Neutral room ideas – light, dark and timeless ways with color

Neutral colors tend to be calming, easy and super stylish to decorate with

neutral room ideas
(Image credit: Damian Russell)

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 color wheel such as white, beige, grey, taupe, khaki and ivory. Other decorators say that any one color, 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 color you have, it then becomes neutral.'

As a general rule, however, neutral room ideas tend to be calming and easy to decorate with – they work with pretty much every other color 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).

1. Decorate with monochromes

neutral room ideas - monochrome kitchen

(Image credit: Neptune)

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 colors 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.'

See: Decorating with black and white – for an elegant Parisian feel

2. Create highlights with black

neutral room ideas

(Image credit: Image Katie Charlotte)

When pushing back on color 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!’

3. Choose earthy metallics for warmth

neutral room ideas

(Image credit: Simon Bevan)

Bronze, gold and copper aren’t often thought of as classic neutral colors but they are warm colors 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 color 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.

4. Stick to the same family of neutrals

neutral room ideas

(Image credit: Farrow & Ball)

By all means choose just a single color 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 & Ball, argues that people are naturally drawn to one of these groups which means the overall decision is largely based on instinct. 

This white kitchen diner 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.

5. Choose yellow-toned neutrals for warmth

neutral room ideas

(Image credit: Richard Powers)

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 color 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.

6. Pick a strong neutral for impact

neutral room ideas

(Image credit: Fired Earth)

Deep, complex shades make for versatile neutrals that work well throughout the home. While a strong color 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. 

See: Green room ideas – gorgeous ways to use nature's palette

‘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 colors 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.’