New on the Block: the Little Black House

Posted March 7, 2018 8:14 p.m. EST

A year ago, partly in response to the election, I began compiling pictures of black houses on Pinterest and persuaded my husband that we should paint our house some shade of black. I stayed in a black cabin in the Hudson Valley on a retreat with a girlfriend. I collected paint chips, like Benjamin Moore’s Soot. I wanted my house to be, as Morrissey crooned, “The color I feel inside.”

Everyone I told had strong feelings about my decision to paint my house black."Metaphorically speaking, you mean?” my friend said when I told her about my craving for darkness. My father said I was crazy. My painter tried to convince me that the color would fade in five years.

I live in the suburbs, and no one in my suburb paints a house black. In my suburb you’re expected to paint your house white. Or gray. Or taupe.

Gray, white and taupe aren’t moody. They don’t have feelings. They’re neutral.

On a sunny day, a black house glistens and sparkles against a bright blue sky; on a gray November day, it stands out, wanting to be recognized and revered.

Black represents sadness, anger or grief for many. But that’s not all. A 2004 study of college students’ responses to color found that black also evokes a sense of richness and power. Black can be enveloping and warm, and even signify high drama, noted Judith Gura, a professor of design history and theory at the New York School of Interior Design. In medieval times, Gura said, black was associated with royalty; it was luxurious.

Black can be practical, too. In northern Europe, where tar was used as a water sealant on exteriors, the color stuck. But those black buildings are in Scandinavia or the Netherlands, far from my pallid neighborhood.

Now I have more allies. In the past couple of years, black homes have cropped up on the internet, dominating decorating sites like Dwell, Gardenista and Apartment Therapy. The Black Houses Tumblr has amassed pages and pages of black homes in rural, urban and desert settings. Shou sugi ban, the ancient Japanese technique of charring exterior wood, became a thing. PPG Paints named Black Flame its 2018 color of the year. Nashville, Tennessee-based O’More College of Design coated its 2017 show house in black. And in October, Phaidon Press published “Black: Architecture in Monochrome,” with examples of 150 black exteriors.

Then the impossible happened. HGTV — the model of mainstream American cheerful design — chose to color its 2018 Dream Home Sherwin-Williams’ Tricorn Black.

Brian Patrick Flynn, an Atlanta interior designer in charge of the Dream Home, said he often used black in his designs (Tricorn Black and Glidden’s Onyx Black are his favorites) because it gives a house without architectural significance some identity.

Flynn’s own home is painted black; so is his cabin about an hour outside Atlanta.

He said he believed this interest in black was a reaction to the white paint and white kitchen trend, which started during the housing market crash a decade ago. People turned to white because if they wanted to sell their houses, they needed the color to be simple and inoffensive.

“We’ve gone from everybody doing things that are really safe with white or cream or dove gray,” Flynn said. Now people are sick of the news. They’re miserable about the world. They want to take charge of their homes. “I think people are embracing things that may have been considered risky before and saying, ‘Let’s just go for it,'” he said.

Black is a color of provocation. Nineteenth-century anarchists waved their black flag. Twentieth-century fascists loved it. Beat poets, punks and Goths made it their brand. The Black Panthers wore black leather jackets and black berets. When fashion designer Rei Kawakubo introduced everyday black clothes in the early 1980s, critics described the collection as “post-atomic.” Most recently, black is what women in Hollywood and Congress chose to wear to express solidarity with victims of sexual assault.

In early 2016, Victoria Smith of SF Girl, a design blog, painted her home in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles Benjamin Moore’s Onyx. She latched on to black after seeing a slew of houses painted that color in Amsterdam. For her, black houses are symbols of power. “It’s like, don’t mess with me,” she said.

Smith was initially worried about her neighbors’ reaction. “I think they thought I was some Goth person,” she said. Then more people in the neighborhood began painting their homes black. Was she bothered by the imitations? No, she said. She was flattered.

For Abigail Ahern, an interior designer and retailer in London, black is warm and mysterious but also a courageous color for women to slather on walls. “You have to have a certain amount of confidence to use black, and I think we all have more confidence than ever before,” she said. “We’re channeling our own direction.”

She first painted a small alcove black in her 1860s four-story Victorian, then became so entranced that she painted her entire interior and exterior black and filled her garden with furniture and accessories to match.

That wasn’t enough. So she developed a line of dark-hued paint. Her most popular color: Hudson Black.

“Black gives me a feeling of empowerment,” she said. “I know that’s really silly because it’s just a can of paint, but it actually really does."