Brick is one of the most popular materials for architects designing with a vintage or rustic aesthetic: exposed brick walls are often touted as highly desirable for apartments, restaurants, and stores, and exterior brick facades can make a building or home feel warmer and more inviting. However, the color and cut of the brick can greatly influence the atmosphere it emanates, with white brick lending itself to more minimalist design and tan brick tending to feel more rustic and earthy. In this article, we will explore some of the most popular brick colors, ways to artificially color brick, and recent projects that use brick facades or interior brick elements effectively.
When choosing a brick color to design with, architects must consider the aesthetic they hope to achieve and, particularly for brick exteriors, the colors and styles of surrounding structures. Popular brick colors include red, white, tan, brown, orange, gray, or black, with many different variations within them as well as a wide variety of styles and cuts.
Red brick is the most traditional color of brick, and is often associated with older or more classic styles of architecture, such as the colonial style in the U.S. It can thus be used to create a vintage or traditional aesthetic, or to adapt a new building to the character of an older neighborhood.
For example, William Morris and Philip Webb’s 1860 Red House emulates architecture from the Middle Ages, utilizing classic red brick for its exterior in contrast to the fashionable stucco finishes of the time period. The red brick is essential to the Arts and Crafts movement’s emphasis on historical vernacular architecture and ordinary materials. Likewise, in Altereco Design’s Melbourne Vernacular Project, the connection to an older structure is literal as the original red brick paving from a hundred-year-old worker’s cottage is reincorporated into its modern renovation. The red brick wall both retains the rustic aesthetic and adds to the sustainability of the project due to its reuse and thermal qualities.
More contemporary examples include DAAL’s YONG Building in South Korea, which combines modern design with a red brick exterior to match the distinctive red brick style of the area. Similarly, Proyecto Cafeína and Estudio Tecalli’s Saint Peter House takes advantage of local brick producers by designing a textured red brick exterior. Finally, UAD’s Shuyang Art Gallery tempers the cutting-edge contemporary design of the structure through its use of a traditional red brick façade.
Tan / Brown
Tan and brown bricks are very similar to red bricks in their commonness and in their modes of use. Many bricks may also be some combination of red, tan, and brown. Nevertheless, tan and brown bricks differ from noticeably red bricks in that in many places they tend less toward strong historical associations and maintain instead a timeless, earthy, natural aesthetic.
HGE Architects deliberately requested brown rather than traditionally red bricks for their Bricks House to ensure that the façade matched the tone of the surrounding landscape. Estudio Rafael Freyre’s House in Azpitia similarly boasts a dusty tan brick exterior to match the colors of the dry Peruvian mountains. The architects of HVM House, however, chose brown as an intermediate color brick to convey comfort and balance, and also to allow qualitative aging.
White brick, which may feel cleaner and more modern than traditional red or brown brick, is a common choice for stores, restaurants, and apartments aiming for a simultaneously chic and vintage look. For example, Biasol: Design Studio’s Lucky Penny coffee shop achieves the milieu of a vintage Scandinavian-inspired venue through its combination of white brick walls, blonde timber floors, industrial lights, and plants. The Greenwich Village Junzi Kitchen achieves a similarly vintage chic aesthetic through its combination of white brick walls, teal tiles, and pink neon lights.
Of course, white brick architecture extends beyond this particular mode of use: Pencil Office’s design for Commune Bistro, for example, uses perforated white brick walls to create an undulating optical effect reminiscent of optical artists Bridget Riley or Victor Vasarely. Architects Héctor Torres and Andrea Torregrosa use white brick walls and otherwise neutral colors in their UVB House to afford occupants unadulterated views of the garden and sky. 70F Architecture’s Morovian Church even uses white brick for religious reasons, with white being an important color to the liturgy of the Moravian church and the white brick exterior generating an adequately somber character.
Like white brick, black brick often lends itself to a sleek, modern style of design, with the monochromatic color encouraging experiments with form and contrast. Yakusha Design & Architecture Studio’s YA VSESVIT, shown above, exemplifies the clean and modern effect of black brick.
FRES Architectes’ Hollande Béthune Social Housing, meanwhile, combines a black brick façade with yellow window frames and doors, creating a visually interesting exterior through contrasting colors and textures. ArchiWorkshop’s House Embracing Sky achieves a similar effect with windows, filled with yellow light, punctuating the black brick exterior.
In contrast, Urban Mesh Design’s Black Volcano amalgamates a wide variety of different colors and textures rather than simply two. The solid black color of one section of the façade also accentuates the internal differences in texture and pattern. Wise Architecture similarly utilizes the monotony of the black brick to experiment with form in MU:M Office Building, incorporating fabric-like creases, folds, and curves into the rectangular façade.
Other colors of brick, including gray, pink, or orange, may be less common and have less defined characteristics. Structures using orange brick, for example, may do so because of the particular qualities of a specific material or brick manufacturer, as was the case with the Baan Pomphet Hotel and Restaurant, the architect of which cited BPK Brick’s firewood baking technique as the reason for the unique orange color. The Klinker Cultural Centre in Winschoten similarly used orange brick due to the cultural significance of local orange Groningen clay.
These anecdotal examples also serve to demonstrate that there is no single natural brick color – rather, colors may vary depending on location, local materials, brick baking techniques, and more. However, brick may also be painted or stained to alter their original color, most notably for white and black bricks. Painting a brick helps mask the natural texture of the brick, which may be useful for architects seeking a cleaner or slicker design. It is typically preceded by a rigorous cleaning of the brick, followed by the application of a latex primer, after which the paint is finally applied using specific masonry paint products. However, painting brick, by creating a film over the original texture, may trap moisture and require increased maintenance to maintain the original appearance.
Staining brick maintains the original texture rather than masking it, and has more permanent effects due to the forming of a chemical bond. This effect also makes staining lower maintenance, less prone to water damage, and therefore a more effective method for exterior bricks, whereas painting may be more effective for interiors. However, architects are recommended to consult brick manufacturers or painters for more comprehensive information.
Altogether, the possibilities afforded by colored bricks are endless, ranging from the rustic to the chic to the modern to the experimental. Architects should consider this variety of aesthetic outcomes alongside practical considerations such as surroundings and available materials to maximize the effects of their design.