Experts Share Their Foolproof Tips for Decorating in All White

Updated 01/18/18
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As much as we love a colorful room—there's one type of space that will never go out of style: all-white interiors. Whether it's a light and bright kitchen or a colorless living room filled with textures and intriguing art, there's something timeless and soothing about a bleached-out space. Some people keep their spaces white for fear of picking a paint color or painting different tones together; for others, it's simply a matter of preference.

But while they may seem easier to pull off, all-white interiors done well have very specific recipes for success. From layering textures to choosing paint colors and materials or even picking artwork, keeping a coherent all-white scheme is not as easy as it may seem. We tapped four talented interior designers who specialize in white spaces to shed light on what it takes to create the ultimate all-white room. Avoid decorating mistakes by following these helpful tips, and your interior nirvana awaits.

Decorate With Textures

Decorating With White
Courtesy of White Arrow

"Texture is everything," says Kara Smith of L.A.-based firm SFA Design. "You can create a lot of depth and interesting aspects of an otherwise monochromatic design by playing with different textures and materials." Vanessa Alexander of the Malibu-based firm Alexander Design agrees: "All white does not mean all shades of white have to be the same. Different shades of white and layering of textures and subtle hints of pale faded shades are key. It's also important to create reflective moments with lighting, mirrors, and a few key pieces of art. I love mixing metals and aged brass or patinated steel. Hints of black are amazing with whites."

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Carefully Pick Your Paint

White Paint Colors
Patrick Cline ; DESIGN: Sasha Bikoff

Choosing the perfect white paint isn't easy, but interior designers have a few tricks up their sleeves: "We coordinate our whites with the cardinal direction that a room faces, as well as the color undertones of the selected furniture, flooring, fixtures, and stone," says Keren Richter of Brooklyn-based design studio White Arrow. "If a room has warm accents, we use a warmer white. Conversely, we use a cooler white if we're pairing it with chrome, Carrara, or more modern furnishings. We love Farrow & Ball, Portola Paint, and Little Greene. We also love Fine Paints of Europe for their enamels, and milk paint by General Finishes. I'm a fan of flat matte whites on walls rather than eggshell. I like my walls to read more like plaster, and I love limewash too."

In fact, every designer has their favorite white paint. For Smith, it's Benjamin Moore Decorator's White. "It is the perfect white—no yellow, no grey—and it's warm and bright." For Alexander, it's White Dove by Benjamin Moore and Farrow & Ball's All White or Ammonite paints. For New York–based designer Sasha Bikoff, it depends on two things: "The amount of light in the room and the mood you want to set. For more contemporary settings, I love an icy, stark, blinding white, and for a more traditional European look, I prefer an antique lace, warmer-looking white."

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Incorporate Natural Elements

White Interiors
Tessa Neustadt ; DESIGN: Alexander Design

"All-white interiors can feel quite sterile," says Richter. "This works well if you want a space to be minimal and modern, like a gallery. However, if you want the interior to feel welcoming, it's important to incorporate a mixture of natural elements (cut flowers, indoor trees, greenery of all types) with rich textures (soft throws, interesting rugs, down-filled pillows). Don't underestimate the power of good lighting and nicely framed large-scale artwork." In white kitchens, she also likes to incorporate hand-thrown pottery, delicate glassware, fruits, plants, wooden spice mills, and cutting boards. "The elements that help a space feel lived-in and alive provide a great balance to calmer environments."

For Alexander, the trick is to add texture with other materials. "White is often a base of my rooms, but I add warmth with wood and leather. White also makes art stand out exceptionally—I love punctuating the room with amazing art and let it make a statement."

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Maintain Your Space

How to Keep a Couch White
Tessa Neustadt ; DESIGN: Alexander Design

People tend to shy away from white furnishings, especially when living with small children or pets. But interior designers have a few tricks up their sleeves to keep white spaces clean, but they also know when to pull the plug on white furnishings when it's simply not practical: "White furniture and light-colored rugs can be risky if you have a tendency to eat food in front of the TV, love dark denim, or have pets," says Richter. "You should understand lighter furniture requires a certain level of upkeep—so find a good steam cleaner, embrace the Magic Eraser and the power of OxiClean."

For Smith, it's about the livability of the space. "Try to still make it feel approachable by using durable fabrics," she says. For instance, indoor/outdoor fabrics like Sunbrella can be maintained much more easily than, say, a silk rug, something the interior designer would never put in an all-white space.

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Choose Durable Materials

White Kitchens
Courtesy of White Arrow

All-white kitchens and bathrooms are popular, and for good reason—the absence of color makes them feel more timeless. But it doesn't come without its own setbacks: "An all-white kitchen that shows its wear and tear is the least fabulous thing," says Smith. "I would suggest using a non-porous, ideally Caesar-type like quartz stone for your countertops, which is a man-made product using natural materials that's great for an all-white kitchen. Save your 'wow' moment for the backsplash or the walls."

Bikoff skirts the problem by incorporating a contrasting stone: "Decorating an all-white kitchen is ideal when you pick out a really enigmatic piece of stone that offsets the white and incorporates white veins amongst a darker ground," she says. By using a darker countertop in an all-white room, you render your space easier to maintain while keeping your it light and bright.

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Consider Your Tonal Values

How to Decorate With Whites
Tessa Neustadt ; DESIGN: Alexander Design

Not all whites are made the same, and interior designers have a knack for identifying their undertones: "There are many shades of white, and it's nice to incorporate different tonal values and textures to keep the eye traveling," says Richter. "I like to keep the tonal values the same—cool whites with other shades within that spectrum and the same holds true for warm whites."

Smith argues that this extends to more than just paint colors: "Be very careful to study your materials in different lights," she says. "Any ounce of a yellow tone can really look grimy and ruin the whole vibe." For Alexander, it's all about incorporating other tonal neutrals to help mix various white tones together: "It becomes more of an overall palette instead of one strict tone," she says.

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Showcase Your Art

White Gallery Walls
Tessa Neustadt ; DESIGN: Alexander Design

"An all-white interior provides a perfect canvas for artwork of any kind," says Richter. "There is a reason galleries are white. There's been a trend to hang work salon style, and lately I'm much more excited by one or two large-scale pieces that make a big visual impact. Whatever pieces you choose, it's important to keep in mind scale and proportion of the work as it relates to your belongings."

For Smith, any type of artwork can blend into an all-white space: "The beauty of all-white interiors is that art really stands out and you have a lot of flexibility," she says. "Whether it's a monochromatic pop, more white texture, or even sculptural art, it all just really works. Think gallery vibes but with furniture—you're creating the perfect backdrop."

Alexander, who is an avid art and antiques collector, also prefers white interiors to let important pieces shine: "Art is an important part of my projects, and I love keeping my palette neutral so that it is a focal point," she says. "The choice of artwork doesn't have so much to do with the white palette as much as the mood of the room and what you fall in love with. That being said, I am a huge black-and-white lover—but unless we are looking to specifically do a black-and-white theme for the room as a whole, I focus on art or photography with color instead."

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Introduce Color Carefully

White Walls Decorating Ideas
Courtesy of White Arrow

When it comes to introducing colors into a space, each designer seems to have their own methods. "There are no rules," says Richter. "It really depends on what sort of atmosphere you aim to create. If you'd like a space to feel more natural and neutral, bring in wood tones and greenery. If you'd like a space to feel more bold and striking, add black. I'm always looking for a balance between pieces, a play with color, light, texture, and proportion. I began my career as an artist, so I think of my interiors much like a formal composition."

Smith tends to go easy with pops of color in an all-white space: "I think splatters of interesting colors are great! I stay away from primaries with white, but that's just a personal preference." Bikoff agrees: "I really don't like the whole pop-of-color thing. I think it is too striking and hard on the eyes in an all-white space," she says. "Rather, I would introduce color slowly, gracefully, and elegantly. It's kind of like an ombré—how you start with light and slowly build up with color that becomes more saturated."

For Alexander, colors come through carefully picked accent pieces: "I am always collecting vintage leather chairs, and I let the leather bring another color and texture to the room. Other accessories like rugs and pillows also help introduce colors while keeping everything white and light."

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