Lately, I have been obsessed with a particular color combination: pink and orange.
The origin of my color romance could come from several subliminal sources: the Dunkin’ Donuts that I pass on my way to work, my local liquor store’s Veuve Clicquot Rosé window display, Anjelica Huston’s incredibly chic pale pink suit and orange Hermes bag in a scene in The Royal Tenenbaums (which I just rewatched on a Wes Anderson binge) or the jacket designs of several books (and rooms!) by the legendary 1960s British decorator David Hicks who I recently rediscovered after organizing a bookcase.
To understand the root of my sudden obsession, I contacted Bevil Conway, an artist and associate professor of neuroscience at Wellesley College who studies how color is processed in the brain.
Conway, while skeptical of claims that any color — or combination of colors — has universal appeal, says that “color is powerful, and it has special access to the parts of our brain that care about what other people think and how we feel.” He explains that color preferences are largely tied to our associations with those colors. Thus my current craving for pink and orange has more to do with the things and experiences that I associate the colors with (doughnuts + champagne happiness) than to the colors themselves.
The pairing of the two colors has a long history in both indigenous South American and Mexican cultures. Why those cultures would have chosen the pairing is a larger question, but there are two attributes that make these two colors stand out.
Pink and orange are similar; they sit near each other on the color wheel, so when paired they can appear aggressive and, to some, even jarring. Conway explains that when two very similar things are put in front of us, our visual systems are wired to enhance the differences between them, which makes for a more dynamic visual experience.
Pink and orange also cover a wide spectrum of shades. This adds to the versatility of the color combo. Take, for example, the pink that Dunkin’ Donuts uses vs. the one that Veuve Clicquot does; Dunkin’s is bolder and more vibrant, while the champagne company’s is paler and more sophisticated.
Both of these factors need to be taken into consideration if you choose to use these two colors for your interior. When I recently pitched my pink-and-orange scheme to 8-year-old Roan Roth and her mother, Meg, I was careful to consider not only the shades of colors, but also the amount of color I would use. My goal was to make the room fun and lively but not so vibrant that little Roan couldn’t concentrate on her homework.
I borrowed my palette more from Veuve Clicquot than from Dunkin’ and covered only one wall in a pale pink (Benjamin Moore’s Ballet Slippers). Then, inspired by German-born American artist Josef Albers, I painted a cube in shades of orange over it (Benjamin Moore’s Butterfly Wings, Tangerine Fusion and Habanero).
The rest of the room I kept white — white slipcovered bed, white flokati rug — with the exception of a strong color-blocked fabric shade (Christopher Farr’s Untitled) and an orange leather chair and ottoman to anchor and balance the room.
Although neither Roan nor her mother had any idea that the room was inspired by doughnuts and champagne, Roan likened lying in her bed to sitting at the beach and watching the sun go down.
Conway would appreciate her assessment. He points out, “Pink and orange are ancient colors that we have lived with for a long time; after all, they are the colors of a sunset.”
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”