Dozens, maybe even hundreds of talking heads on various home improvement television shows of late are on a mission to tell you not to ever create custom finishes in your home. This is very direct marketing coming from their advertisers, paint companies, who want you to stick with a straight color and repaint your room with another paint color when you are sick and tired of that color. It perfectly plays into the American disposable lifestyle alongside Ikea furniture and throw away clothing trends. This is extremely practical advice if you do not want to raise the bar of your aesthetic aspirations, but let me guarantee you that the deep satisfying ambiance you feel when you walk into a worn frescoed room in an Italian Villa, or a layered glazed and gilt room in a grand chateau in France, is not available straight from a can. Timeless finishes are what we are talking about.
If you enjoy dropping, sanding, taping, and repainting your rooms with the same frequency as you change your wardrobe you need not read further. However, if you would like to create a space that will stand the test of time and trends read on! Timeless finishes do not find themselves tied to the color trends of a decade (we all remember the hunter green and maroon rooms of the early 90's, and the gray rooms of the 2000's will be steered away from for some time). Instead they are about texture, the human hand, and site specific context.
Material is king, not color. Material is what gives us all the feeling that a room has presence of its own. Try to think of a wall's material in the same way you think of a painting or a sculpture's value. An oil painting might intrinsically feel more timeless than a watercolor, while a bronze sculpture might feel more important than an aluminum sculpture. Surface matters. What materials have been used on walls the longest? If you are thinking plastic based acrylic paints you are wrong. The first painted walls in Egypt were painted with tinted wax, and it is glorious. Wax is a luminous, forgiving, and a timeless vehicle for color. We all know that fresco was a common decorative choice for the Greeks and Italians. The method of mixing the tempera colors and patterns right into the plaster of the space meant the finished product was always perfectly married to its surroundings. Boiserie ruled in France for many centuries. These intricately carved wood panels cover a room from floor to ceiling, framing each area of the space to create a harmonious symmetrical perfection. Boiserie is usually finished in perfectly brushed oils and glazes with a tone which serves to deepen the shadows and highlight its carving. The effect elevates the walls to the point that hanging art on them is almost an insult.
Application also matters. Rolling paint onto a wall with a big orange peel roller (industry term for bumpy) is fast and efficient, but the texture it leaves behind is inextricably subconsciously tied in our minds to cheap apartment walls. We may not notice specifically if there are large drips in the paint of trim work when we walk into a room, but we take in the details nonetheless. Oil paint applied in long slow purposeful strokes has a calming effect whether it is noticed or not. It is as if the motion of the application has an echo. A wall which has been finished in a Venetian plaster leaves behind the strokes of the artisan's blade, and the rhythm of those strokes reverberate and almost create a living heartbeat in the walls.
A beautifully finished space has an actual emotional, psychological, maybe even visceral effect. This is why people pay huge amounts of money to go stay in boutique hotels or old Chateaus. They pay because beautiful spaces are a salve for the soul. Often the old Italian villas tourists are flooding have simple furniture, nothing to write home about, but still at least made of real wood. However, the hand plastered walls and artisan made tiles in those villas create an effect that is transportive. Yes of course if you pay to have a room finished in beautiful boiserie but fill it with crap it will not look right. But actually the crap will look unworthy of the room. If you paint a room with a straight out of the can gray and fill it with crap it will look like junk in a dump. If you paint a room out of the can and buy some nice furniture your room will look nice for a while, and eventually only some of your furniture will look nice.
So, try this. Try to reimagine painting a room. Everyone does the same thing, they walk into a home and go, yuck pea green walls! I have to paint that immediately. Instead think, what feel do I want these walls to have? Do I want them to feel soft like the wall of an old stone cottage? Luxurious and sleek like the walls of a penthouse apartment? Aged but refined like the walls of an Italian villa? Think about the emotive effect you want the walls to have rather than the color you want them to be. Then decide what material to use, what sheen, what stroke, then finally, what color!
PS. Wallpaper can be fantastic, if it is handmade. It is all about the hand.