YOUR PLACE: The whole family pitches in on a project to modernize, personalize and colorize this 1961 home.
THE MIRACLE ORB that is the human eye can detect oodles and oodles and oodles of colors.
Betty Merken can create them all.
Merken is an architectural colorist, an artist and a color consultant. It’s an exceptional, meaningful mixed palette of talent and passion — and she put every varied hue to beautiful use when she and her husband, Stefan Merken, downsized into their newly remodeled 1961 home in Seward Park.
Previously, as an arts educator, Merken developed curricula on color theory for design professionals — which is how, and when, the bright-yellow light bulb of inspiration twinkled.
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“I taught a weekend seminar through the Architecture and Interior Design program at UCLA Extension, and at least half of the participants were architects,” she says. “I didn’t realize how underserved design education for color was. One architect said, ‘The only color class I ever got was the color wheel. There was no connection to the built environment.’ ”
Thus inspired to research Faber Birren, considered the first American color consultant, Merken started detecting connections everywhere.
“With responsible color design, it’s not enough to develop a color palette; you need to understand the human reaction to colors,” she says. “Elementary-age students are relaxed by primary colors — but not in middle school; then, they’re too stimulating.”
The Merkens’ 4,600-square-foot midcentury-modern home, plus its new 810-square-foot backyard studio, takes the concept of connection, and responsible color design, even further.
“It’s about a collaboration of four creative people [architect Jonathan Hartung, of SHKS Architects; contractor Aaron Merken, Betty and Stefan’s son, who at the time owned AM Construction; Betty; and Stefan, officially a photographer/writer, but in this case, also a gifted curator of midcentury and Art Deco lighting fixtures], each of us bringing our unique talents and input to the project,” she says.
Betty’s singular contribution of talent touches on all the rest.
“I’ve always felt as a painter that color is material,” she says. “What painters and architects share are color, form, space, shape. Through history, architects and artists work together. As a painter, color theory comes out of painting, so it’s applicable to architecture and design. In our home, I chose the colors as a painter. It’s a home, not a task environment.”
Merken has participated in three international painting/art fellowships; each time, she says, she documents the colors of the region — sometimes gathering stones and grasses for inspiration, sometimes examining building facades up-close for detail, always using water-based paint and hundreds of strips to blend until each color is exactly — exactly — right.
“I hand-mixed several colors for our new home to reference architectural colors that I have documented on-site in Italy,” she says. “The color of the exterior cladding is reminiscent of the shifting colors of the limestone of Southern Italy. The warm red cedar trim echoes the earthy, reddish bricks of Siena, and the front door is the ultramarine blue found in Italian frescoes.”
That same soothing hue — inspired by the rare gemstone lapis lazuli, “the most expensive pigment,” she says — also appears on the door to the laundry room.
In the powder room, where Aaron handmade the countertop, “More fresco colors,” she says. “In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo used a number of opposite colors for contrast. The lilac next to gold leaf gave a sense of vitality and contrast.”
The kitchen pops with dots of red: in the espresso machine, in the teakettle, in new fabric cushions at the center island.
In the guest bathroom, where variations in light create a magical morphing display of hues, the Celadon Green “is the color on the facade of the Orvieto Cathedral in Italy,” Merken says. “I created the color there and painted/documented on-site as a way of tying into the architecture.”
Even the apparent absence of color plays a role, especially in the new master suite on the new upper level.
“When we first moved in, I didn’t want any furniture because I loved the architecture so much,” Merken says. “At first I didn’t want additions. Aaron climbed up on the roof and said, ‘You have to have the view.’ Because the house was so new to us, I decided to use Benjamin Moore Decorator’s White until we lived in it a while.”
The Merkens’ home — a custom-color-filled reflection of its Northwest roots and a family’s wide-ranging talents — also represents a new way of living for the couple, with an appropriately multihued mission.
“We are baby boomers, and our experience is one of downsizing and adaptability,” Merken says. “Our previous Seattle home of 29 years was a 7,500-square-foot Tudor Revival built by Dexter Horton for his daughter in 1914. We loved the house, but it was not supporting our work and the way we wished to live. We realized that we needed to open ourselves to living differently, to living a way that supported the work we do. We wanted our house and our working spaces to be living things, open to change, like the colors of the seasons.”