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Dark Exteriors

Setting the Scene for Outdoor Entertainment

August 24, 2018
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Dark Exteriors

Setting the Scene for Outdoor Entertainment

August 24, 2018

Let's get this out of the way: The dark exterior for a house is not a trend. While interest in it has surged up almost 1000% since 2014, according to Pinterest's metrics on it alone, it's been around in various cultures for hundreds of years. And when this exterior goes beyond dark to black itself, one might even say it's not so much a trend or a design choice as a way of life. It's at once self-effacing, a gesture toward the void, and the ultimate statement—"LOOK AT ME!" It's house-as-art-installation and a declaration of presence. Paintcoat as paradox. It also just makes sense in some climates.  

Whether it's in dark green, dark grey, dark blue, dark brown, or pure black, houses with dark exteriors form elegant foils against which outdoor ornaments, a bold-color front door and/or trim, and the surrounding landscape itself all pop

Due to the many years of unpopularity-verging-on-unacceptability for black as an exterior color, it's still seen as taboo. And is thus wildly thrilling to do. It's like that "Bring it on" moment in The X Files when Mulder defiantly hammers the pink flamingo into his front yard, but way bigger and without supernatural forces telling you that you can't do it. It's a kiss-off to mediocrity, conformity, and the very idea of settling.

Here's the thing: If there are stories of people who took the plunge and went dark with their exterior, and then regretted it, the internet isn't full of them. Rather, it's those nervous to make the leap, but were so glad they did a few weeks later, that you see on design blogs and in décor articles. 

 


Peacock Hill. Photo by Roger Davies for Budget Living, 2003. Via Door Sixteen.

In Laura Fenton's excellent in-depth article on black houses, "Black is the new black," published on Curbed earlier this month, she points back to the impact of Peacock Hill, pictured above. When artists Rob Pruitt and Jonathan Horowitz painted their 1895 Victorian in the Catskills black in 2002, it got everybody talking. First locally, when it was just completed, then all over the place, when The New York Times ran this piece on it that October. A great profile on the house and its owner-curators followed in the now-defunct Budget Living, and before you know it, the house was a set for Martha Stewart, the lady in white, to do one of her seasonal Halloween crafts stories. 

But Peacock Hill was no Halloween gimmick, great in October and a bit ridiculous the rest of the year. Instead, it proved what an exceptional and attractive look a dark coat of exterior paint could be. The house went from postcard to landmark in a matter of a few days. Even those doubtful at first quickly grew to love it, admirers slowing their cars as they drove by. 

As we'll discuss more later, it also proved what a great setting for contrast dark exteriors make. Whether it's an adjacent deck, patio, outdoor living room, or porch, colors in furniture and pillows pop against the dark background to sublime effect.


Peacock Hill. Photo by Roger Davies for Budget Living, 2003. Via Door Sixteen.

Though dating back to the Victorian Era and bearing no less than eight gables, this house wasn't the first or the oldest. There are some seriously old dark houses in America. One of them, dating back to 1668 and bearing one less gable, is pretty famous and still quite handsome in its coat of clapboard painted black. (At different times, it also looks dark grey or dark brown.) We're referring of course to the one that served as setting and title for one of the United States's first classic novels: 1851's The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. 350 years old and the national landmark is still rocking that darkness!

A Japanese tradition going back to the 18th century, shou sugi ban, or yakisugi, resulted in dark exteriors. To make the lumber resistant to pests, fire, and weather, the wood would be charred on one side. This carbonized layer achieves the desired effect, and yakisugi is still practiced to this day. At once deterrent to nature's deteriorating effects and great to look at, the tradition has been sought out for the air of authenticity it exudes lately. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.

Nor was this the only old-fashioned method. Coating wood in a darkening combination of tar and linseed oil is a Scandinavian approach to treating the common house-building material for the onslaught of the elements.

What we derive aesthetic pleasure from often begins in pure pragmatism. One thing to keep in mind about dark colors on the  outside of a house is that they trap in heat. A custom like the one just described from Scandinavia may have been implemented in part to help the home stay a bit warmer during long winters, practicing passive solar design.

Not that you need to live in a cold climate or geek out on history to go dark. Enter Victoria Smith of SF Girl by Bay, Pinfluencer Extraordinaire, and Sarah M. Dorsey. These two women of excellent taste dove headfirst into the dark end of the design pool and haven't looked back, later mounting Troy exterior sconces such as Allegheny and Smyth to keep it lit. Judging by those palm trees you see in the background, the cold is not much of an issue.

Victoria, a San Francisco girl at heart, made her home in the Los Angeles area her own in 2016 when she heeded the immortal words of Mick Jagger and decided to Paint It Black! (Or, more specifically, Benjamin Moore Aura Exterior in Flat Onyx Black 2133-10.) Then, recently, she swapped out her satisfactory outdoor lights for some extraordinary ones, in an ongoing effort to reclaim the California Craftsman character of her home. You can see what a difference it made and read what she has to say about it here.

 


Image: Victoria Smith of SF Girl by the Bay | Light: Allegheny by Troy Lighting


Image: Victoria Smith of SF Girl by the Bay | Light: Allegheny by Troy Lighting


Image: Victoria Smith of SF Girl by the Bay | Light: Allegheny by Troy Lighting


Image: Victoria Smith of SF Girl by the Bay | Light: Allegheny by Troy Lighting


Image: Victoria Smith of SF Girl by the Bay | Light: Allegheny by Troy Lighting


Image: Victoria Smith of SF Girl by the Bay | Light: Allegheny by Troy Lighting

As both Victoria Smith's space above and Sarah M. Dorsey's below show, expanding the chill-out zone from indoors to a deck and patio becomes as exciting as it is inviting when you've got a dark house in the background. 

Seating that hangs from a porch ceiling or pergola sets the scene and charges corners with calming energy. Planters and pots contrast against the house's dark exterior while segueing to the green outdoors. Garden stools and side-tables may pop with fun colors like yellow, orange, and blue.

Dorsey went with Benjamin Moore, too, choosing a dark shade of their evocatively named Dragon's Breath. You can learn more about Dorsey's summer patio refresh here.


Design: Sarah M. Dorsey | Light fixture: Smyth by Troy Lighting


Design: Sarah M. Dorsey | Light fixture: Smyth by Troy Lighting

A few pro tips if you're thinking about making your own black house, since different materials interact with paint and the environment in different ways.

  • Vinyl siding: Expands and contracts with weather changes, requiring high quality paint that can expand and contract with it
  • Hardie® siding with ColorPlus®: Adds another 15 years' longevity, guaranteed, to your exterior
  • Wood: Ages, needs recoats periodically

Using exterior paint only, try at least 3-6 different samples in matte and gloss to be sure you like it before taking the plunge. 

 


Image: Victoria Smith of SF Girl by the Bay | Light: Allegheny by Troy Lighting

Troy Lighting is one of the most accomplished producers of outdoor lighting  / exterior fixtures in the industry. Offering a vast range of inspired design possibilities, energy-efficient options that must conform to our home state of California's leading edge of sustainability regulations, and every sort of category you might need in a well-designed landscape, Troy's exterior fixtures have a handcrafted sense of impact you can't fake. You can explore the full line here.

Also worth consideration if you're looking for a pop color in the lighting to play against that dark background is our Troy RLM division, a fully customizable line of industrial and commercial grade outdoor reflector luminaires. 

If you're specifying for an outdoor kitchen or looking for fixtures conforming to dark-sky movement regulations, read our post here

Are you considering going dark or becoming one of a growing movement of bold homeowners to proudly boast a black house?

Good luck!


Image: Victoria Smith of SF Girl by the Bay | Light: Allegheny by Troy Lighting

Explore our Dark Drama and Exterior Lights boards on Pinterest for more inspiration!