Neutrals are out, bold colours are in

When the economy gets gloomy, designers turn to vibrant colours to inject warmth and optimism, lifting the mood in homes as well as offices - and this year is no exception.

The Salone del Mobile, the world's largest and most directional furniture fair, held every spring in Milan, was a nail-biting event this year for Marlene Waldorf, the collection manager for the Danish design house BoConcept.

Before travelling to Italy, Waldorf and her design team had selected the company's colour palettes for the year ahead - and for them, the future was all bright: "We'd selected primary colours for this coming season with a move towards dusty tomato reds and vintage blues for next year but we were very nervous," remembers Waldorf. "We felt instinctively that bright, optimistic colour was the way forward in interiors, but would the rest of the world agree?"

She needn't have worried. After half a decade of neutrals, taupe and minimalism, the Salone was a veritable rainbow - solid blocks of colour snaking through home accessories and making massive statements in the bigger items - tables, room dividers, beds, sofas. As orders were taken and the fair broke up, the colour beige - having seemed terribly grown-up, versatile and oh-so-chic for so long - suddenly seemed a bit, well, boring.

The reason for the sea change? Trendsetters, designers and decorators are of one voice: the return of colour is the result of what's known as "the lipstick theory", the economic indicator suggesting that, in difficult times, a woman will buy bright lipsticks to lift her mood and her look. Roughly translated in interiors terms, that "lift" is as applicable to men as well as women and is as likely to include a tomato-red ottoman as a funky fuchsia chair.

"You cannot deny the positive influence of colour. It's a comfort in a world awash with negativity in terms of financial turmoil, natural disasters and conflict. In times like these it is within our nature to become more introspective and feel the need to surround ourselves with things that make us happy to look at," says Waldorf.

"It's what we referred to as cocooning in the late 1980s," agrees Thomas Lundgren, the founder of The One. "Colours symbolise warmth and authenticity, and injecting brightness into interiors is a type of emotional investment in your home. I think we were all guilty of ignoring that during the boom years."

Only recently, Lundgren says, he realised how an overkill of neutrals no longer just seems irrelevant - it can be a total mood breaker. "I recently went with my wife to one of Dubai's top hotels to spend the day at the spa to celebrate our wedding anniversary," he recalls. "We actually came out rather depressed and it wasn't the starkness of the space that affected us - a monastery can be totally serene and beautiful - it was the total lack of bright colour."

The return of vibrant shades in interiors and the spirit it engenders marks the return of truer values, believes Lundgren. "That time when we all went a bit mad on disposability? I certainly wasn't myself for a while. This recession needed to happen."

There is a return to basics at BoConcept, too, says Waldorf. For next season, colour takes its cues from the 1960s. "I'd say colour is more adult now than it was. We were using turquoise a year ago, which then felt very funky and fresh but now we have adjusted it. Our spectrum now has a more mature, intellectual look."

Gianni Sharrouf, who does most of the "shopping" for his company, Purity, at the Salone del Mobile (Paola Lenti, Porro and Living Divani are among the renowned brands distributed by Purity in the UAE and Bahrain) has noticed "a definite shift to using more colours in interiors, as opposed to earthy, neutral tones".

Paola Lenti has been offering show-stopping, block-colour pieces in both its indoor and outdoor collections for the past several seasons. "Designs from groundbreaking companies such as [this] are difficult to get wrong since they are using block colour in a very contemporary way," says Sharrouf. "Their choice of strong colours - all of which they own the copyright for - break the rules without being in bad taste. It is [even] popular in Japan, a country that rarely embraces colour."

Sharrouf feels that colour has always appealed to the Gulf market because of the demographically mixed clientele, but cautions: "While taste is a very personal thing, this new trend towards colour requires a very well-honed aesthetic sense to put together well. Colours need to be used cautiously as few have the eye to pulling a colourful interior together without creating visual pollution."

Jacquie Mavian and Roia Jabari of the Dubai-based Nilroy Interiors have noticed that their clients are being inspired to reconsider colour. Some really like the idea of brights, says Mavian, but are afraid of not knowing how to use them: "They often feel a bit overwhelmed and think it's too much for their home, without realising the impact that just one chair or sideboard in a bright cerise or strong purple can make."

However, she adds, most of her clients are very clued up on trends: "It's interesting how strong interiors trends like colour are not arbitrary but follow socio-economic factors. People knew this was coming from what has been happening on the catwalks and commented on in magazines and blogs and so are very aware. For a designer the key is being one step ahead."

Mavian and Jabari say many of their clients now regard their homes as a place to entertain friends, whereas in the past they used to go out. To give their homes a more personal stamp they are keen to pull together their interiors with colour. "We advise them of the need for harmonising, rather than throwing everything together," explains Mavian. "Neutrals are not hard to do yourself but this look does need a bit of eye."

Not content to have simply brightened up clients' homes, Nilroy has been commissioned to translate "bright" for the workplace, too. "We have just completed an office space in Abu Dhabi in shades of reds and apple greens and the staff working there think it's fantastic compared to the neutrality of most work spaces," says Mavian. "That movement of colour from the home into the working environment is something I see happening more and more."

For one woman in Dubai, the need for bright is not a trend that comes and goes; quite simply, colour is intrinsic to her sense of self: "Bright is not a trend - it has been with us forever and you only have to look at the vibrant fabrics used by desert tribes to see how important colour has been in making people feel good in their surroundings," says Mimi Shakhashir, the joint owner of the interiors boutique O'de Rose.

When the shop opened in 2008, the neutral craze was at its zenith and, initially, customers would come and gaze in wonder at the bright fabrics used by designers such as Bojka to upholster furniture - then leave with nothing more daring than a Moroccan tea glass or two.

"It did take a while for people to get used to it," agrees Shakhashir. "But customers would admit that it transformed their mood when they crossed the threshold. They would relate to colours that ignited memories and, slowly, they realised that colour is timeless."

Does she know if O'de Rose has changed the taste of any die-hard neutral fans? "Actually I do," says Shakhashir. "When we started, my partner Dania was into the very pared-down French look with pale colours but, after being surrounded by all this vibrant colour all day, she began to think something was missing in her own home and slowly started to inject it. That is typical of many of our customers."

Surprisingly, perhaps, even some icons of mid-century design have recently been reissued in bright hues - causing at the very least raised eyebrows, and a few downright scathing attacks, from design-blog purists.

To celebrate its 60th anniversary this year, Hans Wegner's Wishbone Chair has been reissued by Carl Hansen & Sons in a choice of deep teal blue and citrus palettes while Le Corbusier's LC2 lounge chair - by its licensed manufacturer, Cassina - is not only upholstered in bright leather (including blue, red, yellow and green) but also comes with contrasting coloured frames, in place of the classic chrome. "Does colourising 80-year-old classics that were only intended for production in black leather and steel make them into something else entirely?" argue the detractors. Well, if it does, is this necessarily a bad thing?

At the High Street end of design, Beth Eckerstrom, the trend director of the US-based retailer Crate & Barrel, is responsible for developing the colour palette for all of the store's merchandise. This season she has selected Ceylon yellow (a bright mustardy shade) as Crate & Barrel's key colour, a hue that the company's website describes as "fresh, embraceable and, believe it or not, neutral". Throughout the store's indoor and outdoor furniture and accessories this "mellow" bright has been used where once its more diluted cousins, cream and taupe, ruled.

BoConcept has also gone big on hot colours, according to Waldorf: "In fact there are several bright colours we now regard as neutral - red and, increasingly, orange," she says. "I think that injecting bright into our homes will have a long time to run yet - and that can only be a good thing for us all."