Category Archives: absence of light

Gray Matters

Winter is here. Dressed in a dark, wet overcoat like an old crow, rapping on the door.

In my first winter in Seattle, I found myself browsing garden shops wherever I could find them. At City People’s Mercantile on Sand Point Way I was somewhere between contemplating a root grubbing tool and musing over a new kneeling pad when suddenly, an announcement came over the store’s loud-speaker.

“We’re having a sun break,” the voice on the intercom cried. “Everyone step out, staff included!”

And we all ran out to raise our serotonin levels.

So where am I going with this?

I find it interesting that the Pacific Northwest and Scandinavia, both modern and progressive regions of significant light deprivation for well over half the year, deal with the phenomena so differently.

A sense of geographic isolation pervades both regions as well. “Geographically Scandinavia is a cul de sac, on the road to nowhere but the old enemy, Russia, across the Baltic Sea,” notes Jocasta Innes, author of Scandinavian Painted Décor. And I think we feel much that way, like a half way point to Alaska, in Seattle. But because of that isolation, each region has had the opportunity to create a highly developed style.

“All this green means that we take more rain than any but the most dreary of souls could find tolerable,” writes Ann Wall Frank, in her intro to Northwest Style. “Rain dulls the color of the skies. Rain seems endless. Rain soaks our psyches. When the Gods are spoon-feeding you rain, you deal with it, sometimes by creating the perfect shelter,” she continues.

In The Pacific Northwest we muddle through long rainy winters and much of spring and fall in rooms painted in somber colors, taking our color palatte “from the bark of a single Douglas fir,” notes Frank. We find warmth in full-toned woods and heavy textiles. Even our coffee shops are dark, like pubs. We tend to dress in darks or drab, and are easily startled by bright color.

And although the temperature is moderate, the architecture of our homes in the Pacific Northwest is designed with overhanging roof lines protecting us from the elements: rain, snow, pine needles, and I might add, light. What little light there is.

Whereas Scandinavians endure sub-zero temperatures and months of near total darkness, yet embrace the light by painting their interiors in shades of white, keeping their wood blond or painted light, and their fabrics lightweight, such as linen. It’s counterintuitive to our way of thinking, but Scandinavian interiors draw from a cool color palatte of pale muted blues and grays. Their rooms speak of summer houses, cottages, boathouses and such.

Remarkably different approaches to lack of light. One region is wet, the other, snowy. And therein lies the difference. It turns out to be not about the light. It’s the dampness, and that makes all the difference in the world.

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