OK, I admit it. I’m stealing this topic from Paul Anater, over at Kitchen and Residential Design. But I’m not going to say the same things.
Yes, I quite agree that chalkboard paint is overdone – and way overdone in several of the images he shows. It’s old. It’s boring. It’s dated. There are clearly limits to its usefulness, safety, and definitely to its appearance. Not only can it be toxic when it gets into your food as Paul mentions, but chalk dust can also be a major problem for people who have allergies, asthma, or chemical sensitivities, so it would not foster an accessible design for people who suffer from such afflictions. It would also violate universal and visitability design principles, as it could create a similar hazard for other users of the space, particularly visitors whose sensitivities might be unknown. Chalk dust doesn’t do anything for overall air quality, either, so that lowers the green design reusability quotient of the paint, never mind what the VOC content of it might be.
Now that we’ve looked at the potential health hazards, let’s focus more on the visual elements.
Looking at the images Paul posted, the ones that really offend me the most are the refrigerator fully covered in the dreadful green version of the paint, that huge, frightening expanse of black wall and door, and yes, that hideous kitchen.
Aside from the chalkboard paint and the utterly unaligned text, nothing screams “cheap, crappy cabinets” quite like painting the doors and drawers with any color other than the same color as the frames. All one color, folks, whatever you select. You want to unify the frames with the drawers and doors with cabinetry like this. If you really want to label them, use something like Wall Words in an appropriate contrasting color and scale, and make sure they all line up precisely. That will give you much more design impact for your money than all the chalkboard paint and messiness on it in the world.
As for the refrigerator, well… Just because it may be practical as one of Paul’s commenters pointed out doesn’t mean it has to be butt ugly. This would repel me from even looking inside this fridge. Heck, it would send me running screaming from that kitchen altogether. The paint just looks too much like something that might be growing inside the refrigerator, on some food long forgotten in the back. Like synesthesia, this one smells bad just looking at it, as well as offending the eye. Ugh and double ugh.
If you really must have chalkboard paint in the kitchen despite the hazards that Paul cites, please do it only on one door like the picture above (or perhaps one wall in a child’s room only), or a small side wall, or at worst, as in the image below, a wall that frames the refrigerator. This is actually cabinetry, too, not a wall, but this version works much better than either of the related applications that Paul showed, because of a number of details which work together harmoniously and unobtrusively.
First, these cabinets are full overlay, probably frameless; in other words, they are sleek, there’s no gap to speak of between them, and none of the frame is visible. The handles are unobtrusive and the holders for the chalk are clearly an intentional part of an obviously well thought-out design. The scale and lower, off-vertical center placement of the chalk holders neatly balance the oppositely vertically unbalanced handles on the refrigerator, also neatly dividing the lower cabinet or wall sections almost in half so that the vertical scale and subtly increasing height of the sections subtly echos the perfect proportions of a column or well-made panelling. It actually creates a panel-like effect that is more humanly-scaled than just the tall and short doors alone. Everything is also all neatly lined up, and the whole thing creates a frame that highlights the refrigerator and turns it into almost a piece of art itself instead of making the fridge into an object of objection by itself. In this way, it subverts the usual paradigm of chalkboard inside a frame. In addition, what’s drawn on the chalkboard is neat, not messy. The inscriptions are just as functional, but there’s still been a good deal of thought and care put into what they look like. I’d skip the sliding door, though; that’s what would send this into total overkill when closed.
I think the chalkboard paint is actually kind of interesting in the other images Paul shows, too, especially in the powder room and entryway wall, since both of those invite interaction on a reasonable scale from guests and family members alike, even more than any of the others do, including the images I’ve posted here. They are manageable in scale, offset and balanced by what’s around and in front them. The hallway one is functional as a communications device without being overwhelming, in a location where it won’t be missed as people come and go.
These applications also particularly speak to the dynamism and warmth of a home occupied by and visited by real people with real lives, not just a frozen magazine picture-perfect, hands-off place you’re afraid to tread in and want to keep the kids out of. It’s real. It’s unexpected. They are quirky and very personalized. These are much more creative, especially the powder room, where it’s a particularly deliberate take-off on the graffiti we so often see scribbled on walls and partitions in public restrooms. It’s very tongue-in-cheek and amusing.
These two applications also create focal points in unusual places, which help round out a design better than keeping all such things front and center where they will be the most obvious. A well-designed home will spread fun things and treasures throughout, inviting discovery and seeking what’s next in varying places as you move through the space and round the next corner, leading you around, rather than revealing them all at once and keeping you rooted in one room, with nothing of particular interest anywhere else. Everyone does chalkboard paint in places like the kitchen and children’s rooms. That’s a big part of what makes it old and boring.
These applications are also kind of like ever-changing, interactive installation art, in places that won’t overwhelm spaces that are used more frequently and for longer periods of time.
There’s definitely something to be said for design of any sort that does these kinds of things, even with something that’s become as much of a cliche as chalkboard paint has. Real creativity also starts when you can actually do something interesting and different with something routine and cheap like paint of any sort. And because it’s cheap, it’s also accessible for everyone, regardless of budget, and can be a do-it-yourself project.
And finally, as a late designer I respected very much and consider a great influence on my own work and design philosophy used to say, in interior design, not everything has to be precious. A mix of high and low elements that reflect the occupants’ own lives and interests is much more interesting.
Now all that said, it certainly could be that there are some nifty applications I haven’t thought of. In what interesting or innovative ways have you seen chalkboard paint used?