This story was originally published by Curbed before it joined New York Magazine. You can visit the Curbed archive at archive.curbed.com to read all stories published before October 2020.
Two years ago, my husband and I finally got around to painting our 1970s ranch house. At first, we’d considered covering over the cheap, mud-colored T1 siding with cedar shingles, as many of our neighbors have. But while shingles are fitting for our northeastern locale, they felt wrong for our little rancher. We’d also seen homes built around the same time as ours made over with slick, new cedar siding, but that was far beyond our budget. After hemming and hawing over what seemed like 50 shades of gray, we decided to paint the whole thing black — much to our family members’ initial chagrin. Although we were nervous about the bold choice, we decided it couldn’t look worse than the aging stain — and if it was too dramatic, we could always shingle over the top.
On the first day of painting, our down-the-street neighbor came by for a beer in the evening. When we showed him the beginning of our makeover, he laughed: He’d started painting his house black the very same day.
My neighbor and I are not alone: Black house exteriors have come into fashion at what seems like an almost astonishing speed. Pinterest reports that saves for black houses have grown 774 percent since spring 2014, significantly spiking in March of this year (possibly tied to a New York Times story that appeared on March 7). And people are not just dreaming of black houses. Thus far in 2018, Tricorn Black, a deep, saturated ebony that is perennially one of the company’s most popular blacks, is the 12th most popular paint sold by Sherwin-Williams in the U.S., up from the 33rd spot in 2017. In Canada, Tricorn Black is the sixth most popular color so far this year, while no black colors even made the country’s top 50 list in 2017.
My own ebony house dreams were sparked in 2013 when I saw blogger Sarah Samuels’s Michigan lake house on Remodelista. The color transformed the humble one-story house: In its darker hue, the somewhat dumpy house felt modern — fresh, even. At the same time, it seemed to recede into its natural surroundings. To a homeowner desperate for a solution to an ugly exterior, it seemed like Samuels had pulled off some kind of magic trick. I began hoarding images of black houses on Pinterest, wondering if I’d be brave enough to try it myself.
Until recently, an all-black house exterior was fairly edgy — more art installation or scenic backdrop than a place to live your everyday life. In 2002, artists Rob Pruitt and Jonathan Horowitz painted their 1895 Victorian black from foundation to turret. The New York Times covered the transformation, noting that “the men turned what had once been a picture postcard residence (they have the postcard) into Delaware County’s ominous new attraction. Word of mouth has turned out a steady procession of onlookers.” Horowitz considered the house akin to a work of art, one that pushed back against a traditional view of houses: “Design and decoration are so often distinguished from art-making as superficial and devoid of the meaning that art supposedly has.” At the time, I worked at Budget Living magazine, and we photographed the house to be included in our October issue, playing up the spooky element of the black facade. Martha Stewart Living would later use the house as a location for its own Halloween crafts story. If you’d one day told me I’d be living in my own haunted house, I wouldn’t have believed you.
A black house was not always a radical choice. In centuries past, houses were black for practical reasons. Traditional methods of preserving and protecting wood result in a blackened look, including the Japanese practice of shou sugi ban and the Scandinavian process of coating wood in a combination of tar and linseed oil.
Shou sugi ban, known as yakisugi in Japanese, involves charring wood to leave a carbonized layer on one side of the lumber, rendering the wood pest-, fire-, and weather-resistant. Used primarily to protect against fire, the technique dates back to the 18th century but is enjoying a resurgence today among high-end architectural practices, which value the rich, handmade look shou sugi ban creates. Shou sugi ban has become so trendy there are even lumber suppliers who sell precharred lumber to builders at great expense. In an article on the rising popularity of shou sugi ban, writer Amanda Fortini speculates, “the deeper roots of the trend no doubt lie in our current collective hunger for all things artisanal — for creations that aren’t sleek and mass-produced but contain the visible, sometimes-raw, but always original touch of the human hand.”
In Europe, and particularly in Scandinavia, in the 19th century and early 20th century, wood was coated in a combination of tar and linseed oil, which acted as a natural sealant that just happened to be black. Andrea Magno, a color and design expert at Benjamin Moore, points out that homes were also traditionally painted dark colors in northern climates as a budget heating method. “A black home will absorb a considerable amount of heat from the sun,” says Magno, who believes the black exterior trend is unlikely to last in warmer climates.
Magno may yet be surprised. Black houses are popping up in unexpected places. When I spoke with Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at Sherwin-Williams, she was astounded that she is now seeing black exteriors in Texas, where the color is untraditional and unexpected because of the heat. Likewise, charcoal-colored homes are infiltrating the white houses and shingled manses of beach enclaves like the Hamptons, where black traditionally would have been considered too gloomy. Designer Mark Zeff is among those who have embraced the notion of a somber hue for his beach house in East Hampton, New York. Zeff believed in the black-house aesthetic so wholeheartedly it became the name for his lifestyle brand, Blackbarn, which in addition to real estate development has spawned a restaurant, two stores, and a book about his house.
A writer for the New York Times joked that it was perhaps the 2016 election that prompted her own black-house obsession, but the recent trend toward deep, dark homes started long before we had a real estate mogul in the White House.
Dwell magazine, the darling of the contemporary architectural world, featured a black house on the cover of its very first issue, in October 2000, and has profiled a parade of black and near-black houses for the last 18 years. A search of the site reveals that the editors know there’s an audience for these dark homes, with slideshows of “30 All-Black Exterior Modern Homes” and “15 Modern Homes with Black Exteriors.” Nor is Curbed immune.
Meanwhile, black has been having an extended moment inside the house. The much-admired home of J. Crew’s former president Jenna Lyons, photographed for Domino in 2008 and for Living Etc. in 2009, which featured a chalkboard-paint-covered master suite and a black-walled nursery, spawned a thousand imitators. Black interiors have been so popular in the last decade that even websites like the stalwart Goodhousekeeping.com feature slideshows of black-walled interiors.
Wadden points to Cabin Porn, the Tumblr and subsequent book, as early promoters of the black-exterior aesthetic, but she thinks it is social media and Instagram that have made the super-dark exterior take off. “They photograph well, and that’s definitely influencing people,” she says.
“The color highlights the imperfections in the wood in an interesting way that makes it look like beautiful, charred wood. It actually makes the house disappear: The black makes the green of the landscaping pop instead.” —Neal Beckstedt
Black is still much less common than white or other soft, neutral tones on the exteriors of homes. But with the advent of Instagram, Houzz, and Pinterest, black houses can feel nearly ubiquitous — especially if you’re seeking them out. Seeing all these black houses has given people the confidence to try it themselves, says Wadden. Benjamin Moore’s Magno agrees. “While painting the exterior of a home black would have never been an option years ago, through exposure to so many images and having sources of inspiration right at our fingertips, homeowners can explore more nontraditional or daring options when choosing color for their exterior,” she writes in an email.
Finally, there’s less potential for a bad investment with black these days. Painting a house black is less risky because today’s paints and stains are so good, says Wadden. A generation ago a homeowner might worry about the color fading before the paint needed to be redone, but today’s formulations are more reliable — and they are easier to apply, so a DIY-minded homeowner like myself can actually get a decent-looking result that will last.
As I was reporting this story, a photo of a black facade architect and interior designer Neal Beckstedt captioned “When in doubt, paint it #black,” popped up in my Instagram feed. I wondered if his words and image were tongue in cheek: Had black reached such ubiquity that a member of Elle Décor’s A-List was poking fun at yet another black house? I decided to call Beckstedt to find out.
“No,” he laughed, “That’s actually my house!” Beckstedt had just painted his 1890s house in Sag Harbor, New York, a very dark shade of charcoal (the same one, incidentally, that he had used in his New York City bathroom). The founder of an eponymous interior design practice, Beckstedt confessed even he worried about the choice. “I was a little nervous about what my neighbors would think,” he said. But Beckstedt is thrilled with the results. “The color highlights the imperfections in the wood in an interesting way that makes it look like beautiful, charred wood,” he said, and to his surprise, “it actually makes the house disappear: The black makes the green of the landscaping pop instead.”
Luckily, the neighbors approve too.
Laura Fenton is a writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Better Homes & Gardens, Country Living, New York magazine, and Parents, where she is the lifestyle director.
Editor: Sara Polsky