WHEN PEOPLE WALK into a model home, color is the first element that registers,” says Brenda MacPherson, an interior designer in Ottawa, Ontario. “If it's appealing, they start to envision themselves living in the home.” Color is believed to have so much power in the marketing of products that several times a year, color professionals—representing industries from automotive to fashion and home furnishings—convene to forecast upcoming trends. Often, they're looking far into the future. Last month, the 1,300-member Color Marketing Group of Alexandria, Va., released its 2007 palette, which runs to rich, clean colors. CMG predicts that oranges and soft pinks will replace reds; more calming blues and greens will emerge; and new purples and browns will resonate with consumers' yearnings for the earthy and exotic.

Paint companies do their own scouting to stay inspired. They're on the lookout for the sociological, cultural, technological, and economic influences that nudge color in certain directions. “Our palettes are used as a gauge—when trends are going to be applied, and to what industry,” says Doty Horn, director of color and design at Benjamin Moore in Montvale, N.J. The company's 2005 forecast focused on four influences—water (blues, greens, aquas), stability (rooted colors such as loden and terra cotta), expressionism (organic brights used as accents), and femininity (nurturing purples and pinks combined with leaf green). Benjamin Moore's 2006 trends are based on the idea of color as light and motion, which it says translates to complex colors that change mood throughout the day, such as brown with an aubergine undertone or a blue with a hint of black.

COLOR TREO: Color Design Art in Culver City, Calif., designed Brookfield Homes' Treo model, noting that as houses go upscale, color intensity tends to decrease.

These color pronouncements, which often are contradictory, mean that color selection is complicated business for builders who merchandise model homes. Every builder wants its products to pop, but color trends are fast-paced and subjective. What's perceived as fresh today may seem faded six months down the road. William Cheek, a member of CMG's executive committee, says that color trends change almost as rapidly as the fashion industry. Fabrics, home furnishings, and fashion run on parallel tracks, and the latest looks hit the newsstands almost overnight. Not to mention that demographics certainly play a role in color choice. What excites Gen Xers may make empty-nesters feel ill at ease. And the calm, clean colors that feel good to one ethnic group may simply seem anemic to another. “The most important thing is to know your markets and your customers,” Cheek advises, “and adapt the colors accordingly.”

COLOR IS CONTEXTUAL Don Anderson, president of Color Design Art in Culver City, Calif., whose firm designs model home interiors for builders such as Brookfield Homes and John Laing Homes, says young buyers and second-home buyers usually are the most adventurous color-wise. But as houses go upscale, color intensity tends to decrease. “Higher-priced homes are getting a lot of architectural character, so we're having to do a lot less cosmetically to enhance the interior,” he says. Even so, Anderson increasingly is seeing more color being applied to high-end homes.

Color sensibilities are shifting on entry-level products too, particularly in markets where starter homes cost a half-million dollars. “In the past, you could be very whimsical with color, but now a home is a serious commitment,” Anderson says. He uses color to make these houses feel as though the owners were on vacation. “The tradeoff to buying a first home is that the owners don't get to go on trips as much,” he says. “If you give the house a quality of fun and excitement, [owners] feel like their tradeoff is OK.” Still, restraint is in order. Deep colors can make an ordinary space look dramatic, and they photograph well. But if there's no option for supplemental lighting—say in a small kitchen or den—it can feel like a dungeon.

“Color is so contextual,” Anderson adds. “You wouldn't throw in citrus on a Tuscan-style house. And in a hot climate, you have to be careful with hot colors. People want to feel fresh.” A house's floor plan also influences the color scheme by telling you what sort of buyer it will attract. For example, in a recent community of large homes targeted toward empty-nesters, Anderson knew that one model's flowing plan would appeal to people who entertain. Another house was cozy, with intimate spaces where the owners might sit and read a book. For the more intimate house, he specified a variety of different colors appropriate to, say, his-and-hers spaces. By contrast, color was kept more continuous in the party house. “For the models, we create a fictitious profile of that buyer,” Anderson says. “When I walk into the first room, I want to get a sense of who this person is, where their aesthetic preference is, and I expect to see that carried through the house.”

AU COURANT Kay Green, president of Kay Green Design in Orlando, remembers when only a few colors were popular. Now, she says, lots of colors are “in,” but the key to creating excitement is how the tones are combined. “Sea foam was popular in the late 1980s, but we were putting it with peach and pink,” she says. “The same color is back, but we're pairing it with lime green and chocolate, and it looks brand new.” She says chocolate is the new black, and clean whites are back in style. To stay abreast of color trends, Green attends high-end home furnishing shows. “The $200-a-roll wallpaper will have the new colors first,” she says.

With designers embracing all sorts of hues these days, is there anything that's overstayed its welcome? MacPherson, who works with private clients and builders such as LandArk Homes, says yes: burgundy, forest green, and “gray, taupey things.” She recently designed a kitchen that combined crisp white cabinets with dark blue/green walls and granite counter-tops with hues of yellow, green/blue, and black. “I see a lot of blues,” she says. “People think of them as cold, but they can be very airy and fresh.”

Colors come and go, and that's the beauty of wall paint. Models that last longer than a year or two can be re-inspired with the stroke of a brush. “If you walk into a model home and you recognize the colors you're seeing in home furnishings and fashion, then you'll feel more comfortable that the company is up to date and knows what's happening,” CMG's Cheek says. “You want your home builder to know what's going on.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Anderson, IN.