Recently, I received this question from a reader and it got me thinking about how most people shop. It’s a common mistake that often leaves your room uninspired. So, here’s what you should do before you even begin shopping and how to fix a room that still feels meh.
I have been reading your online advice and you are amazing. I am struggling just to find the right undertone and what will work. Pale oak is on the wall now. Can you guide me?
I recently received this email from a reader. Then I scrolled down to see her photos and saw this grey-on-grey living room. And it got me thinking about how these rooms, devoid of any colour are born.
Have you made this first shopping mistake?
I think people end up with colourless rooms because of how most people shop for home decor and furnishings. This is exactly what happens when you buy everything for your room on an as-needed basis. And, here’s how it usually goes.
First, you move in and you need something to sit on, right? So you start furniture shopping and this is what you see, everywhere you go. Neutral upon neutral. Well, I guess that eliminates decision fatigue, or does it?
And that’s how you end up with an all-grey (or whatever-the-trendy-neutral-of-the-moment happens to be) sofa.
Now you have a grey sofa, grey carpet, and grey curtains (and if you haven’t painted the walls grey already) well, that just seems like the next logical colour choice. That or white, of course, since that’s the default choice these days.
Now you’re looking at the room wondering what’s wrong. It feels so uninspired. Is it the paint colour?
Perhaps. But more likely, it’s because your room lacks any decorating and COLOUR.
While most of us understand that things need to match to have a harmonious room, what’s harder to figure out is when you should depart from safe neutrals and choose colour.
Because once you’ve purchased three main items in grey, you’ve already missed your turn.
You need a design plan first
Let’s go back and look at all three images above. Do they all look like the SAME grey? Would they coordinate if they were all in one room? It’s hard to know when they are all separated like this, right?
The real problem is, you don’t have a plan. So, not only is it impossible to see whether the undertones of the “neutral” grey pieces you’ve just purchased (without comparing) match, but you also haven’t played around with how you want your room to look in the first place.
When you think about it, it’s pretty crazy to make expensive purchases on big-ticket furniture and decor pieces without a solid plan.
Even better, a room design plan that you’re INSPIRED and EXCITED about.
The most beautiful results start with a mood board
I received this note from a lovely reader yesterday:
I discovered your website about 18 months ago, and I want to THANK YOU for all the advice you provide on both the blogs and in your ebooks.
I came from a very modest background. Growing up, no one in my family gave a single thought to decorating, or color, and it showed! I dreamed of a future where I might one day have enough money to have nice things… and then I became an engineer who has money but still no home design talent.
I have struggled to understand color, and undertones, and tried to dissect why some things look good together, why some things are boring or hideous, and why some decor SCREAMS at you. You know how it goes, instinctively you know what’s good, but you can’t explain why. Maria helped me to take the blindfold off my eyes and to see color for what it is, and to be able to explain why some things are hideous together and others are beautiful.
My front porch is my first project after reading Maria’s blogs. I zero’d in on the fact that this boring house color is a golden beige… and used that knowledge to pick a navy (contrasting scheme) to breathe some life into the color palette. I used the clean vs dirty idea to find the best shade of navy from my fabric selection options. I used mood boards/Pinterest to plan purchases and fabric in advance.
To my absolute surprise and delight, everything looked as good together in real life as it did on the computer screen.
Can I say wow?!
All that effort and dollars spent on bringing items home only to be disappointed – now essentially eliminated and replaced by hours of study and careful curation prior to spending the first dime. Life changing. My financial budget thanks you.
I know it’s not perfect – I think the long rectangular pillows are too “clean” in hindsight. And there’s probably other tweaks that could be made to look even better, but my eye isn’t trained enough to see it or explain it. But, can I just say, as someone with no design experience, how absolutely thrilled I am that I was able to apply the color principles and pull together a look I am happy with?!
(By the way, this project started with these ratty old $20 chairs from OfferUp that I discovered were teak when I began stripping the old paint off! Score! I handmade all the upholstery besides the talavera style pillow covers.)
THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!
Her pretty mood board translated perfectly into a beautiful result! The pillows look great and they can be switched out easily at any time. I would keep going and add a colourful rug.
And while that result LOOKS effortless – like she just ran to the store and was brilliantly inspired and lucky to find just the right items – the truth is, this is the result of smart planning. And smart planning happens before you hit the stores.
How to fix an uninspired room
You simply CANNOT get it right without previewing everything together and working on a plan.
If you were to put the grey sofa you are considering on a digital mood board (place images on a Google Slides, Powerpoint, etc.), and then added a grey rug and grey drapes, you would immediately see that it’s not fabulous yet. You might even notice that the undertones are off.
It’s really easy to spot a room where this planning process hasn’t happened. And at this point, going back to the grey-on-grey room at the top of this post, it’s too late to just add colourful cushions. We have gone too far with the grey. Something has to shift.
Replacing the area rug with a warmer one along with colourful pillows and paint would be the first step to transform this room from meh to fabulous.
You simply can’t have all your large-scale pieces in grey AND end up with a fabulous room.
Another strategy when you have too much grey furniture (whoops!), is to paint the walls a strong colour for balance. First though, source something in a colour want to introduce. In the image below, they’ve chosen a rusty red accent chair as their inspiration colour. THEN chose that colour for the wall.
In my reader’s grey room, a more colourful area rug and a coordinating accent chair would be a great start. (It shouldn’t be hard to sell a newish grey rug on Craigslist.) With the warm pink and violet grey stones in the fireplace, I think adding a warm blush, mauve or coral would be an excellent direction to explore.
And she needs to add a more colourful and larger piece of art over the sofa. Here’s a quick mood board visual.
Notice that the area rug relates to the grey sofa while also bringing in a punchy coral and a muted lavender. These colours are then picked up in a larger-scale picture hung over the sofa.
Even if the undertones of grey in this room were an issue, once she adds some pretty colour and pattern, the focus moves away from all the grey. Now we have something prettier to look at instead of analyzing the paint colour. Pale Oak is a versatile taupe greige that does in fact relate nicely to the fireplace.
However, I would NOT spend money on repainting this room another neutral. Maybe someday, with this new plan, she could paint it a pretty peachy blush or muted lavender with this new plan and it would look great. Because now she has something to work with.
So knowing when to turn the corner and incorporate some colour is very important. And it comes much sooner than you think. Ideally, you need to find some colour inspiration before you even go shopping. Definitely NOT after you’ve bought all your main pieces.
Do you struggle with adding or coordinating colour or neutrals to your rooms? Check out my Shop Online with Colour Confidence online training. You’ll get immediate access to the best tricks for getting colour right when shopping online. Plus, it’s also packed with decorating tips and sources for making your room fabulous.
And before you comment that you really do prefer a neutral room anyway, I’m just going to leave this right here…
An all-neutral room needs even MORE planning
Why? Because when colour is not the story, the texture, contrast and details become the star of the show. And they are even trickier to get right. I’ll be posting about that soon!
Maria Killam is an acclaimed decorator, stylist, and a leading authority on colour. Known for her revolutionary Killam Colour System™ and her innovative Understanding Undertones® Neutral Colour Wheel, she's also an educator, sharing her expertise and insights on all things colour along with her timeless design aesthetic.
Colour Made Easy™