painted ceilings

Why Blue?

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A white patch in the center of the decorations prevents the attainment of that unity of effect which is the aim of the artist. A ceiling looks well if of plain blue of almost any depth.
— Christopher Dresser-Studies in Design 1874

If you live south of the Mason Dixon line, chances are you’ve come across a few southern front porches that are painted a beautiful hue of “haint blue”. If you’re like me and have the privilege of being from the south, you most likely come from many generations of blue front porches, but why? Legends elude to everything from warding off evil spirits to repelling insects, and both of these traditions hold a bit of “truth”.

If you flip through any design magazine you will see that blue ceilings are a decorator favorite, even on the interior of the home. According to Architectural Digest, there are two big reasons for this: ”A blue ceiling recalls the sky, and doesn’t feel as “out there” as say a red ceiling might. The second reason is that it is rooted in luxury: historically, blue paint was quite rare, so having enough to slather on the ceiling was a sign of true wealth”.

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The first blue colorant in the ancient world was derived from lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone, and it was used for luxury goods (like Cleopatra’s eye shadow). Scarcity of blue drove demand, and the resourceful Egyptians eventually developed a way to satisfy the craving for their beloved blue. By heating together limestone, sand, and copper into the chemical compound calcium copper silicate, they developed the world’s first synthetic pigment: a deeply saturated royal turquoise. Variants of this so-called “Egyptian blue” were adopted by the Mesopotamians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans all of whom built factories devoted to the production of the color blue.

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Even with the advent of ancient synthetic production methods, the color blue remained relatively rare in home design until the Industrial Revolution. In the 19th century, British design influencer, Christopher Dresser began advocating for blue ceilings. “I have already said the repose cannot be achieved in a room unless the ceiling is colored,” he wrote in his 1874 decorating manual, Studies in Design. “A white patch in the center of the decorations prevents the attainment of that unity of effect which is the aim of the artist. A ceiling looks well if of plain blue of almost any depth.”

While some people will argue that the blue color confuses insects into thinking they are going towards the sky, this is not proven fact. A more notable theory is that when paints were first used on ceilings, they were usually milk paints, which often had lye mixed into the composition which gave them a blue tint. Lye is a known insect repellent, which would explain why insects would avoid nesting on the front porches. As milk paint has a tendency to fade over time, people needed to repaint every couple of years, covering the existing paint with a new coat of paint and lye.

Now, if you are a superstitious person, you may believe what the Gullah people believed. They are from African descend and came to parts of Charleston and Georgia back in the early 1800’s. The Gullah believed that the color deters ghosts by confusing them into thinking the blue is water or the sky. This blue color became popular for warding off these “haints” and became known as “haint blue”

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Another reason for the continued prevalence of the beautiful blues, turquoises, periwinkle and aqua colors on the front porch is that is serves as an extension of nature. People feel the blue emulates the color of the sky and makes daylight seem to last a little longer.

Southerners may have claimed fame to the beautiful “haint blue” porches, but this is a design tradition that is making it’s way to other parts of the country as well. “Southern protocol aside, I’m all about that good juju-and if that means painting porch ceilings blue to ward off negative spirits or even pesky flying critters, I’m all in,” says Charleston designer Courtney Bishop. For indoor ceilings, southern California interior designer Betsy Ginn recommends pushing past Christopher Dresser’s light blue ceiling and going as dark as you dare: “Everyone thinks a dark ceiling will close in a space, and it actually makes it feel infinite.” A night sky fitting for deep sleep.

So if you feel like there is something missing from your design scheme, try adding a little blue to your ceiling to pull together the sofa, rugs and accessories!

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