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How to Decorate with Grey (and how NOT to)

By 04/30/2014September 7th, 202141 Comments

So many people misunderstand how to decorate with grey. Did you know that grey was introduced as a backdrop for MORE colour, not less? So, stop choosing grey for EVERYTHING. Here’s how to decorate with grey the right way.

First, my readers are the best!

Thank you for all your amazing and thoughtful emails and comments on my powder room dilemma these past two days! I’ve decided I don’t want to make any major decisions  without YOUR expert opinion added to mine!

I love what so many of you said about my powder room not really being a powder room since it was adjoining the laundry at the back of the house (exactly what annoyed me when we bought this house) but after we renovated and my laundry room became just as pretty as everything else in the house, well the powder room location didn’t bother me anymore.

But as you said, it’s not really a powder room because it adjoins the laundry room, it actually is a garden sink with a toilet, so why don’t I make it the functional sink that it should be! Thank you!! I have vision now and I really appreciate all of your creative opinions and contribution!

Okay so onto today’s post. . .

How to Decorate with Grey (and how NOT to)

I was on the phone this afternoon being interviewed by a reporter about the grey trend. She had all the usual questions including when did the grey trend begin?

One year into starting my blog, the Winter of 2009 was when I started talking about grey.

However, one question she asked me, was what I thought I’d talk about today.

“I notice grey incorporated mostly in contemporary and modern interiors, but can it be used in a more traditional interior?”

OH YES. I said.

How NOT to Decorate with Grey

Here’s the thing, when people think about the grey trend, here are the interiors they notice:

Am I Trendy if there's no Gray in my House? (Oh Yeah)

Click on image for source

Am I Trendy if there's no Gray in my House? (Oh Yeah)

Click on image for source

Am I Trendy if there's no Gray in my House? (Oh Yeah)

Click on image for source

How to Decorate with Grey

Here’s the other side of the grey trend. COLOUR. COLOUR. COLOUR.

Decorating with grey doesn’t mean void of colour. The ONLY reason grey was introduced was to provide the backdrop for all this fresh, bright COLOUR.

Am I Trendy if there's no Gray in my House? (Oh Yeah)

Am I Trendy if there's no Gray in my House? (Oh Yeah)

Am I Trendy if there's no Gray in my House? (Oh Yeah)

Am I Trendy if there's no Gray in my House? (Oh Yeah)

Am I Trendy if there's no Gray in my House? (Oh Yeah)

Am I Trendy if there's no Gray in my House? (Oh Yeah)

Click on images for source.

But Maria, I hear you thinking, there’s no grey in these interiors. Or barely.

That’s right. Because the correct way to decorate in this trend is using fresh colour. Grey is the crisp backdrop that lets colour take the stage. Oops, didn’t I already mention that? Just want to make sure you get it, hee, hee.

I walked into HomeSense last week and there were four long shelves full of grey/charcoal throw pillows.

Who will buy these pillows? I asked myself.

If everyone has a charcoal sofa, how is another grey pillow going to bring the place to life?

Read more: How to Transform a Charcoal Sofa with Colour: Before & After

Am I Trendy if there's no Gray in my House? (Oh Yeah)

If you already have grey furniture, you need colourful pillows, flowers, throws, and bright accent pieces to bring it to life – not MORE GREY!

So look, if you’ve decided you hate grey and you’re not going to follow the trends, think again. It can be a clean backdrop for adding happy colour. And that’s how we all want to feel when we walk into our house!

Which look do you prefer?

If you want my help choosing the right colour for your home, try my eDesign services. If you want me to teach YOU how to make the right colour decisions for your home, sign up here.

Start learning my system in my eBooks, How to Choose Paint Colours – It’s All in the Undertones and White is Complicated – the Decorator’s Guide to Choosing the Right White to get my complete step-by-step system on how to get colour to do what you want and to make sure the undertones in your home are right, get some large samples! Get them free when you enroll in my workshop.

Related posts:

I Don’t Follow the Trends. Is This You?

Maria Killam’s Trend Forecast for 2014

Is Gray Only for Happy People? Yay or Nay


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  • Sue says:

    I totally agree about adding colour to grey! I feel like i am in a pickle because i painted my son’s room revere pewter but it looks so dirty next to the clean bright decals and pictures on his wall. I might abandon ship and repaint his (northfacing) room. Love the blog!

  • Vicky says:

    This is the only way I could use grey is it being my paint color with tons of color everywhere else. Love the blue green rooms

  • Julie S says:

    Ha ha! As always, you are an expert at show don’t tell to get your point across 🙂

  • mairi says:

    I’ve never had so much fun with colour as when I decided to paint the walls a hint of gray. Now the walls don’t compete with the accents, as you say they recede. Love that fun aqua and green kitchen!

  • Angela says:

    Hmmm, I tried every gray I had, using my colour boards in my new house, but for some reason gray did not work. I think it may be because there is not a lot of light in the main living area. I ended up with BM Wickham Gray (blue/green/gray) in the bedrooms and BM Westchester Tan in every other room. I hate to admit this, but my husband was the one who nailed the colour in the main living area:)

  • Great advice, Maria. I’ve always stayed away from the grey trend because of the monochromatic and cold look. But adding pops of colour like you’ve shown really makes it work for a traditional home (which is where I hang my hat).

  • Ellen says:

    The photos do not lie….another great post.
    Gray does love color !

  • Mary-Illinios says:

    Hi Maria,
    I’m glad everyone could help you with your powder room. You’ve helped us so much through your blog, it’s nice to know we can return the favor. Sometimes all you need is a fresh set of eyes.
    Regarding the grey…I love it with fresh colors. So much that it makes me regret my choice in my home’s paint color. But the hubs would disown me if I announced I was repainting the entire house.

  • franki says:

    Fifty shades of gray work for me! (No, I haven’t read the book…) franki

  • Loribeth says:

    I love that room with the green curtains and the blue sofa! I think I’m going to buy some more curtain panels for my living room to make my curtains really full like those.

  • sandyc says:

    I hope that reporter knows how lucky she was to get to interview Maria Killam about trends in color. If she is really interested and really smart, she’ll realize she got the ultimate distillation of your 3-day color course in that one brief interview. Your choice of photos is fantastic – those that exemplify the typical vision of the grey trend were right on, and those that show the power of a color to work magic in a room were very delightful to totally stunning. Great post.

  • Kay says:

    Those rooms with all the fresh blues and greens look so pretty and au courant. I like them a lot, but ten years from now won’t they scream 2014? And not because of the soft gray backdrop. The other rooms are so monochromatic that they will look dated as soon as the gray trend begins to pass.

    I love gray but have none in my house except in my bathroom (gray and white ceramic tile) and kitchen (Carrara marble). It’s enough, but not too much. I don’t worry about the bathroom dating because it looks so classic.

  • Deb says:

    Did my home office in grays-chaise, rug, storage -whenever I walked by and glanced in the room all I thought of was a bucket of ashes. Started over and am loving my non-trend peach room with cream rug and upholstery. Everyone looks great in it too, even the dogs.
    It has been easier to shop-everything with gray eliminated. I do love a gray house trimmed in white and yellow.

  • That’s exactly why I love the ballet white you suggested in our consultation. It is up on our walls, and will be a perfect backdrop for the bright colors that I’ll be using once the reno is done.

  • Scribbler says:

    Interesting. I have never liked grey, but when we bought our house 7 years ago, I inherited grey in the WC tiles, cultured marble sinks and the shower and tub in the Master bath. Not planning to stay here forever, I tested samples for nearly two years, trying to find a pale grey that would make the rest of it less grey. I settled on “Smoke” by Valspar, which has been very nice. We had the giant tub removed, painted over the tiles in the WC ( a bright white) and covered the other tiles with some 18″ square vinyl tiles which have the look of honed marble. I have lots of bright color in there now, (I call it my Boho bath), and the grey is hardly noticeable. I was actually surprised to discover what you point out: that the light grey is incidental. If I took all my stuff out, the bath would be grey and white — completely neutral, which equals “salable”.

    You are definitely the guru of color!

  • Kates says:

    I love my light gray walls! I feel like they give all my art, photos the perfect backdrop! I love decorating with color but I hate committing to one for any length of time. I find that the right gray color can play so well with many colors and styles. I had a 100 year old American 4 square that I painted the walls gray in and it played beautifully with all the molding and now my 70’s ranch has a beautiful shade of gray to create the perfect backdrop. I am also noticing that WHITE is becoming a thing… lots of white walls and neutral palettes but yet still playing out with lots of color as well. Is white the new gray (for wall colors)?

  • celeste says:

    I don’t understand the current trend exemplified in the first three photos; why would you want your home to have all the warmth of a penal colony? Somehow, the idea of a neutral to enhance other colors became the idea of just a neutral alone. In 20 years, we will be looking at those first three photos and say, “What were they thinking? Oh, yes, that was the time of the recession.” If we were to look at the final photos, we would think “Ah, yes, they were busy living and enjoying life.”

    • Jennifer says:

      Some of us enjoy the relaxing hues of a cool grey. No one has ever walked into our home and said, “Wow, it looks like a prison in here.” Quite the opposite; everyone compliments our home, possibly because it doesn’t look like every other brown interior here in the Southwest. Grey can be very inviting if done properly–it’s not always cold and off-putting.

      • Sylvia says:

        Yup…what Jennifer said.

        Those first three pictures do look washed out and a little extreme just to make a point. Even the green looks grey.

        Done well, virtually any color can be beautiful.

  • Gloria says:

    The first photos….monochromatic grays boring and depressing… For me, the idea of gray being the neutral back drop for color works well. I currently don’t have any gray in my home but plan to repaint a large part of the interior soon. Maybe I will consider a gray for a nice, neutral back drop.

  • Paula Van Hoogen says:

    I have to say that not only is this an excellent post, Maria, but that it provoked some very articulate responses. I’ve enjoyed reading it all. I DO like the first photo–though it so needs color in the pillows, because my life is so busy and I make such (colorful–haha) messes of my own that I need a monochromatic backdrop! I just had my master WC painted Kendall Charcoal with Linen trim. WOW. Can’t wait to put saturated color artwork in there!
    I started using grays in the mid nineties because it worked so well with everything. I try to just figure it out from an artistic point of view.

  • Great gray explanation, I get it! But, not everybody is on board with fresh, clear colors. Not everyone cares about trends, nor do they have the budget to re-do their interiors. Many of my clients still have warm, muted, earthy stuff. So, grays IMO don’t look good, and warm, creamy neutrals still offer the best backdrop. I love you Maria, but I’m never going to be a gray fan :).

    • Angela says:

      I get it too Diane and just wish I could have made it work in my new home, but it didn’t and maybe that’s because I live in the NW? There are some beautiful Gray’s out there too.

  • June says:

    Read somewhere lately–thought it was on this site–that wall color needs to relate to the rest of the room. I thought that meant that whatever is on the walls needs to be repeated in the room. So….

    I just switched my master bedroom suite–bedroom, dressing room, bathroom–from a Southwestern Cowboy look with caramel colored walls to Modern Cowboy with gray walls. Used Behr burnished Clay (cut 20%) on all walls, except used darker Behr Suede gray on the long bookcase wall. All woodwork is white.

    Used mellow yellow and red accents….but pulled in the gray with pillows. A light gray throw pillow for the bed matches the wall and two European pillows that look like an upholstered headboard match the Suede gray bookcase wall.

    We plan to sell soon so wanted an updated look. It does look fresher. I got rid of most of the cowboy stuff, although the saddle and horse art is still there. But now I’m thinking I should not have used gray pillows on the bed!!!

  • ritaemilia says:

    This is just to thank you Maria. Prior to your primers on Grey, I had a silly, smug and dismissive attitude about this color. Now I realize that used thoughtfully and with understanding, that its benefits are powerful. And, that one cannot understand color design without understanding what grey is and does. I recently achieved a certain blue color that I wanted for a small powder room by using a “grey.” The room turned out beautifully, is one of the best schemes that I have ever done and won raves from my husband. I was not afraid to try it after being educated by you. Thank you.

  • Janice Waterman says:

    Wow! Once again a post that inspires lots of emotion. I guess color, or lack of it, will do that. You do have to admit that the first three photos are the extreme end of the grey scale. Hardly can compare with the vitality of the turquoise in later pics. I do agree that I prefer color…but want to be able to change it seasonally.

    Just want to offer the thought that to some folks, a very monochrome and simple interior can be a place of refuge to a very busy or chaotic life or mind.

  • judy H. says:

    I wanted to paint a room grey. I went to my neighborhood paint store and had the owner help me choose a shade I loved. She talked to me about all of the “whys and wherefores” of grey and I thought I had found the perfect shade. After the room was painted, I didn’t like it, I couldn’t exactly say “why”, I just didn’t like it. So, I tried my second grey choice and when I was finished, I still didn’t like it. I thought to myself that I just might not be a grey person, but I LOVED so many of the grey rooms I’d seen on blogs and magazines! Frustrated, I returned to the paint store (this was getting $$) and started over. This time I chose a lighter “grey lilac” and it was a HIT! So, I guess there are many shades of grey and I am a grey person after all.

    • June says:


      My experience exactly! I still had a can of my old color and was tempted to go back to it. But like you (and inspired by Maria’s blog) I tried a different gray–and this time it worked! The fresh look immediately appealed to me, but have to admit it took a few weeks for the gray to really feel like “me.”


  • Babs Loyd says:

    The green rooms are fabulous. Thanks for the post, grey is in need of livening up in my opinion. Your comment about adding more grey pillows to a grey sofa made me laugh.
    I am glad you decided to make your laundry room 1/2 bath practical for gardening, etc.

  • Kathy says:

    Help me please. In the photo with the purple rug, other than the black and white photo, where is the gray?

    • maria says:

      That’s exactly my point, fresh colour is the trend. Gray is the backdrop and doesn’t even need to be in the space for the room to be considered trendy.

      • Kathy says:

        Ok, so gray came in to take over the brown because “clean” colors go better with it than the brown? Because brown went with “dirty” colors? I guess “gray” was the trend versus brown, but if I understand correctly now, “fresh” (clean) colors are the trend…ok, I guess I missed the point of the whole article until now. Thanks!

  • megeranski says:

    I am ‘hearing’ Maria saying, “It’s all in the undertones.”

    🙂 🙂 🙂

    And, from this post, it is articulated that grey (or any other color) can play dominant OR supporting role.

    Nicely done, Maria!

  • Karen Stinson says:

    Maria, I am a long-time subscriber. Where do I find the guide book? Ready for summer home updates!

  • Judy H. says:

    Maria, I’m so glad I came to your blog today to read what you had to say about grey. I have always admired your taste and advice. I had a decorator make her 2nd visit to my home last week. I’d sought her out to help me do, something different with my living/dining room area. She showed me many, many shades of grey. I told her as I had in our first visit that I just really didn’t like grey, which was all she brought to me. She looked at me with shock and said, ” Oh, you NEED to reconsider, grey is the look, the color, the trend and you can do anything with it.” I told her I appreciated that, but I simply didn’t like grey. I had mentioned that before at our first visit. I could tell she was very offended; she a quick exit and said she would call me to make our next appt. I’m still waiting to hear from her. Thank you for making me feel that I’m not a stupid, know nothing, dimwit just because I happen to not like grey. Was it rude of me to tell her I didn’t like anything she brought over? Am I a person with no taste because I didn’t want to look at any grey rooms? I feel very confused.

    • Maria Killam says:

      I’m sorry I missed responding to this note. You were right on, as I’ve said in this post. COLOUR is the trend NOT grey. If you notice too much grey, it’s been done wrong. Maria

  • Jan Garon says:

    Maria ~ I have to say I see a lot of gray used in homes and they are not adding color to it. The rooms are cold and terribly unattractive. Let me correct myself, they use white with it. I have not seen any fresh color. I would go so far as to saying the only color used is blue with the gray and white. I have seen it over and over and am wondering how long this period of doom trend will last.

    • Maria Killam says:

      It’s true and the same thing happened in the brown trend with rooms and homes done top to bottom in brown.
      It will always happen when people just don’t know and think that choosing the ‘safe’ neutral of the moment is the best solution unfortunately. Maria

  • Guerrina says:

    It took me 7 years to finally get rid of builder beige with another neutral and it was Mindful Gray by SW. I have only done the wall that runs from the back door through the hall, kitchen & dining room. I added white board and batten to the back hall and trimmed out the 8 ft wide space between the DR & LR. Amazing difference and I love it. I find white and gray to be classic. My kitchen cabs are going white uppers with dark gray lowers. I have found that the richness of my antique wood pieces (cherry, mahogany, aged oak) is amplified as are all my black frames. Planned accent colors are navy, coral and a bit of yellow and/or turquoise. The other 2 dining room walls will be wallpapered with a gray/white pattern. Thinking of lighter gray for LR & stairwell again with white wood treatments. Love being able to easily change colors for all the holidays. For me, gray was a wise choice and has nothing to do with being trendy. Looking forward to the completion of the vision in my head…project by project!

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