Builder’s Beige Begone

By Lesley Myrick

How to season a bland home with personality and color

A beige box of sadness.” That’s how one of my design clients described her Waco home. It was a beautiful new build with quality kitchen cabinets (stained dark brown), elegant ceramic and stone tile (in beige tones), rich hand-scraped hardwood floors (yes, brown) and walls painted in various shades of beige. Do you see a trend here?

Beige is neutral. Beige is elegant. Beige is safe. Beige sells.

But OMG, beige can be so boring. Lacking personality, beige homes move quickly in the real estate market and fetch top dollar because they’re a safe bet. No one’s going to argue that a beige home isn’t a classic inoffensive starting point that almost any potential buyer can picture themselves living in. Beige builder homes are like clear lemon-lime soda, what I call “the agreeable drink” — everyone’s OK with it when it’s the only option at a party, but no one really loves it.

Do you really want to live in a home that’s just agreeable? Shouldn’t home be a place you totally crave? I want a home bursting with vibrant flavors that excite my eyeballs on a daily basis. Once the beige home is off the market and in your possession, it’s time to season that neutral space with color, pattern and texture. We all hunger for different flavors in our decor — some more intense than others — and it’s all about finding your ideal mouthwatering mix of savory, sweet and spicy accents.

Here’s the thing: There is nothing wrong about living with beige if you love it. Beige layered with richly textured cream, gold and chocolate brown can be a dynamite palette that screams sophistication. Throw in some crystal accents, and you’re nailing a luxe look. I’m not here to hate on all-beige homes or their builders. To each his own! Interior design is an expression of what you love, and if neutrals are your thing, I dig it. Even the most exciting rooms need to incorporate some neutrals to feel grounded and livable.

But what I hear from many clients is that while buying a beautiful home with unremarkable finishes and fixtures is a wise choice, they don’t love living in an all-beige home. When it comes time to furnish their new space, they often purchase brown leather sofas and brown wood furniture because those are a safe bet with beige, and before they even realize it, they’ve curated a color-free existence and don’t know how to escape. A “beige box of sadness,” if you will.

I’ve got good news. A brand-new beige home essentially serves as a blank canvas. And once you’ve pushed past the fear of making that first colorful mark, what could be more fun than splashing your canvas with furniture, lighting and decor that brings you joy?

Since flooring and built-in cabinetry can serve as the neutral foundation on which to tell your decor story — and since they can be costly to replace — I often suggest that clients leave those elements as-is in a new build. A chic area rug can visually breaks up monotonous flooring, and new hardware can do wonders to update classic cabinetry. If a dark-stained kitchen is bringing you down, however, it’s a simple fix with a fresh coat of paint. I’m totally on board with painting wood. “Fixer Upper” fans, think about Joanna Gaines’ passion for whitewashing shiplap. Hallelujah for paint’s ability to transform tired wood!

Even if cabinetry and flooring remain safely neutral, a fresh wall color will have a dramatic impact on the house’s overall vibe. To keep the inviting warmth and openness of beige while also introducing color, try a richer khaki hue or a dusty blue-green. In smaller rooms, like powder rooms and entryways that are only used periodically, I’m all about having some fun and creating exciting design moments. Why not try painting a bathroom a rich inky black hue? Imagine the reaction of guests when they open the powder room door for the first time! Or perhaps you could wallpaper your entryway in bold graphic wallpaper — unexpected from the outside of your home and an incredibly memorable way to welcome guests.

Textiles are my favorite way to introduce pattern and color to create visual warmth. A space that lacks personality can be instantly transformed by curtains, area rugs and pillows. There are two approaches to decorating with curtains and rugs: They can either blend in and enhance the architecture of the home, or they can become a fabulous focal point. (Can you guess which one is my preference?) Whichever direction you choose, be sure not to fall into any of these three common faux-pas — curtains hung too low, curtains not hung wide enough and area rugs that are far too small. Curtains look best when they’re tall, wide and generously lush, and the same goes for rugs. A beautiful home deserves beautiful soft surfaces to complement and enhance its structure. Whether your taste for textiles is subtle or zingy, it’s time to break out of the beige box with curtains and rugs that please your unique taste.

If you’re committed to heavy brown leather upholstery and dark wood furniture — and I know a lot of gents who are reluctant to let go of their oversize leather recliners — there are ways to break out of this russet-colored rut. Toss a small sheepskin over the back, drape a lush throw blanket over an arm and casually toss a few plush throw pillows into the corners. What once was an unforgiving expanse of smooth brown leather becomes a beautifully layered centerpiece in the living room that mixes textures, color and pattern. Also, fur and leather are so hot together.

When it comes to lighting, I often see traditional oil-rubbed bronze fixtures taking center stage in the entryway and dining room of spec homes. Neutral, elegant and safe, yes. But light fixtures are an awesome opportunity to have some fun. I know it can be intimidating to change the design direction of a fixture since it feels so permanent and likely works with the house, but here’s a tip that may help set you free. The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, can be applied to interior design. Basically, if 80 percent of your home stays true to one style, the remaining 20 percent is an opportunity to have fun with contrast, and the overall decor scheme will still feel cohesive.

So why not use that 20 percent of design freedom to select light fixtures that tickle your fancy? I’ve always looked at lighting as jewelry for the home. It should sparkle, shine and make a statement. A traditional French crystal chandelier can look unexpectedly lovely in a new build, or a warm brass midcentury modern fixture can make a graphic statement. A colorful, oversize drum shade chandelier may be just what your dull dining room needs.

A builder’s beige home can be spiced in any way you choose. But what happens if you take a design risk and this new flavor for your home just doesn’t taste right? Perhaps it’s too savory, or you’ve overdone it with the salt? Not to worry — even the boldest wall color can be painted back to beige in a jiffy.

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