The power of brown: the psychology behind 2021's 'colour of the year' makes perfect sense

Colours in the home can have a profound effect on the way you feel. There's more than meets the eye to this neutral shade

Dulux has revealed a shade of brown called Brave Ground as its ‘colour of the year’ for 2021
Dulux has revealed a shade of brown called Brave Ground as its ‘colour of the year’ for 2021

Earlier this week, when Dulux revealed a shade called Brave Ground as its ‘colour of the year’ for 2021, the reaction from some tastemakers was somewhat muted – not unlike the colour itself, a pale, cool brown described by the paint manufacturer as the shade of raw clay. After the year we’ve had, wouldn’t a jollier, more uplifting colour be more fitting?

Look a little deeper at the psychology behind the choice, however, and it might make more sense. Brown, in various forms, has already been making a comeback in fashion and interiors, tying in with the trend for 1970s styling – but this colour was chosen not as a result of catwalk trends, but by examining wider social issues.

Kate Watson-Smyth, author and founder of Mad About the House (who, incidentally, repainted her charcoal-grey living room in a deep chocolate brown a couple of years ago) says it’s impossible to separate the colour from the psychological reasons behind choosing it.

“The panel behind this looks at trends in social media, fashion, architecture, politics and the environment; it’s as much about a colour that represents the psychological state of the global mind as something to put on the walls,” she says. “In that sense, Brave Ground is the perfect choice. On the one hand, it is simply a continuation of the move towards warm neutrals that has been building for the last couple of years, replacing the ubiquitous cool Scandi grey and white tones.

“On the other, it is, as the name suggests, a grounding colour – a quiet yet warm neutral that supports all the other colours but also suggests we need to have our feet firmly on the ground if we are to make the changes needed in the world.”

'It is, as the name suggests, a grounding colour'

The colour was chosen over a year ago – well before anyone had heard of Covid-19 or experienced the fundamental lifestyle changes it brought about – but, according to Dulux’s creative director Marianne Shillingford, the world was already in a state of turmoil and uncertainty, thanks to fears over climate change and political instability, and what has happened since has simply intensified those feelings. Dulux’s selection panel considered changing the colour in the wake of the pandemic, but then decided they had got it right first time.

“The process [of choosing the colour] is about getting to the nuts and bolts of the things we find important,” says Shillingford. “From there, the big story is, how are we going to be living in our homes, and how does this reflect on the way we live and work? Then we distil it down to how will this be captured in colours that give us what we want and need from our homes and workspaces.”

What is needed right now, it seems, is a connection with nature, which brings a feeling of security. The paint shade’s name, Brave Ground, was also decided last year. “The theme is that we need to have courage to make really fundamental decisions about what we’re doing with the planet; we can’t put them off any more,” says Shillingford. “That needs bravery, from business and from us as individuals. The idea is that we need solid ground from which to make these decisions in our own life, hence this positive, elemental colour.”

The trend for biophilia – fostering a sense of connection with the outside world – has been building for several years, hence the popularity of furniture and accessories made from natural materials such as wood and rattan, and the craze for house plants. This colour will work with what Shillingford calls “that sort of pared-down, natural, naked stuff, the stuff you don’t have to do much to and it’s effortlessly beautiful. It’s the same with our food,” she adds, “the less processed it is, the closer to the earth and the more organic, the better. We’re thinking about everything we put in our bodies, and these colours that are similarly simple – I think that’s what we want.”

What we also want is a colour that is easy to use: neutral paint shades are by far the most commercially successful. Grey has been popular for so long partly because it complements most other colours, and Brave Ground is intended to perform the same function, while also adding warmth. “It works with everything,” says Shillingford. “It’s safe and warm, a transition from the urban look of grey into something much more organic and natural.” It contains both cool greyish tones and warmer pink notes, so it will change with the light and with whatever colours it is paired with, toning down hotter colours like bright pinks, yellows and reds, while warming up cooler blues and greens.

Whatever it is used with, it will provide the grounding quality that a neutral tone brings: ultimately, the idea is that at a time of tumult and fear outside our homes, we will want the atmosphere within to feel calm, serene and nurturing. As Shillingford puts it: “I’m sick of being challenged – don’t challenge me with your walls! Keep them quiet.”

Which colour to use in which room?

The colour you put on your walls can have a profound effect on the ambience of the room, and the way you feel when you’re in it. It pays to consider not only the colours you like, but where they will work best in your home. Here’s how to use colour psychology to create a palette that will set the right mood.

Calming

Colours associated with nature, particularly green and blue, are known to calm the mind and bring a sense of stability, hence their popularity on bedroom walls. Green in particular is the easiest colour for the eye to detect and has been shown to aid focus and concentration in schools and offices, making it a good option for workspaces.

Uplifting

There’s a reason why pink has been so fashionable for the past few years: it’s an optimistic, uplifting colour that produces feelings of contentment. It also flatters any skin tone, making it a good choice for bathroom tiles, and entertaining spaces such as living rooms. Yellow is another cheerful colour, but easier to use as an accent shade, rather than over four walls.

Comforting

As Dulux’s Marianne Shillingford advises, to create a comforting effect, go for walls that don’t challenge the eye – warm neutrals such as taupe and sand, as well as deeper shades of brown and terracotta. Deeper nature-inspired tones such as navy blue and dark green can also feel warm and cossetting when used on walls – especially when not contrasted with white woodwork and ceilings.

Energising

Deep reds, brighter pinks and oranges help to stimulate thought and conversation – one reason why red walls are more often seen in a dining room or living room, but don’t work so well in a bedroom. These brighter colours can also suit a home office, depending on whether your job requires creative ideas, rather than calm concentration.

What to buy 

1. Izolia demijohn glass vase, £60, La Redoute 

2. Yaku pendant lampshade, £55, La Redoute 

3. Grace III print, £45, Paper Collective 

4. Quilt cushion, £79, Ferm Living 

5. Bath painted in Brave Ground, £1,480, BC Designs 

6. Sagrada leather chair, £795, Soho Home

7. Woodhouse Check throw, £180, Tori Murphy 

8. Straw-seat bench, £149.99, H&M Home

9. Akira mangowood side table, £89, Swoon