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!

The Conspicuous Color Drain

It was over a year ago that I got the first inkling that there was something going on in the world of residential interiors. I had just received a new edition of the Restoration Hardware catalog, and it weighed as much as a New York phone book. This was far more than just a “catalog,” this was a design style guide much like you would find in such furniture-and-more stores like Ethan Allen, Thomasville and Bassett. Page after page of stylized interiors beckoned and tantalized that you, too, Mr. or Mrs. Average, could have a room (or a whole house) that looked like it belonged in the tony enclaves of Hillsborough, San Francisco, Palo Alto or even Paris. As in France, not Idaho. (I have nothing against Idaho, it’s a lovely, refreshing place. Just not a place one thinks of to find $13,000 leather sofas).

Yes, the pieces were striking and in many cases unlike anything I’d seen in other similar establishments. But there was one obvious theme that presented itself in these hundreds of pages – there was no color. Now before you throw brickbats at me, I mean color in the sense of rainbow colors – reds, blues, greens, etc. There was none. Just every possible shade of white, cream, beige, taupe, gray, silver, graphite, tan, brown and black. The rooms even lacked plants, something that I consider a faux pas. Greenery brings life to a room, and would have improved the overall look of many of these pages. (Note to Restoration Hardware magazine people: I mean it. Investigate. Ask. And then fix this is upcoming issues). Multiple textures made these rooms far from boring, and with the exception of no plants, they were amazingly beautiful. You could find luxurious velvets, supple leathers, worn woods, gleaming metals, sparkling glass and rough jutes in nearly every photograph. The textures made the rooms interesting. I kept the catalog with the rest of my design books; this was definitely one to keep for future client projects.

It was about two months ago when I finally put it all together and realized that it was more than just one retailer’s vision. Right on schedule, Restoration sent me the next version of their book. Same idea, some revisions and new pieces. (No plants yet…) But by then I had received other catalogs, including Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, as well as picked up a number of style magazines and periodicals.

What I saw was neutrals …  times 10 to the 10th power.

My two deep red sofas in the living room are very distraught; they believe that their species has been hunted into extinction. Maybe they’re right, but at least I saw color being used, although in a much more subdued way. Among the taupe fabrics, dark leathers, cream walls and simple, stripped-down fireplaces were jolts of color in the form of fabulous pillow, beautiful floral arrangements (yay!), rugs and window coverings. But rather than being two or even three coordinating colors, this was either monochromatic, washed-out or color-blocked.

Here’s what I mean:

  1. Monochromatic:  I’m sure most of you know this one – it means one color theme in the room. Shades of the one select color are often used, so that it doesn’t look odd or boring. This has always been a popular design choice because it’s hard to mess it up, but it’s changed somewhat over the years. I’m seeing the larger pieces stay neutral while the accents and windows pick up the color.
  1. Washed-out:  Pastels fall into this category, as does the use of color that is faded out or just plain worn. Think cottage looks. “Cottage” seems to be the new, more accepted form of what used to be called “shabby chic.” Love it or hate it, you have to admit cottage rooms look comfortable. They’re places where you don’t have to worry about using coasters, where dings in the furniture won’t cause panic attacks and the pets can get on furniture without fear. Note: The slip covered sofa is the de rigueur piece; I have to chuckle because so many folks think these covers are machine-washable. Trust me, the good ones are NOT. They need to be professionally cleaned to maintain their shape and integrity. There’s no residential washer that I know of that can thoroughly wash a large, sofa-sized structured slipcover, not even in a Laundromat. If you need this sort of cover due to babies, incontinent pets or other such situations, use bed sheets, tucked in where necessary. Seriously. Sew two together for larger pieces.
  1. Color-blocked: These are the fun, vibrant rooms where the colors are anything but faded. Two or more colors are used, but only on accents or small pieces. You’ll find acid yellow and plum purple pillows, and a big vase of colorful flowers on the coffee table. Or turquoise, orange and hot pink against a backdrop of cool white walls and slip covered pieces, again in white or cream.

Personally, I like the change. As a designer, it can be downright difficult to coordinate and balance a room full of demanding colors. Those “Tuscan” and “French country” rooms that I did a few years ago took a lot of time, and required the review and study of many colors and fabrics to get the look right. This is going to be much easier, especially for those folks who are “scared” of color. Select one or two colors to be used in smaller amounts, and then focus on getting a good mix of neutrals in different shades and textures to complete your room. It’s still going to take time, and the help of a trained eye is still worth it, but these looks are going to be more approachable by the masses.

Stuck on a room? Tell me your challenge!