For several decades, I have worked with churches and building committees as both an architect and interior designer. I have found that church interior design often presents a surprising challenge - how to work with color. Often, a large building committee will try to weigh-in on selections, but few people understand how color works or affects the built environment. To complicate matters, color preferences can be subjective. So without a clear definition and procedure for working with color, building committees tend to water down their selections. To get everyone to agree, they revert to a neutral scheme, which while safe, is pretty boring. I call it the “Everything is Beige" syndrome in church interior design.
For this reason it is very important to consider color from the very beginning as integral to the design process. Though our firm believes strongly in collaboration, we find that a small group or subcommittee consisting of three or four qualified participants work better than the entire building committee. This color committee can delve deeper into color issues and work with the architect or interior designer to understand the impact of color on the overall design. We often recommend that some of the color committee's members also be on the building committee. This way the whole building committee can be made aware of the color selections, while they empower the smaller group to make selections and recommendations more quickly and efficiently.
Working with earthy tones and muted colors is often a good place to start, since these create a sense of peace if used well. And, yes, beige can be one of those colors. However, the base colors should be balanced with brighter colors that create interest and excitement. Imagine spots of warm reds and oranges, cool blues and greens, or intense purples. Historic churches often use this kind of color scheme – lots rich wood paneling, wood pews and flooring, white plaster walls, offset with intense colors in trim or the stained glass windows. Our work restoring the historic Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston perfectly illustrates this approach. Even if you don’t have stained glass windows as focal points for color, the same principal can be used, by creating small areas of intense color in an overall neutral scheme.
For contemporary church interior design, here are some good examples where the same color concept has created some wonderful spaces. A neutral base color is used in all three of the churches shown below. All use intense accent colors to create different moods. St. Frances Cabrini uses color and light to create drama with the focus on the main altar and reredos. At St. Albert Trapani, color produces a feeling of warmth and welcome, and accentuates different focal points – the altar, the baptismal font, and the stained glass window. At Woodlawn Baptist, color is also used to create a feeling of warmth and welcome – though the colors are muted shades of orange, green and purple. The effect is an overall sense of brightness and peacefulness in the space.
St. Frances Cabrini, Houston, Texas
St. Albert Trapani, Houston, Texas
Woodlawn Baptist Church, Austin, Texas
The color selection can have a lasting impact. Churches very often don’t have the resources or the inclination to remodel or update interiors on a regular basis. Compared to your place of worship, your local restaurant or shopping center is redone or "freshened-up" regularly. So it is really important for a church to select colors that are classic and can stand the test of time. Colors can quickly become dated if you use the really popular colors of the moment – remember harvest gold and avacado green? But don't worry, there are many colors that can be used to create a feeling or mood that never goes out of style.
So when it comes to building new or renovation of existing buildings, be aware the important role color plays in church interior design. Carefully consider color as a major part of the design from the very beginning. Allow your architect or interior designer to guide you in the selection of colors, and be willing to take some risks with color to create an exciting and timeless place of worship.Are you serving on a builidng committee? We share some of our best advice in 10 Tips for Building Committees: