There’s plenty of debate as to how to define a ‘neutral’ when it comes to neutral room ideas – some believe they are those that don’t show up on the colour wheel such as white, beige, grey, taupe, khaki and ivory. Other decorators say that any one colour, if it dominates in a room, becomes a neutral and allows other elements to stand proud. ‘Rather than the Bauhaus modernist phrase of ‘Less if More’, my latest phrase is ‘More is Less’,’ says Maria Speak, co-founder, Retrouvius. ‘The more of one colour you have, it then becomes neutral.’
As a general rule, however, neutral colour ideas tend to be calming and easy to decorate with – they work with pretty much every other colour but to get it right it’s important to understand the base pigment that suits the light that a room receives. ‘The light in a room is a key consideration when thinking about whether to choose warm or cool tones,’ advises Ruth Mottershead of Little Greene. There is a difference between a warm neutral (with a green or yellow undertone) which will tend to work well in north-facing rooms as they help to bounce the light around and a cool one (with a bit of pink, violet or blue).
One important aspect to consider, when decorating with a neutral colour is to bring in as much texture as possible as it creates interest and layers – important factors when strong colours are out of the picture. Consider warm metallics such as brass and bronze or natural wood elements alongside linens, velvets, sheepskins and chunky knits. When it comes to wood, Barak Alberro, architect and head of design, Banda Design Studio, advises: ‘Grey is a versatile colour which pairs well with natural wood furniture. It works particularly successfully in large spaces where a bolder colour would be too much.’
Contrasting black - or a deep grey - with white remains the most effective way to add impact to a predominantly white kitchen but key to the success is to vary the proportions.
A straight 50:50 split between black and white could make a home feel rather cold; instead, pair marble with dark kitchen cabinets, in this case it’s Neptune’s Charcoal and add another vital ingredient: texture. Grain-rich timber doors or accessories will break up the space. 'Last year we started to see deep and dark shades working their way into the kitchen and it's a trend that shows no signs of waning; brave charcoal in particular sets a strong mood,” believes John Sims-Hilditch, co-founder of Neptune. 'It has instant impact but in a more dramatic way than a lighter grey, especially when paired with contrasting hardware or a spectacular stone worktop. By taking dark colours from walls to cabinetry, you can really start to explore. Bring in light with gloss tiles and marble worktops, or dramatise it even more a moody backdrop that sets a bold tone.'
Using a dark neutral palette base is a clever way to create a modern look to a room while still retaining traditional and classical elements.
The trick is to turn up the texture volumes in a room where the colours have been stripped back – it will help atmosphere and character and stops the space from feeling too flat and one dimensional. Start with a calico or natural linen wallpaper, depending on the hue, it will automatically give the room a softer more inviting feeling. Continue the theme at the windows by hanging a set of weighty linen curtains in a plain neutral – here a dark grey/green has been used – and hang them generously so that they pool on the floor to give a more relaxed, pared-back look. Then let the artwork and decorative pieces do most of the talking with the accent of a ticking on the cushions and floor just to soften the scheme.
When pushing back on colour in a bedroom, be sure to address the question of materiality and architectural detailing; it’s perhaps particularly important in a children’s room where a monochrome palette could arguably end up subduing some of the magic of childhood.
Showing how to achieve a grounding palette that evokes balance and serenity and yet create a room filled with fun and charm, is the designer, Cortney Bishop who is based in Charleston, South Carolina. ‘This particular client felt more comfortable working with neutrals. We continued the home's black and white palette in the bunk room, and further punched it out by adding graphic pillows and rugs, and playful accessories to the kids' bookshelves. The little ones absolutely loved the room, and the magical interior details created by the architect, Mark Maresca, helped even further strengthen this room. It was actually his idea to paint the ceiling black in the 11th hour!’
Bronze, gold and copper aren’t often thought of as classic neutral colours but they are warm colours which set magical mood accents. Bronze works perfectly with brown tones, black, wood and really all natural tones. When married with painted surfaces or other neutrals such as white, beige, tan, grey, taupe and, especially, green, it works as an indulgent and glamorous colour choice. Some people turn to neutral backgrounds in order to pick out accents and highlights with others but providing you stay within the same tonal family, use patterns and textures to add interest and harmony.
By all means choose just a single colour and be faithful to it but be aware that, for a room to work (and not resemble a clinical space), it needs to have layers and use hues from within the same family.
Farrow & Ball make this process easier by gathering their neutrals together into different groups; Joa Studholme, creative director of Farrow and Ball, argues that people are naturally drawn to one of these groups which means the overall decision is largely based on instinct.
This room takes inspiration from the Scandinavian design book with calm and light greys (using their paints Ammonite and Purbeck Stone) which provide an easy backdrop for furniture and works of art. The door in Down Pipe is the exception to the rule - coming from a more minimalistic family of greys.
Metallics, and in particular gold, are an age-old way to communicate opulence in an interior.
Used sparingly as thread in tapestry and embroidery in the Medieval period through to opulent Art Deco interiors and, later, the 1980s prevalence for shiny brassware, using precious metals in a room has long been a way to communicate a sense of importance (or depending on your point of view, brashness) in a home. But it needn’t be a controversial colour choice. When employed judiciously and sparingly, glimmers of metallics be they on fabrics and upholstery on the walls or on details such as cushions and rugs, introduce a flattering luminosity to the space. Employed here in a very modern context, the metallic scheme serves to outline and show off the dramatic artwork, interesting lighting and stylish curves of the furniture.
Neutrals that stem from the yellow family, which range from something with a hint of orange through the sandy shades towards apricot and finishing in a silty brown, will work well in sunny or south-facing rooms which are already warm and full of light.
A café au lait colour on the walls pairs particularly well with furniture painted in shades of white for a soothing and clean finish - ideal for a bedroom in a hot climate.
'Calming, subtle hues of pale yellow and beige create a sense of serenity in this Hamptons bedroom, where we have layered a textured grasscloth wallpaper with soft linens and painted furniture to evoke the fresh feeling of summer,' explains Philippa Thorp, decorator and founder of Thorp.
Deep, complex shades make for versatile neutrals that work well throughout the home. While a strong colour can appear daunting at first, once you’ve taken the plunge, it’s surprising how adaptable it can be.
Fired Earth’s Under the Wave is the darkest of blues but its subtle undertones of green ‘ensure that it has plenty of visual interest and will work in a wide range of palettes,’ says Colin Roby-Welford, Fired Earth’s creative director. ‘It will also take on different characteristics depending on how it’s lit and it can look crisp and architectural when used as a backdrop to minimalist white cabinetry in a contemporary kitchen, or it can be used to create more of a glamorous, boudoir-style feel – perhaps within a palette of jewel-like colours and with gilt picture frames – in a traditional living room or bathroom. Under the Wave exudes reassuring warmth and has a restful quality so it’s the perfect shade to come home to.’