A few weeks ago on my Lunchtime Live program on Instagram, I answered commonly follower/viewer questions about color. Something that came up was designing with neutrals. It is such a loaded topic that I wanted to elaborate on it further!
In my experience, most of my clients say they like color, but when I walk through their homes, all I see is gray. They’ve done this not only out of fear of ‘messing up’ a color scheme, but also out of the belief that pulling together a neutral space would be harder to goof up. Isn’t it the easiest thing to just create a room using neutrals (grays, beiges, etc.) and call it a day?
I’m here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.
It could not be easier to botch a room design exclusively using neutral colors. There are so many pitfalls, it is probably the most nerve-wracking directive for even a professional interior designer! But rather than explaining all of the things that can go wrong, I’d like to share five ways to do a neutral room right – so you can nail it every time, whether you’re tackling a kitchen (hello white kitchens!), bedroom, living room, bathroom, or any other space in your home.
1.) Be obsessive about matching undertones
When you are pulling together a room full of neutral furnishings, it is absolutely imperative that their undertones are in alignment. Meaning, if your sofa is a warm gray with a red undertone, that red undertone needs to be consistent in all of the other neutral elements – paint, rug, fabrics, etc. Otherwise you will experience ‘clashing undertones’ – say, when you mix that red gray with a green gray.
While most people have a sense for high-chroma (saturated) colors that ‘clash,’ the same is not true for neutrals. It will be generally described as ‘off’ – as in, something does not look right here but I can’t quite put my finger on it. This is usually what happens when undertones are off in a room.
They are spot-on in this beautiful living room…
So be picky. Undertones must match!
2.) Vary values
A neutral room would be very boring if everything was the same value – or, degree of lightness (low value) or darkness (high value).
If the walls and the chairs and the rug and the table etc etc are all the same light beige color, the eye does not know where to go. The space has no hierarchy of importance (no focal point), or dynamism at all. Modulating those values even just a little will make a huge difference. Make the draperies just a touch lighter than the walls. How about a sofa that’s just a little darker, and a rug that is a bit darker still. Now we’re cooking with gas!
Think of what the most important thing(s) are in the room that you want to highlight, and use a point of difference to create that emphasis – part of that should be with value. Black is the darkest value, and it can be used to great effect (as above) to accentuate details in a space, or create a punctuation in and of itself. I like to think of it as an exclamation point! Designer Jan Showers has been quoted as saying “Every room needs a touch of black, just as it needs at least one antique piece.” Sign me up for both…
3.) Texture and pattern are your friends
To make a neutral room dynamic, it is super important that it has a variety of textures, materials, and patterns. These will play a big role in the overall feeling and mood of the room, not just the look. They will determine if the space is cozy and contemplative, vibrant and energetic, or something else.
4.) Get your hands on some samples
I cannot stress enough how important it is to obtain physical material samples of the major elements going into your neutral room, whenever possible.
Putting these fabrics together like this helped me ensure that our client’s bedroom would look perfect when we ordered all of the furniture and installed everything.
Which is actually a great segue to my final way to make the angels sing in your neutral room…
5.) Add just one accent color
Decorating a room should not be a stressful process! I’ve given you a lot to think about and many criteria to follow. If your head is spinning, I have a suggestion. Instead of making your room entirely neutral, which I have acknowledged is a challenging feat, why not add an accent color to take some of the pressure off all of that undertone/value/texture/pattern stuff.
Pick a color you love and that suits the vibe you want to create in the room – sunny yellow, deep navy blue, emerald green, plum, etc – and use it in two or three places in the room as a way to create interest and balance, and to give yourself a little grace from all that attention to undertones. I like to try to create a hierarchy with color schemes, just like I described above with values. So, if you have essentially a two-color scheme, and the main colors are neutral, you’ll want to think about making the accent color a lower percentage than the neutrals (it’s an accent, after all…right?). For a two-color scheme, I like either an 80/20 or 70/30 ratio of neutrals to accent color. For reference and FYI, I generally aim for 60/30/10 with a three-color scheme.
It is not quite as important that the accent color match in undertone to the neutrals in the room, although it sometimes is. Ha – how’s that for an oblique statement? As a general rule, the further removed an accent color is from the neutral in its appearance (i.e. higher contrast), the less it should matter what the undertone is. With a lower contrast, undertone matching becomes more important.
Here’s a favorite pool house project for a favorite client from a couple of years ago where we employed just about every one of the aforementioned 5 ways to nail a neutral room design!
I hope these tips are helpful as you go off on your quest to create a neutral room that is anything but boring!
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