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Creativity

The Artist-Turned-Color Expert Who Made the Perfect White Paint

Portrait of Martin Kesselman. Photo by Caitlin Mitchell.

Portrait of Martin Kesselman. Photo by Caitlin Mitchell.

Elliyah paint can & brush shot. Photo by Dustin O'Neal. Image courtesy of Martin Kesselman.

Elliyah paint can & brush shot. Photo by Dustin O'Neal. Image courtesy of Martin Kesselman.

Interior designer Martin Kesselman isn’t afraid of color. He’s made a name for himself by helping New Yorkers choose the perfect hues for their walls, turning apartments into monochromes of rich crimson or deep amethyst, or even an inky black. When we met at his paint showroom in Chinatown, he pointed out a series of velvety dark swatches—colors like Pitch Black, Hague Blue, and Mahogany by paint makers Farrow & Ball—explaining that he’s used them all within an array of the city’s luxury apartments and townhomes. But he’s equally at ease with the absence of color: In the past couple of years, Kesselman has also become in-demand for selling his own idiosyncratic shade of white.
Kesselman launched his white, called Elliyah—pronounced ell-ee-yah, and named after his daughter—for Farrow & Ball in 2017 (it’s only available through Incolour, his showroom). In a recent “Talk of the Town” article in The New Yorker, a client of Kesselman’s compared the bespoke white on her walls with “looking at the most perfect glass of milk—but not cream or one per cent. A perfect glass of two per cent.” While the magazine questioned whether we really needed another white paint, Kesselman stands by it. His creative ambition and confidence recall those of an artist—which makes sense, since that’s what he initially intended to be.
Growing up in Brooklyn and Livingston, New Jersey, Kesselman was born to a family with a paint business in Chelsea, which saw him visiting the city regularly. He witnessed the neighborhood’s transition when galleries moved in. At the University of Hartford in Connecticut, he studied art and business; he was making mixed-media pieces. “I don’t know how great I was, but I was passionate about it,” he admitted. After graduation, Kesselman lived and worked in Chelsea and started developing custom colors for gallery exhibitions and installations. Soon, he started meeting art collectors, and the neighborhood entered a real-estate boom—with plenty of new walls in need of paint. A fresh career path opened up.
Some 20 years on, Kesselman spends his days as a color consultant, collaborating with designers, architects, gallerists, and the owners of impressive abodes—primarily in New York, but also in Palm Beach, Aspen, Los Angeles, and Europe (these days, he works on spaces virtually as much as in-person). His signature is covering the walls, trim, molding, and ceiling in a single enveloping color—an approach he arrived at while trying to push back against the common conception that color can make a space feel small.
Elliyah product shot. Photo by Sergio Avellaneda. Image courtesy of Martin Kesselman.

Elliyah product shot. Photo by Sergio Avellaneda. Image courtesy of Martin Kesselman.

He often refers to his work as “color coaching” due to the amount of tactful diplomacy and gentle persuasion involved. “There’s a whole psychology to it,” he explained, pointing to color’s therapeutic powers, as well as the way that painting or repainting a home can incite quite a bit of anxiety.
People often turn to Kesselman when they feel daunted by color, or when they’re moving into a new home and the wall colors became an afterthought; at times, he even has to help break a tie between a couple who can’t agree on a shade. No matter the case, Kesselman’s process begins with reading the room—meaning both the clients and their space.
“I want to deliver something that they feel comfortable in, that they want to spend time in,” he said, noting that he walks a fine line between appeasing clients and pushing for the colors he knows are right. “For example, if they want blue and I know blue is not necessarily the right color, ideally, we’ll try to find the right blue,” he offered. “I have to know when to take charge, or when to collaborate, or when to step back—it’s kind of a dance.”
While some clients go so far as to give him carte blanche, others—especially art and design enthusiasts—are keen to be a part of the process. Working with art collectors actually sparked the idea for Elliyah.
“The gallery and the white box became so prominent that people were trying to recreate that in their home,” Kesselman explained. “I thought that was kind of wild.” So, he sought to create a white that is “gallery-esque,” but not stark or sterile, with “a good energy to it.” He went back and forth with Farrow & Ball until they’d landed on a white that has no undertones (no hint of yellow or blue, for instance) and seems to almost give off light. “The idea was to be just a good backdrop for art and architecture; nothing historic or glaring or institutional.”
What colors has Kesselman chosen for his own home? He mentions a serene mix of neutrals and a custom coral he created for the bedroom (which he presciently painted a year or so before Pantone named Living Coral its 2019 color of the year). His apartment also has some deep-green wallpaper.
When I told Kesselman that I’d love to put wallpaper in my apartment’s bathroom, he laughed. “So, it’s funny about the bathroom,” he elaborated. “Talk about psychology: When anyone’s afraid of color, they want to put it in the bathroom.” He’s partial to clean white kitchens and baths.
“You have to be thoughtful with color choice, even in the use of simple whites,” Kesselman said as we admired a sliver of wall coated in Elliyah at Incolour. “It might not be typical fine art, but we’re still creating something—a space, an environment, a mood—and evoking feelings, in a similar way that a painting or sculpture does.”
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Lead Editor, Contemporary Art and Creativity.