White walls continue to be the default go-to paint colour for new builds. But, an all-white room is actually trickier to decorate than a room with a cozy or deep hue on the walls. Here are 7 essential tips for how to decorate with white walls.
I have noticed recently that the younger students and new designers in my Specify Colour with Confidence workshops haven’t had much experience outside of the current white walls trend.
That means their burning concern is less about updating rooms with grey, taupe or beige tile and furniture (trends in the last 20 years). Instead, they are more interested in finding solutions to help their clients decorate their stark, all-white new builds.
In my eDesign department, we still do many consultations that solve the problem of refreshing homes from the brown or grey trend to make them look more current and fresh. Because depending on what region you live in, there are plenty of dated interiors that still need to be updated. Just visit any real estate website and look at homes for sale in your neighbourhood.
The beauty of eDesign is that we get to help clients from everywhere. And trust me, we’ve seen it all.
Experience with all colour trend cycles
This is why my Specify Colour with Confidence workshop covers ALL the recent trend cycles and how to update or work with homes that are still in a past trend. Unless you have the luxury of always starting with a brand new blank slate, you will still need to identify the undertones in your design projects. That means you will be working with all kinds of beige, taupe, and grey tile, countertops or carpet that’s already installed.
So, it’s best to have a wide collection of colour skills.
Throughout the cool grey trend and the earthy brown trend before that, the main decorating challenge was how to introduce a fresh palette into sometimes heavy and drab rooms full of mid-tones.
However, the white wall trend has swung all the way to the opposite extreme – meaning now we are faced with the problem of grounding and warming up ample and airy, but somewhat stark, white boxes.
7 essential tips for decorating with white walls
White walls have become the default, go-to choice for many renovations or new builds, because they feel so bright and neutral and simple, right?! The reality is, it takes a lot more decorating know-how to make it beautiful and liveable when compared to rooms with walls wrapped in a cozier hue.
One of the nice things about trends with richer wall colours is that the wall colour does a whole lot of the work of making a space feel cozy.
BTW, did you notice that most major paint companies anointed muted greens as their 2022 COTY (Colours of the Year)? I won’t be surprised if cozier wall colours like sage also catch on.
It’s the reason why sage green was the trendy neutral of the 90s. Greens feel neutral too, less of a commitment than shades like yellows, pinks and purples.
So you’ve chosen the right white for your home (that is if white is even a good wall colour for your home) and now you’re wondering where to begin decorating…
White walls really are a blank canvas. But that doesn’t make them easy rooms to decorate. Ask any artist – there is nothing more intimidating than a blank white canvas.
So what are the specific challenges that come with all-white walls?
Truth is, you have to be an excellent decorator to make an all-white room work. But never fear, here are some of my best tips for decorating with white walls:
1. Add warmth
As I said, when you have a stark white box, adding warmth becomes the emergency mission. Pretty and timeless wood floors are an excellent start. You will likely need to take it further, adding more wood-toned pieces, and accenting with additional earth tones and textures like cognac leather, beige woven textures like cane, gold metals, and wool area rugs.
And don’t shy away from colour! Adding colour is the best way to liven up a room.
2. Layer in softness
Most interiors suffer from too many right angles, lines, and squares. This is especially true of bright white rooms, particularly if they have trendy linear black elements like windows, doors, lighting, etc. The goal should be to layer in softness and curves.
Textiles, rugs, and drapery go a long way to softening the feel of a room and as a bonus, they are all sound dampening too. Because no one wants to live in a stark white box WITH ECHOES.
Remember, white walls will never come to life in a dark room.
3. Bring in plants
Your white room needs life, too. The easiest way to quite literally bring life into your room is with a good-sized plant or two (or more)! Green is beautiful with white (and black). Plants not only offer cleaner, healthier air, but also beautiful interest with organic pattern and shape. Hopefully, if you’ve chosen bright white walls that means your room is also full of natural light, making it perfect for potted plants.
Just be careful that you are still adding lamps and not just buying plants as a substitute for lamps.
4. Draw the eye up
White rooms often look bottom-heavy. Why? It’s because all the furnishings, decor and visual interest is typically on the bottom half of the room with miles of white walls and ceilings overhead. It’s important to deliberately draw the eye up. White walls can look especially naked without proper decorating.
Draw the eye up by adding pretty drapery hung high (often above the window frame), large scale art, beautiful lighting, and moldings on eye level (or even above). This will help to create balance in your white room.
Read more: How to choose the right curtain rod colour
5. White loves sculptural shapes
The shapes of your decor will be highly emphasized unless the colour is also white to blend in. This means, in order to create a beautifully decorated room with white walls, you have to be more specific and curated about the shape and scale of your furnishings. Remember when I said White is a Snob way before the white walls trend went mainstream?
Avoid the common mistake of selecting more harsh lines and squares to furnish your square room. It doesn’t work to use only boxy, linear or lumpy pieces in a white room.
Coffee tables, occasional tables, lighting, lamps, and mirrors are all examples of items that you can use to add rounded or sculptural shapes and curves to your room so it doesn’t feel like lego land. There are plenty of curved sofas and chairs available now too!
Just like those post-holiday love handles, less refined shapes are best softened by deeper colour palettes – not stark white. A white room works best to show off really lovely shapes. Art gallery anyone?
6. White is a colour, so repeat it in your decorating
Take note… because I see this mistake everywhere. People often paint the walls white and pretend they are not there at all. Painting all your walls white and then buying all your furniture in grey or beige does NOT work. White is still a COLOUR that needs to be layered into your decorating and repeated to look integrated and intentional.
Choose white upholstered pieces, white lampshades, white drapes, white throw pillows or accessories to layer the white back into your arrangement.
And when I say “white” here, I mean the right gradation of white that relates to your wall colour or other finishes in your room. First, identify which gradation of white it belongs to by comparing it to the curated list I provide in my ebook about whites.
7. Don’t skimp on lighting
ALL rooms need several lamps. Here are 5 lamps everyone should have in their home.
Rooms need ample flattering, atmospheric, and glowing light that is located on face level – NOT overhead or recessed lighting that casts harsh shadows. This is especially true of white rooms. Because let’s be honest, white walls look their best flooded by daylight. In the evening though, when we want to unwind or entertain, lighting needs to be more atmospheric because stark white walls aren’t the coziest. So we have to compensate with careful attention to mood lighting.
White is Complicated
And speaking of repeating white and lighting. These two points bring me to the reason that I often nudge my clients into a very pale greige or complex cream over white or off white for walls because
A. there isn’t sufficient natural light to make them pretty
B. there is not a stitch of white in the finishes or furnishings, meaning white won’t relate.
So, before you start gathering white paint chips, consider whether your room wouldn’t be better wrapped in a slightly softer hue or even a complex cream or greige.
If you do this, you’ll be less likely to feel compelled to paint your trim a colour instead to warm it all up.
And definitely step away from the can of untinted white paint! Lately, I’ve been seeing this more often. I’m not sure if it’s assumed that untinted white is just the brightest, or if people are trying to avoid the nuances (and stress) of choosing between the hundreds of whites. Either way, it’s a big, BIG mistake.
I’ve narrowed down the best whites for any situation in my eBook.
This room above comes up in a search for pretty white living rooms. But, did you know the walls are actually painted a GREEN GREY GREIGE, such as BM Classic Gray OC-23? There’s plenty of repeated white in the decor, along with gobs of wood tones, soft textures and curves to soften the room – nothing stark about it. 😏
So that’s a wrap! I hope this roundup of my most actionable tips for decorating a white room is helpful! Specific questions about white? Drop them in the comments below.
Experiment with Styling
And while tips and tricks can be useful because it never hurts to gain insight from an expert, don’t forget to approach decorating with a sense of PLAY. Don’t be too restricted by rules. Decorating and styling is the fun part, even if it can be a learning curve.
And, don’t forget to save money for decorating when renovating or building new. It’s also one of the reasons why I don’t believe in replacing every floor. Nothing kills creativity like being overburdened with rules – or lack of funds left for decorating.
Try a bold colour, pattern or piece of art to set the tone or indulge in a current decor trend and go from there.
My new living room is ‘cream’ (an orange beige complex cream) along with oodles of colour and texture. After all, I couldn’t call myself a colour expert if my walls were also stark white. And, I’m just waiting for one more chair to arrive before I can share my new makeover. I’m so excited to show you!
Colour board giveaway
One more thing, I’m doing a colour board giveaway today! There are 6 spaces left in my Virtual Specify Colour with Confidence Workshop October 28 & 29 and Friday is the last day to register because your box filled with course materials needs time to ship!
My mission is to encourage you add more colour to your life and using my large colour boards will be the easiest way to help you do that!
From the post where I talked about the update I did to the VIP Collection this year
Register here to attend the workshop.
To enter the giveaway, go over to my Instagram here, follow me and tag two people. I’ll announce the winner on Thursday morning! I’m almost at 40,000 followers, hooray! Also, don’t forget to follow me on my stories there every day, you’ll get more advice you won’t find anywhere else on the daily.
4 Reasons Your White Walls Look BAD (FYI, white paint is NOT sunlight)
5 Reasons Your Paint Colour Looks Wrong (Hint: It’s Not the Lighting)
I am not on instagram. Could you enter me into the generous give-away? It would be so awesome to win. Thanks
With white walls, the placement of furniture and art has to be strategic because white walls outline and highlight every object.
And because every object is highlighted, a white room with a lot of stuff can look chaotic more easily than a colored room.
Just my 2 cents.
Best post EVER, Maria! So practical and thoughtful and well-communicated. Really well done and helpful. Thank you!
The horrible thing that builders near me are doing, though, is painting ceilings and walls the same yellowy off white color. So then you have white trim and dingy appearing walls and ceilings. I wish they would just paint it all white and then at least all you have to do is repaint the walls! I usually use the palest of blue grays or greiges, but I did opt to paint 3 bathrooms the same color as the trim paint (blue white) recently because there wasn’t that much wall space. The tub surround takes up 6 feet, there is the cabinet and mirror, and then there were 2 doors in each bathroom. I felt it would be so choppy to use another color on the walls. It turned out bright and crisp, and then I added lots of color with the towels, painted cabinets, shower curtains and pictures on the walls. All that said, I agree that white is not as neutral as people think. It’s a color, too!
After MUCH deliberation and after having lived with highly pigmented walls and also beige and greiges all my life, I decided to paint my whole house Benjamin Moore Chantilly lace and I am SO Thrilled and in LOVE with this white! To me, even though it is described as neutral, in my home it is like a chameleon. It takes on a bit of the hue of the furnishings placed with it.. Absolutely easy to work with and Always Gorgeous – this particular white is not complicated at all! Southern Europeans have been painting their interiors with this shade of white for centuries and for good reason – pretty much Everything works well with it and yes, even the jewel tones and even the darkest mahogany furniture work so well with this white! Can you tell that I am in LOVE with this particular white?
I totally agree. My entire home is Chantilly Lace. I love it! It sets off my furniture and art so beautifully, and they in turn flatter the paint color. I’ll never change the color.
I have bought several of your products including your ebooks but have not received any updates. I double checked my email and folders et al. How can I get the updates? Thanks!
Thank you for addressing the topic of white walls. For those who live in a rental that doesn’t allow repainting (or if they do, the tenant must pay to have the walls repainted white before moving away), decorating around white walls is a necessity. I got so used to it during my 20 years of apartment living that I grew to appreciate the look and its versatility.
In fact, when we finally built a home 18 years ago I chose white walls. Actually, an off-white in satin paint; I think it was called Pearl. A good backdrop to my eclectic and colorful style, and makes it easy to change my decorating without having to repaint.
What a great, helpful class, Maria! Thank you for this post. I’m bookmarking it.
You answered so many of my “unanswered” questions in this post. Especially about the boxiness of all white walls. It all makes sense!! Thankyou
I love my stark white box because YOU gave me the perfect off white SW7570 Egret White on a consult – which is a fresh, modern taupe-y undertone to support my goofy burnt orange living room tile and adjoining taupe undertone kitchen tile! Thanks Maria! It’s fantastic with my violet-y taupe-y undertone new modern white/grey fabric sofa.
P.S. I’m moving and the realtor said “Oh this is the perfect paint and carpet color!” Then said her mother always complained about her listing clients’ color choices being the “wrong blue, wrong white” etc haha. I told her about you.
Good Morning , I am in the process of taking down wallpaper and repainting my foyer. I have wainscoting down the hall and going up the stairs. I picked sw softer tan for the walls but trying to figure out wainscoting. I was told to do it in the same white as the stair risers and spindles so it doesn’t look dirty and too hard to match undertones but the stair paint is bright white almost like a standard stair white . think that would be too bright fof such a big area . Would you try to do a shade darker or lighter than the tan or find a softer white for the wainscoting …think I am leaning toward either mixing a shade lighter than the tan 10% or Glacial or chantilly lace benjamen moore. My stairs are black. room faces south east with lots of morning and afternoon sun. Appreciate any advice.
Layer in softness.
Bring in plants.
Draw the eye up.
White loves sculptural shapes.
White is a color, so repeat it in your decorating.
Don’t skimp on lighting