Dust Off White Tie, Black Tails to Bid Bon Voyage to ‘Marsala’

Is Boho Susan the only one who’s spent the year underwhelmed by “Marsala,” Pantone’s color of the year for 2015? Red is gorgeous. Wine is gorgeous (and delicious). Marsala the Wine is fortified with brandy. Marsala the Color is washed out.

So what happened?

Methinks Pantone or the fashion industry or wherever this color and its name came from got Marsala the Wine mixed up with Marsala the Wine-Reduced SAUCE, which looks great on chicken or steak but not so much on a dress or sofa.

See what I mean? PMS 18-1438 does not fit THAT description.

I thought I should put things to right before year-end and Marsala joins the list of PMS has-beens. So I asked my pals, Cora and Bob Crawley (actors Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville)—you know them as Lord and Lady Grantham on PBS’ Downton Abbey—to help, particularly because of their fashion, color and design sense.

Cora wears a true Marsala in this gorgeous evening dress. It’s trimmed out in black but also benefits from the grounding Bob’s black tails lend.

Not just every couple, but every ROOM should wear SOME black. If that scares you, remember that black can predominate a room without dominating it. Morever, it’s a smashing partner with TRUE Marsala, as Cora well knows.

A Marsala bouquet

Nothing’s as timeless as a black-and-white bathroom, and this one designed by Nick Olson puts a new spin on the classic form.

If you like this look but are afraid to go bold, remember that small spaces where you don’t spend a lot of time—powder rooms, foyers, laundry rooms, hallways—are the perfect proving ground for dramatic décor. Pausing in or passing through such a space is invigorating, whereas spending a lot of time there might overpower some people.

The primary accent in this room is Marsala—in the toilet topper and the bouquet of chrysanthemums—and it’s the perfect exclamation point. If you look closely you’ll see a smidge of it in the artwork.

The use of gradations of black (i.e., shades of gray) give this room layers reminiscent of a fine art black-and-white photograph. I love the graphic quality to the art—matted in white and framed in black, like Lord Grantham’s black tux and white tie. What few color accents there are refer to natural elements—a velvet pillow calls to mind a golden tiger, and the flowers once again pull in the Marsala.

The bouquet in this photo trades in the vase for a painting and pillows, creating a stunning vignette. I included it to show the versatility of charcoal-gray upholstery, particularly on a pricey piece like a sofa or loveseat. This loveseat and the sofa in the previous photo are similar—in color, fabric, tufted back and turned legs—and sit against similar backdrops. But the difference in throw-pillow color and style, as well as a different style of artwork, transform the look.

Invest in a gray sofa and your décor palette is endless. Change pillows and other accessories whenever you like.

White helps us ‘read’ a room

Bolig Magasinet

The crispness of white floors, walls, ceilings, moldings and sofa allow this room to be easily understood. It’s minimalist but not totally modern. Some elements are mid-century and some are antique—all mixed without much fluff.

The white sofa takes a back seat to the rest of the room’s outfittings, which makes it absolutely as versatile as charcoal gray. But it will require more upkeep. If you’re willing to keep it clean, your reward is a gorgeous look.

This homeowner shares my own love of quirky décor. Witness the blackboard with the skull hanging over it, as well as the black-and-white photo of Picasso—the poster child of modern, abstract art—framed less than simply. I love that Picasso stares out over the room, and that the bust on the windowsill mimics his gaze.

But neutrals—and opposites, like black and white—need to broken, at least a little. That’s where the gorgeous rococo armchair comes in. The centuries of patina on its frame make it nearly black, while the velvet Marsala upholstery ensures it is, indeed, the focal point. The rug pulls everything together, which is why at least one leg of the chair sits on it. See more of this Danish Scandinavian-style home at Décor Demon.


Designer Mary McDonald gives this restrained living room in the Hollywood Hills a jolt with unexpected trims and pillows made from vintage necktie fabrics—in Marsala, of course! Ebonized Greek key klismos chairs designed by McDonald are covered in ebony leather. The curtains are Austyn gray cashmere by Ralph Lauren, with red undercurtains of striped silk. The whites she chooses are warmer than the previous room and lean toward cream and beige. The look is elegant masculine, a veritable bespoke shopping excursion down London’s Savile Row.

The Crawley clan would feel perfectly at home here, as long as there were at least a few servants. My favorite part? The bowl of pomegranates—love, Love, LOVE their Marsala color. Cut one open and the sparkle from the seeds will rival Cora’s gown.

The guest room in the Paris apartment of the late fashion designer L’Wren Scott (Mick Jagger’s partner from 2002 until her death in 2014) turns up the Marsala factor with richly hued curtains and a suzani coverlet. Black creeps in around the edges via the desk, the lampshade rim, the headboard edge and the suzani embroidery. The painting is by Francesco Clemente. See/read more about this turn-of-the-century Left Bank aerie on Vogue.

Make mine MORE

Several principles of decorating with black and white are demonstrated in this living room:
  • Use a mixture of large-, small- and medium-scale patterns along with solid black and solid white to create visual interest and depth.
  • Use an accent color to punch it up and keep it from being too stark. Anything goes, but this Marsala is on trend, at least until 2016.
  • Mix in some gold and/or silver for glamorous sophistication, such as mirrored furniture and crystal accents. (Check out that fireplace!)

Think of a room with lots of black as you would that little black dress Coco Chanel made famous. It’s a great foundation, but accessories give it life. Plan your room as you would your outfit. Cora would have fun with this process, and I see the same cozy touches in this room as in her drawing room at the Abbey. I’m not sure she’d go for the glitzy fireplace, but I’m guessing her mother, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) would love it.

My favorites? Three, please:

  1. The wall of broad gray-and-white stripes
  2. The menswear black-and-white throw pillows (I’m a pillow addict whose husband is plotting an intervention)
  3. That cute throw resting over the arm of the loveseat.
Elle Décor/Eric Piasecki

Fashion editor and stylist Jackie Astier opens the Marsala spigot and lets it flow in varying intensities all over the master bedroom of the Manhattan apartment she shares with her family. The plummy custom-made headboard is upholstered in velvet, and the bed is dressed with Sferra linens and a vintage suzani. The 1960s Danish settee wears faded Marsala, while the Phillip Jeffries grass cloth on the walls strikes a middle-of-the-road Marsala chord.

Such great threads, it’s got me looking for a corkscrew and a glass! Read/see more of this home on Elle Décor.


Bold is right-on for a foyer. Marsala registers as a heavyweight on steroids in the console and the accent paint block, but its matchup with mustard delivers the KO. The striped rug brings the two complementary colors together, but, I think you’ll agree, it would be a draw without the charcoal gray walls and black accents.

I can’t get over the tree branch painted with stripes to match the rug and used to hold boots, mittens and scarves. How cute! But what I absolutely covet is the metallic purple lamp, a standout against all that Marsala.

Is it wine o’clock yet?

The secret to that old black magic

Too many light and airy colors in a room without any black to ground it will make everything appear to float. That confuses the eye. Black gives the eye a place to rest in much the same way as a paragraph break on a page of tiresome text.


You don’t need a lot of black, just enough to tie elements together—a few black picture frames, a black table, black moldings, or even something as simple as piping on a lampshade or pillow.

Better yet, do it all! Repetition works in composition of any kind. And at least you’ll have some things that will mix as is with the storm of new colors waiting for you in your next redecoration.

See ya’ Marsala! It was fine finally getting to know the REAL you! Cora & Bob say hey!

The Abbey meets bumped-up boho, 
EVERY Wednesday on BoHo Home.

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