called that?” Said Studholme. “And that’s such a simple reason.”

“Sulking Room Pink” was inspired by the French “boudoir”, which literally translates to “sulk”.

“It was so intriguing,” Studholme said, “and it creates affection. I think that’s the main thing.”

Quirky names are also a topic of discussion, Studholme said. Colors such as “Slipper Satin” or “Stiffkey Blue” (note: the correct pronunciation is “stook-y blue”) are memorable precisely for their delicate pronunciation. “Although I don’t think we would go out on purpose and find a hard word.”

As other era-inspired British brands fell by the wayside – last year, heritage textile and furniture brand Laura Ashley was forced to close all 155 UK stores due to declining sales – Farrow & Ball has always succeeded in capturing the ambitious imagination of the middle classes. .

“All of his marketing photographs are taken in the finest homes,” said Richardson. “Georgian houses with shutters and cornices and high ceilings and all kinds of architectural details and yet ordinary people in ordinary houses were really inspired by their look.”

Wall artist Rachel Spelling even elevated the company’s standard color chart to highly sought after wall art. Spelling’s personalized version of the Farrow & Ball brochure costs £ 150 ($ 207).

But in addition to capitalizing on its cultural cachet, the brand is also developing a sense of humor to offset its reputation as the most chic paint on the market. The seemingly self-aware Farrow & Ball are now embracing jokes made at their expense, as shown by the company’s very first TV commercials, which first aired in 2020, in which neurotic decorators go to great lengths to protect their expensive and delicate paint job.

In response to the Saturday Night Live sketch, the paint makers ran an ad in The New York Times unveiling a special col-ouuuur edition, “English Roast No.30”.

“A rich, cheerful shade with subtle hints of dry satire and a lingering aftertaste of charred British beef,” read the description. “It’s not just painting, it’s Farrow & Ball.”

Top Image: A kitchen painted in Farrow & Ball ‘Bancha’, named after Japanese tea leaves.

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