When White Walls Work

As an interior designer, I have seen the inside of many, many homes over the past ten years. In addition to the layout of the rooms, I was always intrigued to see the choices of colors used on the walls. In many case, this could be summed up in one word: white. And this wasn’t because these were brand-new homes freshly painted top to bottom in builder’s white. No, a lot of these homes were well-lived in. Big, dark, puffy worn-out furniture, beige carpet and white or off-white walls. Or small-scale furniture, a plethora of oak tables and cabinets, an eighties color palette and… more white walls. As part of my design service, I would always present a new color plan for the walls to complement the new furniture and accessories. A good portion of my clients bought into the complete vision and painted their rooms,  but there were hold-outs. People who were downright afraid to paint their walls.

After awhile, I began to see why they were hesitant, or remained convinced that they should keep their walls white. It’s not too difficult to find white walls featured in magazines, articles and showrooms; those without a design background could misinterpret this as a sign that white still worked with everything. It doesn’t, but there are lots of instances where it is the right choice for that particular room.

So if you fear color or just love white walls, here are some design ideas and themes that are complemented by white walls.

1. Nautical-themed roomNavy and white has always been a dynamite color combo for many things, not just rooms: business and casual clothing for men and women,  automobiles, boats and of course, uniforms. In this room, the shades of blue balance out the crisp, stark white on the walls. Medium tones are provided by the wood floors, end tables, the ottoman and the woven shades. And look at all the different textures! It’s nautical, but not overdone.

The beach-house vibe is also perfect for this look. That plaid rug is a bold choice that is balanced out by the coffered ceiling, and laying it on the diagonal keeps the room from feeling too boxed-in. Again, notice how textural elements are quite at home in this room.


This attic bedroom illustrates another variation on the theme of blue and white rooms. Far from being dark and dreary, the white walls, ceiling and beams create a charming and open feel to the room. Subtle details in artwork and accessories add visual interest without being obtrusive; as does the open-sided nightstand.

2. Cottage looks – The term “shabby chic” has been replaced by  “cottage,” but the meaning is the same – these rooms feature worn finishes and fabrics, repurposed items and mismatched accessories. Wall colors are often light, making white a great option. These rooms derive a lot of their interest from the accessories – plants and floral arrangements, collectibles, artwork and so on. Keeping the walls and furniture light in color allows the jumble of unrelated items to feel right at home. But that doesn’t mean cottage rooms have to either a) look like they belong at the beach, b) be pale and boring or c) look like grandma has moved in. Check out this lively green and white cottage-style room: White serves as an anchor to the wide variety of colors, textures and wood tones in this room; any other wall color would push it over the edge into looking “too busy.”

3. Children’s rooms – Actually, children’s rooms are the one area in the house where you can break all of the color rules. Which is a good thing, considering how a lot of young girls love pink and purple. Keeping the walls white makes it easier for you to change design themes fairly quickly, going from princess or superhero to stylish and studious teen by just swapping out the bedding and accessories, stowing the toys and expanding the work areas.

4. Muted and elegant – On the other end of the spectrum from beachy, dreamy and cottage-y are rooms that ooze elegance from the tips of their crystal chandeliers to the end of their fringed velvet pillows. Understated and elegant rooms wear white walls equally well because they rely on the same elements – accessories, wood tones and textures – to unite the room and make it work. Lilac, taupe, gray or celadon could be used instead of blue in this room- it would look just as rich and would keep that sophisticated look.

4. Ultra modern – A lot of people think that white is the only choice for a modern room. I don’t agree at all – many modern rooms thoroughly wake up when color is applied to the walls. If you have a modern room and you want white walls, guess what? How you use accent colors, artwork, plants and textures is very important because the furniture in the room is more likely to be clean-lined, and less likely to impart a textural or visual interest than say a carved antique. See how these rooms all feature white walls and modern furniture, yet still look comfortable enough to sit down. Colors other than neutrals are used sparingly, if at all. All three rooms are shown with neutral area rugs; adding a print or patterned rug would also work. It all depends on the look one is trying to achieve.

5. Eclectic rooms – Contrary to popular belief, “eclectic” doesn’t mean “just throw it all together and it will work”. Eclectic just means ideas, styles or tastes derived from a broad and diverse range of choices. These rooms fit that definition quite well:

By painting the brick white to match the walls, and then hanging a white chandelier, these objects add just enough interest without overwhelming. Red bricks and a metal chandelier would have made the room feel too crowded. The white loveseat in the second room virtually disappears into the wall, allowing the neutral tones to take center stage.

Unadorned windows and a fabulous view add to the third room; the wire patio chairs are a fun touch that serve a purpose – additional seating – without adding bulk.

In the final room, the dark, modern table and sleek sofa align with the dark wood floor; the view out the open doors adds texture and natural elements.

By now you should see how important it is to look at all the elements of a room before settling on a wall color. Keep this in mind when changing the look of a room in your home. Create a folder of pictures and ideas that you like, and take it along when you shop for furniture and accessories. Many retailers offer complimentary design services with the purchase of their furniture; this is an excellent way to get the input of a professional.

As you can see, there are many places where white is a perfectly acceptable choice for you wall color. I didn’t even touch on kitchens and bathrooms which can also look wonderful in white. The bottom line, if there is one, is to avoid harshness. Huge, dark  “man-cave” furniture does not look good against white walls; you need more warmth to carry all of that darkness, especially if it’s leather furniture. (Hint: try gold, mustard or darker neutrals).

Your turn! Stumped on what color to paint your room or wrestling with another design challenge? Got a good story to tell about your remodeling experience? Let me know!

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