The Dos and Don'ts of Decorating a White Interior

Updated 08/19/19
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We imagine an all-white room is to an interior designer what a blank canvas is to a painter. The potential of a bleached-out backdrop is exciting, but the expectations are incredibly daunting. We have so many questions… What colors pair well with a milky-hued home? How do you create visual interest and break up the monotony? Which furniture styles suit the ivory aesthetic?

To help answer our queries on how to create stylish yet serene all-white spaces, we quizzed Will Taylor, celebrated interior designer and author of Dream Décor. He truly believes "beige is boring" and has inspired a legion of aspiring decorators with his accessible approach to color. So we put his knack for pairing intriguing hues with interesting textures to the test. Read on to discover a few simple dos and don'ts for creating a dynamic white space you'll love.

Meet The Expert

Will Taylor is author of Dream Décor, a creative consultant and lifestyle blogger of Bright Bazaar, of which Taylor has also authored a book by the same name.

ON SELECTING YOUR WHITE

decorating with white
Andrew Boyd for Bright Bazaar

You might think choosing white for your interior is the easy way out, but finding the right shade is never a simple process. After all, there are so many variations. Some have warm undertones, while others have a cool finish, and then you need to consider the architecture of your home.

There are three things to keep in mind when deciding on the right white: the undertones, the natural lighting of the room, and the finish.

"Yellow undertones give white paint a warmer and creamier appearance, while blue undertones give a crisper look," he said. "A space with lots of natural light is likely to look warmer, so you can use a cooler shade of white to balance the room. Rooms that are artificially lit with LED or fluorescent lighting can look cool, so go warmer."

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ON CHOOSING COLOR COMBOS

neutral dining room
Amy Bartlam ; DESIGN: JDP Interiors

Once you land on the perfect white hue, it's time to introduce color into the space. Don't be daunted by the expanse of white space; Taylor says it's this very base that will become your guide. 

"If it's a white with warm, sandy undertones, it's best to go for earthy shades elsewhere in the space for a scheme with a neutral bent," he said. "In a space with a crisp, more brilliant white, you can layer in more saturated splashes of hue. Think bold blues for a beach vibe, or painterly pinks and yellows with black accents for a more Scandi-inspired vibe." 

When it comes to pairings, Taylor says there are three palettes you can choose from: complementary, split complementary, and tonal. A complementary palette pairs any two colors opposite each other on the color wheel (for example, blue and orange). "This palette works best in small doses, as they create high contrast, so use one color as the base and the other as an accent," Taylor advises.

Split complementary palettes are when you take one color and match it with the two colors adjacent to its complementary color on the color wheel. "This is a great starter approach, as it's hard to get wrong," he said.

A tonal color palette is when you decorate a space using tones from the same color family (i.e. all gray or all blue). "This often creates a relaxing and soothing space, but it's important to layer in pattern and texture throughout the space to create visual interest," he said.

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ON FINDING FURNITURE

white kitchen
Andrew Boyd for Bright Bazaar

When faced with a white backdrop, most will adopt the "anything goes" approach, but that's when things get messy and chaotic. There should always be a theme and a carefully planned approach to any interior, regardless of the paint scheme. Taylor says furniture should be used to help tell the story of the space. "Choosing pieces designed with clean lines, hard corners, and colder materials like metal will give a modern, contemporary, and gallery-like feel among all the white," he said. "For a more inviting and cozy feel, layer warm woods with weathered, whitewashed finishes with linen-covered sofas and armchairs. A more country rustic vibe will evolve and pair beautifully with the white palette."

In a living room, you will want to make sure the rug is large enough to stretch underneath all the core furniture pieces, including the sofa, armchair, and coffee table.

Taylor says a rug can really help to anchor all the elements of a white room and bring some much-needed cohesion. Just make sure to choose one that's the right size so it doesn't look out of place. "In a living room, you will want to make sure the rug is large enough to stretch underneath all the core furniture pieces, including the sofa, armchair, and coffee table," he said. A rug is a great way to tie your design together: "Let it tell the color and textural story of the room so that the other pieces gently reference back to it."

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ON STRIKING A BALANCE

neutral bedroom
Amy Bartlam ; DESIGN: JDP Interiors

The danger of styling a white room is the tendency to stay in line with the neutral color palette. While we've never seen a white room we didn't like, a bright pop goes a long way in any space, adding much-needed depth and variation. Taylor believes in the 60-30-10 rule for striking the perfect balance.

"Sixty percent of your room is made up of the primary color palette—think the largest surface areas, such as floors, walls, ceilings, etcetera," he said. "Then 30% is the secondary palette, so this is for the furniture and soft furnishing elements of the space. Then 10% is your accent color or the pop of color. This 10% can be made up of one hero piece, such as an artwork, or it could be a series of three to five smaller items that add up to 10%, such as a vase, table lamp, and throw pillow."

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ON CHOOSING GREENERY

all-white dining room
Andrew Boyd for Bright Bazaar

When you need a break from the world, your home should be your sanctuary, and one sure way to create that is through greenery. Indoor plants can provide a great boost for your physical health and state of mind, and they also make for a great color accent to break up any white space. For that stylish, on-trend botanical feel, Taylor says there are two routes you can go down. "You can choose exotic-inspired varieties with palm fronds, banana plants, and succulents, or go for a country feel with potted herbs on the kitchen window," he said. If your busy lifestyle doesn't allow time for parenting plants, choose one of these indoor varieties; we guarantee you can't kill them.

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ON ADDING ARTWORK

neutral living room
Jenna Peffley ; DESIGN: Tali Roth Designs for Homepolish

We realize art is very personal, but there are still a few considerations when choosing works for a white space. If you have a busy room, Taylor suggests a "lone piece of oversized artwork is usually enough." However, in rooms that are either lacking in interesting architectural features or have an overpowering feature (such as dark red brick), a gallery wall can work wonders to create a focal point or temper an existing one. If you need help, this simple guide will take you from a blank wall to a gallery wall in seven simple steps

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This story was originally posted on June 16, 2016, and has since been updated.

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