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Haute couleur: Why pastels are anything but washed-out

The new rose-tinted Wireframe Sofa by London designers Sam Hecht and Kim Colin for Herman Miller is exactly what it sounds like: a cloud-like, cotton-candy couch floating in a white wire frame.

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Conjuring images of nurseries, the living room on The Golden Girls or those sweaters carefully draped over preppy men's shoulders, pastels aren't the edgiest colours on the wheel. But as colour trends go this year, they're a sleeper hit. At trade shows such as Maison & Objet in Paris and the Salone del Mobile in Milan, sofas, ceramics, lamps and dressers were bathed in a new kind of pastel palette: crisper, fresher and altogether less wan. These almost brighter shades of pale have a youthful vigour and a sly retro playfulness that young designers are drawn to.

"We chose to work with pastels because it fits well with the spirit of our work," says Yann Poncelet, who, with Isabelle Gilles, forms the Parisian design duo Colonel. Having formed in 2010 and opened their glass-fronted shop just off the Canal St-Martin in the fashionable 10th arrondissement in June of last year, Colonel's creations are inspired by "camping, beach furniture and holidays," Poncelet says. Their Collection #2, which premiered at this year's Maison & Objet show, is a right riot of pastels. "What's interesting with pastels is to pair them with minimalist and modern shapes, with light wood or metal, keeping the look basic and neutral," he explains. "This boosts the colour and gives it a contemporary edge."

In other words, forget, too, rattan tricked out with overstuffed cushions – as pastels come in from the patio, they're shedding the retirement-village aesthetic but retaining their incredible lightness of being. The new rose-tinted Wireframe Sofa by London designers Sam Hecht and Kim Colin for Herman Miller is exactly what it sounds like: a cloud-like, cotton-candy couch floating in a white wire frame. Even lighter in look and tone is young South Korean designer Wonmin Park's Haze series, comprised of various resin tables and a chair in geometric shapes. In the long, low table in particular, the pastels edge into translucency, threatening to float into the ethers.

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Closer to the ground, Paul Smith's new Cubes Rug spins bluesy pastels in a dusty, faded direction. Like a minimalist riff on a Navajo rug, the colours appear dry-aged by the desert, sloughed by sand and bleached by the sun. Sherwin-Williams also launched its Vintage Moxie line of unabashedly retro pastel paints this year, calling it "pretty, in a demure mid-century way." The colours wink at a 1950s palette of bubblegum, ice cream and Easter eggs, but a single dusky hue (the soot-like Darkroom) brings it all down to earth. With names like Rosy Outlook and Radiant Lilac, these are shades of innocence and optimism – two qualities we could all use a little more of these days.

Montreal interior designer Jean Stéphane Beauchamp offers his tips for integrating pastels in decor:

1. Adding a touch of black, dark grey or navy will temper any cutesiness a pastel may have. For a cooler look, pair pastels with crisp white; for a warmer one, partner them with off-whites and sand.

2. Vary the intensity of your pastels or you'll end up with a washed-out palette (in Beauchamp's opinion, this trick applies to any colour scheme).

3. If you're scared of pastels, start out small: Paint a chair, a desk or any other accent piece and see how that looks with what you've already got.

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