The dining room walls at Monticello are absolutely and unequivocally yellow. Not the subtle sort of pale, dusky yellow one might imagine would accent the walls of Thomas Jefferson’s historic home in Virginia, but what has been described as a brilliant marigold yellow, an egg-yolk hue that is an homage to the progressive vision of the man who lived there.
Approximately 450,000 people visit Monticello every year, but anyone who breezed through the dining room prior to February 2010 would have experienced the space somewhat differently. Since a visual analysis of the original paint in 1936, the walls had been painted the widely copied Wedgwood blue color, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that researchers began to suspect that this was not an accurate depiction of the pigment. In 2008 the debate was settled: During Jefferson’s retirement years, the walls had actually been painted a bright, vibrant yellow.
"I was born and raised in Richmond, and Monticello was one of our first class trips. That blue dining room was iconic," said Thomas Jefferson Foundation trustee Charlotte Moss. "But when I learned about the yellow, it made a lot of sense because he was a very modern man and a modern thinker. And that was a very modern, intensely graphic color."
During a discussion over lunch with Thomas Jefferson Foundation president Leslie Greene Bowman, Moss suggested approaching the Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation about supporting a planned restoration to update the dining room wall color, which would be part of a larger restoration of the home that also included the wine cellar and south pavilion.
Moss explained that the foundation wanted to form a philanthropic relationship with a corporation "that would be engaged in Monticello, whose corporate principles would be aligned with those of Jefferson and Monticello, history and tradition. To me, there was only one company to go to. It just seemed like the right match."
Moss contacted an acquaintance in the marketing and communications department at Ralph Lauren Home. After Moss and the foundation submitted their proposal, Polo Ralph Lauren agreed to provide financial support for the project. The foundation then contacted an outside firm that partly specialized in creating custom paints for restoration projects to formulate the paint that would be used on the walls at Monticello.
"Support of the kind that Ralph Lauren provided for the restoration of the dining room is absolutely fundamental to preserving Monticello and advancing our mission," said Ann Taylor, executive vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
The evolving partnership advanced a step further when it was decided that Ralph Lauren Home would produce its own Monticello Yellow paint, a hue inspired by Monticello’s new color.
"We know that many people would like to replicate that color in their own home. It seemed to be a natural connection to turn to Ralph Lauren Home to make the paint available to the public," Taylor said.
One of the reasons Jefferson himself was thought to have chosen the paint was the effect it would have created during softly lit dinner parties, before the advent of electricity.
"You can just imagine that in the evening hours it was a really warm, extremely fabulous color," said Susan Stein, the Richard Gilder senior curator and vice president for museum programs at Monticello. "With just a little bit of candlelight, it has a warm and inviting glow to it."
William L. Beiswanger, the Robert H. Smith director of restoration on the project, explained that painting the dining room walls white would have also been accurate, as they were whitewashed for about a decade during Jefferson’s lifetime before he elected to paint them yellow. The exquisite contrast with the room’s woodwork was part of what informed the decision to use the vivid yellow color rather than white during the restoration.
"The beauty of this room is the proportion of the white woodwork," Beiswanger said. "[The woodwork was] just as beautiful when the walls were white, but [it wasn’t] offset. It’s a magnificent architectural expression."
Jefferson has been quoted as saying that "architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements," and Monticello’s vast beauty serves as a testament to this passion, as does the chrome-yellow paint color he ultimately chose, which rang up at $5 per gallon, more than 33 times the price per gallon for white lead paint.
"It really reflects Jefferson’s taste, that he was both a modernist and a trendsetter of his time," said Taylor. "[He] had an appreciation for light and color and innovative design."
On June 11, 2010, the new dining room was unveiled during the 20th annual Monticello Cabinet Retreat, an event that honors 250 of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s supporters. The evening began with tours through the restored sections of the home followed by a dinner. The wait staff at the event wore coordinating yellow Polo Ralph Lauren ties crafted specifically for the occasion, and guests received Ralph Lauren Home votives as well as miniature "Monticello™ Yellow" paint cans filled with yellow M&M’s®.
The acrylic-based paint is already available where Ralph Lauren paint is sold, but it will debut as part of the Vintage Masters lifestyle colors in the spring of 2011 with two coordinating colors, Brilliant White and Bone Black, in a 290-color palette. A deep tone primer that serves as a base coat is tinted to complement Monticello™ Yellow and is recommended for use under the paint to create a more saturated color.
Erin Smith is a copywriter for RalphLauren.com and Rugby.com and a contributor to RL Magazine.