The New Neutrals

By Lesley Myrick

I've got a confession to make:

While I adore color, I don’t hate beige as much as you may think. My website proudly states that I “transform boring beige spaces into kickass colorful homes that are livable, delightful, and unexpected.” My newest free downloadable guide is filled with tips to banish beige and create a colorful, personality-filled home. And yet, I’m the first to acknowledge that beige certainly does have its place. White walls can be a thing of minimalist beauty. And neutrals, when used correctly, are anything but boring. In fact, they can be sophisticated, cozy and just plain chic.

When color is absent, an interior becomes all about form and texture. That’s the key when designing exclusively with neutrals.

I’m obsessed with the TLC show “What Not To Wear.” Although it’s been off the air for several years, I still remember Stacy London’s four simple, but effective, elements to pulling together a successful outfit: color, texture, pattern, shine. She chanted that mantra over and over again, and it’s firmly established in my brain as the gospel of good style. The same four guidelines apply to interiors too. When color isn’t part of the formula, use of the other three factors becomes even more crucial.

A space that lacks color will fall totally flat when texture, pattern and shine aren’t part of the design. I love layering neutral-colored, touchable textiles like tweed, leather, fur, silk and velvet to create the foundation of a room. A gorgeous distressed gray leather sofa with a pair of plush and shaggy, white Mongolian fur pillows? Perfection. Hammered metals, matte porcelain, weathered wood and smooth marble are all neutrals too, but they complete a space beautifully with their chic textural surfaces and subtle organic patterns. Color isn’t necessary when textures do the talking.

There is a trick to decorating with neutrals though, and that’s to understand and work with the undertones in each hue.

Beige is not just beige. It can have pink, orange, yellow or green undertones. Gray is never just gray. It has either green, blue or purple undertones. It’s even hard to find a true white. Most whites have a hint of another color peeking through.

There’s a whole rainbow within neutrals, and that’s why it can be tricky to decorate a neutral room just right. A small paint swatch may seem harmlessly neutral, but apply it to an entire wall and suddenly the undertones are showing through loud and clear.

Not even all design and construction professionals understand this subtle, but important, aspect when selecting neutral hues for homes. I’ve seen gorgeous new model homes in the Waco area that feature high-end, beige, yellow-gold granite kitchen counters next to beige walls with distinctly pink undertones. To the untrained eye the kitchen may just appear beige, but the contrast between two shades of mismatched beige means all I see is a yellow countertop with pink-hued walls. Ick! Trust me, once you start noticing the undertones, you can never un-see them. It takes practice to train your eye to spot undertones, but it’s a totally useful skill that can save you time and money. Imagine getting paint color selections right the first time and not having to repaint walls because the color you expected to look gray turned out to be lavender! (Not that I’ve made that exact mistake before…)

Getting the right neutral base in place means the forms and shapes in your home become the focal point. Suddenly a simple staircase railing looks modern and architectural instead of basic. The clean lines of your sofa are highlighted by an inviting arrangement of plump pillows. And a midcentury, white dining chair looks curvaceous and sculptural against a crisp white wall. There’s nothing working against you to distract your eye — the neutrals are all playing nice and allowing texture and form to be featured.

So what do you do when the neutral hues in your home aren’t making sense together and the undertones are incompatible? In the example earlier, the yellow-beige counters are a fixed aspect in the home. It’s crucial to honor the architecture and fixed elements of your home when decorating. Basically, the expensive countertops are staying — end of story. A simple fix would be to update the paint color to a beige hue that leans more yellow. This small shift would transform the look of the home and take it from feeling inexplicably “off” to cohesive and elegant. Subtlety is the name of the game with neutrals — small hue shifts make a big difference.

I have one more confession to make: even though most of my home is quite colorful and dramatic, my home office is almost entirely decorated in neutral hues. Creamy white walls, white furniture, beige linen drapes and a leopard-print cowhide rug create a richly layered, neutral foundation. I did, however, include a chartreuse ceramic lamp. Because sometimes a girl just needs a burst of crazy awesome color to make her smile.