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Ask Maria: When is Black Timeless? (and 4 Design Traps to Avoid)

Today I’m sharing timeless ways to decorate with black. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t dislike black, but there are 4 design traps to avoid in order to keep black from overpowering your design.

When is decorating with black timeless?

Black has received nothing but bad press on this blog for a long time so I received this question from a follower:

Maria, can you post pictures of when you find black timeless and done right. Kitchens, doors, cabinets etc. I would love to see examples of what you find tasteful.

If you have just built and decorated house in MOSTLY black and white, you might want to skip this post. 😬 Finding out which black look is timeless will only be useful for those of you that are in the beginning stages of decorating.

The rest of you might get upset because you won’t be able to unsee the mistakes you’ve made.

Timeless black staircase ideas

So, for my dear readers who want to see some examples of how to use black correctly, feast your eyes on these images… 

This is a beautifully designed staircase. Black skinny railings like this with timeless pale oak floors is perfection. 

Stephen Paul

Here’s another staircase example that’s especially helpful if you need to paint all your steps because you are planning to change your floors. Simply leave the risers and the spindles white (see below).

Painting the entire set of stairs black is not only a recipe for constant dusting but this will also SCREAM, “I painted my stairs in the black trend.”

Remember, as soon as you can spot the “WHEN” this was installed, it’s no longer a timeless choice. Read more about that here

Magnolia Lane

I have one more foyer to share.

This entry features an utterly timeless black and white checkered tile floor. And again, this staircase has slim black railings. Black lampshades are also a classic way to add a bit of black to a room. Notice, however, that they chose white shades for the wall sconces.

Knowing when to stop choosing everything in black is KEY.

timeless black floor

Elle Decor

Timeless black kitchen ideas

Here’s a kitchen that could have been installed BEFORE the black trend. Notice, there are no black faucets or lighting that might immediately DATE this kitchen.

Black has been repeated on the pantry wall and inside the glass cabinet. The mixed metals are also a beautiful detail in this kitchen. Choosing a stainless steel faucet and hood fan combined with brass lighting and hardware is very timeless. 

I also like how the counter stools relate to the floors, but also create contrast with the black kitchen island. 

BHG

In MOST cases, black appliances go with black countertops. However, the kitchen below is a good example where an exception could be made. Why? Because it’s a high-end range with stainless accents that are also repeated in the hood fan.

I like the open shelving and the black and gold lighting. And again, the black counter stools create contrast next to the white kitchen island. 

One edit I would make here would be to repeat the gold in the hardware, instead of the black pulls on the cabinets. Also, I’m not a fan of the dark stain that has been added to the honey oak floors. A medium brown would have been more timeless in the end.

House Beautiful

Timeless black bathroom ideas

I’m not sure if I’ve ever shared this before, but I’ve loved this bathroom for years. Installing a timeless black and white floor and then ONLY repeating the black in the decorating is a good formula to imitate.

Ralph Lauren

In this bathroom below, Joanna Gaines has done a great job of leaning into traditional (beyond the modern farmhouse). Nothing says timeless in a bathroom like a black and white hex floor.

Read more: How to Decorate with Black in a Bathroom (Don’t Overdo It)

Marble Subway Tile and Black Tile Floor

Magnolia.com

Timeless black interior door ideas

A question I get often is, can I paint the inside door of my front door black? The answer is YES, but only as long as the black is repeated on the inside like it is here in the floor (below). The top of the console table also happens to be black, but that’s it – so it’s not overdone. 

This is what it means when people say, “Every room needs a hit of black.” A hit is very different from a large dose. And when decorating with black, it’s much better to go small, than to go big. 

Read more: Dos and Don’ts for Painting Your Doors Black

Caroline Gidiere

Timeless ways to decorate with black

This contemporary living room (below) is a stunning example of decorating well with black.

Notice how black is sprinkled around the room in slim elements like the task lighting and window frames. Black mullions always look best when they are slim. Black is also repeated in the pattern of the rug, the dark espresso or black coffee table (behind the ottoman), and also in the bookcase.

Additional design details like the weighty antique mirror and deep green occasional chairs have similar visual weight, without looking heavy and stark. 


Betsy Brown Inc.

Pro stylist Steve Cordony certainly knows how to use a judicial hit of black to make a room look elegant without being too trendy. Notice his generous use of living greens and warm brown tones to balance all the white and black accents around the room. 

Steve Cordony - Decorating with Black

Steve Cordony

I talk a lot about the misuse and overuse of black framed windows.

Want to know when I think they are perfect?

Black windows in a garden walkout like this breakfast nook below are where they look beautiful and perfect. The two details that make them perfect are that they are 1) large enough to be accented as a feature and 2) the frames are elegantly slim. They simply allow the eye to go past them to the garden view.

Sadly, beautiful black framed windows like this won’t work in colder climates.

The subtle black piping and legs on the upholstery is the perfect amount of black to repeat the black windows.

Read more: Are Black Windows the Best Choice for your New Build?

Studio William Hefner

And speaking of black windows, where I see the black and white trend go badly is most often on exteriors. Builders seem to have a process where they design the interior layout to meet certain demands, and the exterior ends up looking more than a bit random.

The scattershot placement of windows of all different shapes and sizes is the hallmark of this look. Then it’s made so much worse by installing black windows to highlight just how mismatched the windows are. It’s kinda like bad eyeliner.

The only exteriors where I think black windows are beautiful and timeless is when the windows are, above all, symmetrical. And often the windows are luxuriously large. Like this pretty exterior below.

It’s also notable that the roof is a natural cedar shake and not overbearing with more black. Add in a beautiful garden and nothing looks better with black and white than green foliage.


Luxe Interiors + Design

And while everyone is currently painting their front door black, this entrance below might be the prettiest black and white entrance I’ve ever seen. The black door picks up the beautiful black and white pavers and the wrought iron gate. And once again, there are gorgeous plantings for balance.

Magnolia Walks

4 design traps to avoid when decorating with black

I think the most important takeaway for how to decorate well with black is to remember that black needs to be balanced and softened  in design.  The quality everyone wants from black is bold drama, but it’s way too easy to miss the mark.

Here are my best tips for getting what you want out of black, by avoiding these common design traps:

  1. Use black sparingly. Remember that it’s not only about choosing something in black “because it goes with everything” or “because black is on-trend.” Black decorating accents demand attention and tend to bounce the eye around the room. This is tiresome and not at all the elegant effect intended. Instead, limit black to two or three elements placed where you want to draw attention.
  2. Use black sparingly. Black is the heaviest colour. Make sure you don’t let it suck the air out of your space or drag it down. Balance black with plenty of white, cream, and colour.
  3. Use black sparingly. The overuse of black is where it quickly gets harsh, flat and predictable. Don’t choose black for every light, plumbing fixture and surface simply because it’s trending (or because it feels like the only option at big box stores – ugly is always on sale).
  4. Remember to add the pretty. A black exterior without a pretty garden or gobs of greenery is a severe-looking monster in the landscape. A black and white interior with no beautiful styling or decor to soften and warm it up is simply bleak and stark. Repeat the black in subtle ways, but also make sure to create balance with other colours or neutrals (see #2).

It’s not that I don’t like black, it’s that I often find it’s not done well and it’s becoming the default choice during this trend cycle. Just remember, you have to be more mindful when decorating with black so it looks timeless and not immediately dated. 

I hope this post fills you with some timeless black decorating inspiration so you can find ways to decorate with black without missing the mark.

Related posts:

Is your Black Accent Tile Perfect? Or just Perfectly Nice

Never Paint this Style of Exterior, Black

What Colours work Best with Black Furniture?

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23 Comments

  • Holly says:

    Maria, I agree these examples you’ve shown are gorgeous and timeless! This got me thinking… Should every room have a bit of black incorporated if your main room hard surfaces are black and white?. I’ve been reading your blog since 2021 when I found you as a result of renovating. I’ve got a black and white kitchen, black countertops and white cabinets, medium brown LVP flooring throughout and heron plume paint on the walls. Bathroom has a white vanity with black quartz top and black rimmed mirror and pulls for the vanity but that’s it for the black. Wondering if I need a hit of black in the bedrooms like to paint an armoire black instead of white (thinking if painting my old wood furniture my trim color) or if that’s overdoing it.

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  • Dana Dalbak says:

    Great examples and information! So helpful!

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  • Kim says:

    This was a great post! Extremely helpful and yes I have regrets . C’est la vie

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  • Wendy says:

    Hi Maria! I am building and have planned black soapstone ( quiet slab)counters with off white cabinets on the perimeter of my kitchen. The island will be stained wood with off white quartz, all brass hardware and wood floors. This is an open floor plan with soapstone on a fireplace face across the room as well. I am considering using remaining soapstone for a full or part height range splash which is between 2 windows. What do you think? Too much black? This is a Traditional style home. Thank you!!

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  • Cate says:

    Ah, neck is sore from nodding and jaw is sore from shouting, “Yes!” Thank you!

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  • Beth says:

    Wow. Now this I love. These are my favorite pictures I’ve seen on your website other than the ones where you show before and after exterior pictures. My house has lots of whites, creams, and touches of black so this is exactly what I love. I also have lots of green live plants and medium to dark woods. I do also have some silver and some gold accents. During important seasons, some of the black changes to seasonal colors easily. I have had these colors for many years and love it just as much as I did years ago. I have changed the artwork to more modern pieces but have saved the landscapes, etc for when they come back in style. I use almost no patterns as I quickly tire of them. Again, love these pictures.

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    • Donna Thibodeau says:

      Landscapes are out of style? Original art is always in style. Have you seen antique Roadshow where discarded original art is found by collectors and it is valuable. Reproductions are another matter.

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  • Deanna says:

    One of the best blog posts you have written – thorough, explains all the ‘whys’, excellent picture examples, well organized, great summary at the end, repetition of your main points “use it sparingly!”, I could go on and on. My teacher brain and slower premenopausal brain applauds the content and communication. I had many ‘a ha’ moments. Thank you Maria. I adore you!

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  • Carrie says:

    Blaccents vs Blaccidents- A new TrueColor segment :))

    Great topic today. Thanks!!!

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  • Diane says:

    The borderline snooty, uber-minimalists from just a few years ago were afraid of color & were building nothing but contemporary boxes. They went SO overboard with black & white, it became boringly predictable & very misused. People are taking once-lovely, traditional brick ranch-style homes & destroying their character by painting them white with black trim. They’re eyesores and actually upset me. I have to look away!
    My new favorite catchphrase..”ugly is alway on sale!” 😂😂😂

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  • Dianne says:

    Explained soooo well!! Can’t get enough of your knowledge and experience. Thank you

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  • kim says:

    This post is so well written and explains your thinking about black. The photos to illustrate your points are right on. Such a helpful post with both how to do it and how not to do it; thank you!

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  • Shannon says:

    Great post Maria! Love how you dissected every picture. You are an excellent teacher and I have learned so much from your posts. Thank you!

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  • Shawn says:

    Fantastic post! One of my favorites. I pinned almost every image. Bravo!

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  • April Knights says:

    Ugly is always on sale😆

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  • Kay says:

    Wonderful post, Maria! I wish everyone could read it. I’m on a committee to fix up the front of our church, which is a modest white building. One person suggested painting the window frames black. It was the very end of the meeting and there was no discussion, but when there is, I will talk about the black and white trend and how following trends makes a building look dated when the trends shift.

    Some years ago I read that a room should always have a touch of black, and when I looked around my house, I realized that the rooms all have that touch! Totally unplanned, just happened. A black frame here and there, a glass and black coffee table in one room, a couple of black lamp shades in another. By the way, in the pic of that gorgeous stairway with the white shaded sconces, black shades would have looked like holes in the wall.

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  • Gina says:

    Loved how you turned this into a visual teaching moment that words alone cannot convey… Thank you for this great post!

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  • Norma Fournier says:

    Seriously, Maria…you are the color goddess! This is a beautiful post. Thank you!

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  • Robin says:

    Such a good post!!!! Wow. The picture-examples are drool-worthy lol.

    I have to ask you — is black/charcoal the default roof color when using black windows on a new or existing build? (I understand the trendiness part etc. but if they’re set on using…) I see the cedarish? roof and it looks amazing there.
    Just needing to shore up my black and white instruction and this is a loose end for me. Maybe for others too.

    Thanks Maria. Learning from you has become an awesome journey into color/colour. One I repeatedly look forward to.

  • Beth says:

    My older art was/is not original nor valuable. I agree that beautiful original art is a keeper.

  • Lena says:

    Thank you for the education! I was going to jump on the black handles/knobs in a small bathroom, now I’m rethinking and going with a brushed chrome faucet, black frameless shower stall, chrome knobs on the vanity and possibly a black thin framed mirror. White floor and white tile in the shower. So glad you spoke about timeless vs trend.

  • Kim Ray says:

    Thank you for always showing examples of what is timeless and trendy, a picture is worth 1000 words. I am painting my interior front door black (exterior is stained and we do not want it black) and wondered what sheen you recommend. Thanks!

  • Sue says:

    This is a great article because I have become almost petrified/ashamed of having *anything* black. My floors are light wood, my cabinets are walnut, my walls are white, my art and furniture are super bright colors. I do have a few black items: my front door frame, my open steel staircase, the fireplace box and hearth, my bar counter, an Eame’s chair. I’m at the point of light fixtures and handles, and have been struggling with what color to use. I’m tired of stainless / brushed nickel everywhere, although I have it for door hardware, fixtures, sinks, and appliances. I want the lights and cabinet handles to be brass or dark bronze. I know you’ve said dark bronze is different than black, so maybe I’m overthinking it. I’m about ready to give up caring what is “right” and just buy what I like and some will be brass and some will be dark bronze.

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