Decorating with white is a fantastic way to perfect a pared-back palette. Elegant and timeless in their simplicity, white schemes are a stalwart in the world of interiors. Evoking purity and cleanliness alongside confidence and sophistication, white is a wonderfully versatile color for interiors.
But decorating with white can be a minefield. Get it wrong and your white room ideas will feel cold and impersonal. But get white right – with the help of our tips – and white can feel sophisticated, ethereal, inspiringly light-reflective and space-enhancing.
Decorating with white – how to get it right
There are so many ways to decorate with white – and many of them are quite surprising. Use these techniques and paint ideas to get your white scheme just right.
Choose the right shade of white
Shades of white span a huge spectrum, from cool tones, to bright, brilliant whites, through to warmer shades with hints of yellow, so when it comes to choosing a white, think about the mood you want to evoke, advises Justyna Korczynska, senior designer at Crown (opens in new tab).
'You can have a very clean white, a chalky one, a greyed one, a white that has a hint of green or one with more of a yellow hue. This is because every white has an underlying tone – it might be something slightly warm or cool – the merest hint of red or blue for example,' explains Justyna Korczynska.
'Keep this in mind – do you want it to be crisp and bright or to have more softness and warmth?'
'There is no hard or fast rule with finding the perfect white, it really depends on what atmosphere you want to create. If the desire is to create a calm, serene space then use tone on tone color; a cooler white with cooler toned pastels or a warm white with warm pastels.'
Consider the light in the room
White can appear different depending on the light and the orientation of the room, so be sure to factor this in when choosing paint advises Dominic Myland, director of Mylands Paints (opens in new tab).
'South facing rooms with plenty of light can take cooler whites with their undertones of blue or green, like Greenwich Time™ No. 8, but we recommend warmer whites for darker, north-facing rooms.
'Off whites are grouped tonally on Mylands color cards, so if you are opting for a dark shade you can work up the chart to find an off-white that will harmoniously work with a scheme. We always advise testing paint choices in situ first to see how they appear in different lights throughout the day.'
Choose white furniture
If you have a small living room then an all-white scheme featuring white chairs, sofas and upholstery is guaranteed to maximize the feeling of light and space.
'The arm chairs for this white living room were selected primarily of the size and style. It's a petite chair which fits perfectly in the small living room of my client's Victorian flat,' says interior designer Alice Chiu of Miss Alice Designs (opens in new tab).
'The upholstered chair with front casters and rolled arms lend a soft and classic look while the simple shape and design of the chair with solid cream fabric adds a modern feel. The brass finish pairs nicely with the back espresso colored legs for simple yet refined detail.'
Combine different shades of white
Decorating with white can leave spaces feeling stark and cold – to combat this, introduce subtle variations in tone to bring life and depth. This white kitchen is anything but boring thanks to its use of subtle texture and layering.
'Many people perceive white as the ‘safe option’ because they know it goes with everything. But pure white can be hard to live with, so it is important to introduce shade and tone,' says Simon Temprell, interior design manager at Neptune (opens in new tab).
'Study the architecture of the room, particularly the way that the light falls against each wall and ceiling, as this will help you design a creative neutral palette for your room. You can create monochromatic harmony by choosing three shades from the same family or you could add a subtle contrast to energize things.'
Add structure with architectural features
Square box rooms can feel boring and sterile when decorated in white, but introducing shapely architectural features such as alcove shelving, arches, wall paneling or a coffered ceiling can serve to bring depth and interest to the space.
'If you have the right mix of textures, shapes and natural light then white can feel cozy and inviting,' says Sondra Zabroske, AIA, Architect + Team Leader at Four Brothers Design + Build (opens in new tab). 'Here I think the structural coffered ceiling and arches help to ground the room and provide a visual scale which can feel much more comfortable than an empty white box.
'White can also be a perfect stage for your favorite color as an accent in a pillow or throw,' adds Sondra Zabroske.
Use white to create a monochrome scheme
This is a big interiors trend for the year ahead.
Monochrome shades and softer muted greys add a sense of refined elegance to a pure white space. Paneled walls painted soft grey provide a sophisticated backdrop for this scheme, which artfully balances black and white upholstered furniture.
Blocks of pattern, in the form of tailored cushions and artwork, add interest and personality to the modern look.
Combine white with bags of texture
White is best when combined with texture to avoid a flat, one-dimensional feel.
‘I love to work with a blend of white and off-white wallcoverings as a foil for richer finishes such as gilt or dark wood. White silk wallpaper or pearlized polished plaster - something I believe we're going to see more of as it gives a subtle richness and texture to walls – are great for bringing a contemporary feel to more traditional interiors,’ explains interior designer Katharine Pooley.
Go for an all-white kitchen to turn chaos into calm
Classic, timeless and, ultimately, saleable when you come to move, white in a kitchen can't fail. Practicality has to reign, though, which means picking white paint colors that can be wiped down so that your space remains consistently sparkling.
Enhance space with an all-white bathroom
'Crisp white works wonderfully in bathrooms. Nothing beats the pure white bathroom backdrop achieved with high-grade Calacatta Oro or Statuario marble slabs, which I like to set against chrome taps,' says Katharine Pooley, although we love the trend for gold taps, too.
'Don't forget about joinery finishes. Crackled gesso, resin and Tabu timber veneers all look terrific in white as the finish is unadulterated by the distraction of color.'
Take white decorating ideas outside, too
Decorating with white outdoors makes fantastic sense: it's perfect for showing off planting, it bounces sunlight about efficiently, it looks almost excessively smart, and it will never date.
Use it for your home's walls, for decking and for patios. And, of course, your front door.
What room colors go with white?
The beauty of white is that it will work harmoniously with just about any color on the color wheel. Using a white is all about adding depth and contrast in different layers and textures, says Jane Landino, creative head of studio at Taylor Howes (opens in new tab).
‘To make a white palette feel designed and considered it’s important to mix and match patterns, albeit neutral ones and occasional pops of color. Just because something is white doesn’t mean it has to be plain: think about the application – is the wallpaper silk or textured, as an example. White is one of the most versatile shades in all of design – it instantly brightens while evoking a sense of calm and flawlessness. Add interest through colorful art, accent soft furnishings and antique furniture and objects. It also makes it easier to change up the look of a room.’
What feature wall colors go with white?
If you want to create an elegant and timeless accent or feature wall, then look to colors found in nature.
The beauty of a neutral scheme is that it provides a wonderful scaffold upon which to hang accents of color, adds Deborah Bass, founder of Base Interior (opens in new tab).
‘This is especially true in a home office where a neutral wall or a textured plaster or wallpaper wall finish creates a background for books and art, both of which can take the decorative center stage.’ She recommends grounding subtler shades with a deeper, richer natural timber to create a balance. ‘Neutrals offer an elegant, timeless response to the working from home dilemma, likewise versatile in the sense that different family members might be using the space at different times of day and for a variety of functions,’ she adds.
Pippa is Content Editor on Homes & Gardens online contributing to Period Living and Country Homes & Interiors print issues. A graduate of Art History and formerly Style Editor at Period Living, she is passionate about architecture, creating decorating content, interior styling and writing about craft and historic homes. She enjoys searching out beautiful images and the latest trends to share with the Homes & Gardens audience. A keen gardener, when she’s not writing you’ll find her growing flowers on her village allotment for styling projects.
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