Feighan: What’s in a paint name? More than you think

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
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Sue Wadden carries a small notebook with her wherever she goes because you never know when inspiration may strike.

And inspiration is pretty important when you’re a color expert for Sherwin-Williams. It falls on Wadden’s shoulders to come up with unique names for the retailer’s new hues.

Sherwin-Williams, which has been in business for 150 years, has a database with 35,000 paint names in it. No name can be used twice.

That may sound easy, but there’s a twist. Sherwin-Williams never uses the same name for a paint color twice. Ever.

So if Wadden comes up with something cool, she has to check it against a database of paint colors Sherwin-Williams has — hues it either still makes or used to make (a legal team also has to sign off on each name). There can only be one Alabaster or Balanced Beige. And how many hues are there in Sherwin-Williams’ database? Roughly 35,000.

A color’s name “has to be a top of mind,” says Wadden in a phone interview from Cleveland. “These colors have to live forever. It’s really important that they can’t be offensive or too topical. In 10 years, is anyone going to understand the vernacular going on right now?”

Wadden, who has been naming color for seven years, says the internet has changed the naming process so much, but she still finds inspiration everywhere. She flips through magazines and books and takes notes when she travels.

She jots down “things that you’re seeing or feeling or emotions,” she said. “It’s really helpful.”

When my husband and I bought our first home 15 years ago, we went through dozens and dozens of paint sample cards, looking for just the right hue for our living room before we settled on a warm terra cotta hue by Dutch Boy.

It wasn’t until I actually went to the store to buy the paint that I paid attention to the actual name: the Gay ’90s.

Clearly not a history buff, I was befuddled. The 90s were gay? Sure, it was a fun decade but I didn’t remember it being especially, over-the-top fun. And Ellen DeGeneres did come out both in real life and on her sitcom, but I didn’t remember the ’90s being especially ground-breaking for the gay and lesbian community either.

I didn’t realize until later that the “Gay 90s” was a term for the 1890s. A Google search also reveals there’s a drag queen bar in Minneapolis with the same name.

Sometimes there’s a personal story behind a paint name, said Wadden.

When her son Matthew was little and loved dinosaurs, she named a fun green hue Mattosaurus Rex.

“When you give a color a really good name, it really brings that color to life for homeowners,” said Madden, who just came up with 50 names for Sherwin-Williams’ new stain line.

And sometimes there’s a really fun story behind a name. Wadden said when she started at Sherwin-Williams, another woman there, Linda Trent, was working on a new color system and name a silvery purple gray Spalding Gray. There was an actor named Spalding Gray but Trent had another inspiration.

“Linda was friends with someone who had a dog was named Spalding Gray,” said Wadden. “It was just so unique.”

So would a paint color by any other name be just as sweet? Who knows. We just painted our living room a hue called Tranquil Aqua. I like the ring of that.


Twitter: @mfeighan

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