Purple season's hot colour for homes

The colour has shaken its reputation as old-fashioned and been given a fresh new edge.

Dubai - September 27, 2010 -Nido outdoor/indoor chair by Paola Lenti with velvet cushions, striped heavy cotton table runner, French style two drawer chest by Hanjel, tall purple glass vase, Iris vase in handmade glass, pumpkin shaped glass candle lantern, hand painted metal bird, vivid violet Perspex bin and chevron weave sisal rug photographed in Dubai, September 27, 2010. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National)
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What does purple mean to you? Episcopal grandeur, imperial China, camp decadence of decades past? This season it's all, and none, of those things. "Purple is a strong, rich, brave colour - and always makes a bold statement," says June Hawkins, a Dubai-based interior designer.

It's certainly not the most obviously amenable colour. So often assigned to the "difficult" category, purple could, in fact, almost be thought of as a new neutral, says Hawkins, such is its versatility. It's brilliant against acidic chartreuse greens, sari-bright Rajasthani oranges and pinks and all manner of metallics, as well as sensible, subtle browns, beiges, khaki and grey. Not as sober as brown, not as extreme as black, as rich as reds but more unusual, purple is surprisingly adaptable, points out the London designer Nina Campbell, suggesting a pairing with turquoise as a chic, cool combination.

Once considered an "old-fashioned" colour, it's now got a fresh new gloss. Hawkins chooses to use it mainly in the bedrooms, making the most of its warmth as an accent colour by adding purple cushions and accessories or maybe a feature wall behind the bed - "perhaps not solid purple but using two shades in wide stripes or wallpaper," she says. "I think of it being a good contrast colour - as black is, but more adventurous than black. It adds an edge to style and also works well with all colours."

And yes, rather counterintuitively, its potential scariness is precisely what makes it great, she says: "It dares you to be different, as many people are afraid of using it." Purple has always possessed a unique preciousness. Its association with regal luxury begins with the discrepancy between its abundance in nature yet the difficulty, for many centuries, to be found in replicating it artificially. The first purple pigment was Tyrian purple, a dye produced by the Phoenicians in the city of Tyre about 2,000 years ago, produced from mollusc shells. The dye gave a rich and deep purple that was highly prized and priced accordingly.

Rome, Egypt and Persia all used purple as the imperial standard and still, in medieval times, purple was a colour reserved for the powerful and wealthy. The purple colourants used came from different sources, most from the dye extraction from fish or insects. It wasn't until 1856 that purple dye was synthesised and could be cheaply produced; the chemist William Henry Perkin was trying to synthesise Quinine, (a medicine for malaria) and accidentally produced the first chemical pigment - it happened to be purple.

The tale that Emperor Aurelian refused to let his wife buy a purpura-dyed silk garment because of its extreme cost may or may not be apocryphal - but could such a myth be assigned to many other hues than purple? According to Julia Dempster, a Dubai-based interior designer, it has always teetered on the pompous and over-precious, but now it has a lively new edge to it. Dempster has just threaded the new all-white based design of the Ramada Doha with all shades of purple and accents of purple and fuschia pink in the soft furnishings and works of art.

"Purple is my all-time favourite colour - it is regal, dramatic, luxurious and represents prestige to me," she says. "I love rich purple silks and velvets. I also love aubergine, which is a warmer tone and looks great with gold accents." Purple now ranges from the almost-ostentatiously bold - consider ID Design's strikingly modern purple leather sofa - to the simple, including pieces with a bohemian feel: ID Design's gold-threaded purple cushions, for instance. In contrast to the richness it usually suggests, purple is also taking on a hint of the rustic this season.

Its spectrum of shades, running from milky lilacs to deep, swaggering prune and grape hues, make it many things depending on the setting, says Hawkins. Crate & Barrel's serene plum-hued Zarha vase, and the striped theme of its rustic-effect Mendocino textile range (cushions, throws, placemats and table runners), are the antithesis of olde-worlde imperial. So are sweet, light accessories such as the glass pieces at Zara in soft, heathery purples and deep plums.

Where has this all splendour of many shades come from? Why purple? Why now? It's neither minimalism or maximalism, says Anouska Hempel, a London-based interior designer, but somewhere in between. We're ready again for a bold, confident luxe. The time is right again for a return to the glamour of the early 20th century, she says: of black and white against a select few bold shades, from delicate oyster and cool silver to bold, deep purples. "It's an incredibly, deliberately modern look. It's contemporary but classic," she says.

Nina Campbell agrees, assigning purples to the same school of current design thinking as the renewed love of the most glamorous tenets of Art Deco style: gloss, chrome and mirrors with colours and styles that make a deliberate impact. It's a slightly old-school glamour - but most definitely not old-fashioned, she points out. Pair purple with traditional neutrals such as greys and cool (not warm) beiges, she suggests: the key is to use it in measured doses, keeping it stylish and interestingly elegant rather than cartoonish or camp.

"I think it works with most looks and styles but how much purple you use depends on the size of the room and the look you are creating," Dempster says. "In a neutral room or a home or room with a more contemporary style, I would use it as an accent colour, sticking to accessories only - but if the look was more eclectic or vintage it would be brilliant to use it on a larger scale and on bigger pieces such as a chair, ottoman or sofa." Crucially, mix it up - you need to set it against other colours or at least a single other colour and not overdo it, especially in a small space, she adds.

At The One, the Que lounge chair is a curvy, velveteen miniature chaise longue - could it be any other colour than purple? Its Bahamas chair is matt in texture, square in dimensions and where Que is curvy, it's geometric and solid; Saria sits somewhere between the two, with sufficient squashiness to look friendly and comfortable, but has a rock star edge with its pinked-purple leather. Kit Kemp, a New York and London hotelier and interior designer, uses purple throughout her hotels' public areas and bedrooms but, crucially, keeps it on straitened forms to give it a new liveliness, rendering it in preppy stripes and delicate spriggy prints as well as simply across great swathes of velvet and suede.

For Dempster, purple's prevalence in interiors at the moment has much to do with what's appeared recently the catwalks, and the increasingly symbiotic relationship between what we wear and what adorns our walls. "Interiors do often follow the fashion trends and purple has been bang on trend for the last couple of seasons, with retro shades of quiet lilac and deep, rich aubergine both being more dominant in fashion than usual."

So how easy is purple for our homes to wear and how should it be done? "You can either dress up your interior with dark shades paired with glossy black and shiny silver or team them with neutrals, my personal favourites being taupe, teal, chartreuse or pistachio green," says Dempster. If it seems too bold a step, do it little by little, she suggests: "Purple is very easy to use in small quantities, and to add a splash of purple in your home in the most noticeable but most subtle way, I would suggest focusing on several key single pieces such as glassware and lamps."

Soft furnishings such as throws and cushions also stand out when it comes to purple. Geneviève Lethu, Artikel and Zara Home all have pretty, vivid purple pieces if you want to keep your purpleness to tabletops and the odd corner here and there. "I have just completed a room in my home and used purple silk for the curtains," Dempster says. "With an accent of fuschia pink as a bed bolster on a pure white bed, it is very dramatic and adds a rich feel to the interior."

And if that sounds just a little too boudoir for your style, how about this: "I love the idea of subtly adding purple by way of an accent wall, upholstery or rugs." Consider a splash of the unorthodox but deeply stylish purple hues from Farrow and Ball: Pelt / No 254 and Arsenic / No 214. Odd names? Yes - certainly not Magnolia 101. But purple's perfection lies in its complexity and potential oddness - not its predictability.