Keep It Neutral

Keep It Neutral


What unexpected design decision can add significant impact to a room? Liberal use of neutrals.

While it’s true that many homeowners rely too heavily on neutrals to achieve a safe, inoffensive space, that’s not the noblest role for a neutral. Instead, a neutral color puts the focus on bolder accent colors typically used more sparingly throughout the room. Where a bold accent color is allotted more space, a neutral can prevent it from overpowering everything else.

Because neutrals serve such an important purpose and generally take up the most room, celebrity stylist Christopher Lowell advises people to choose their neutral first. “Think of it as the background that everything else with stand out against,” he says.

Walls and large upholstered furnishings are prime real estate for neutrals. If you cover these areas with an accent color, its impact will be either diminished or insufferable, says Lowell, adding that a room can be inexpensively updated if its “shell” and big-ticket furniture are neutral.

“Neutrals create the background for everything that comes into the room later,” Lowell says, including accent colors that create a sense of movement in the space

Showing up on lampshades, vases, pillows and other pieces, a room’s accent color adds visual punch, and if it’s evenly dispersed, “it carries the eye completely around the room,” he says.

The neutral background gives accent pieces definition. “Without a neutral, it’s going to start feeling like a circus where nothing stands out as special, and your eyes won’t know where to land,” says Sara McLean, a color expert at Dunn-Edwards Paints.

Surprisingly, choosing a neutral paint color can be as tricky and intimidating as choosing a daring color. For starters, there are so many colors that are considered neutrals.

“Neutral does not mean beige,” Lowell says.

The traditional meaning of neutral was a color that had no place on the color wheel, including all the different shades of gray, brown and off-whites.

The modern meaning is more inclusive. “We’ve expanded our perception of what a neutral is,” McLean, says. “Now, softer, muted versions of all the colors are being used as neutrals.”

Lowell calls them “dusty versions” and says a test of a color’s neutrality is to “put any other color up against it and it won’t clash.”

Some colors that aren’t neutral in the traditional sense can “act like” or “translate as” neutrals, he says.

The other challenge with the new neutrals is that most have underlying tones that emerge in certain lighting conditions. For example, different shades of gray can have blue or yellow undertones, while a seemingly pure white may reveal an ivory or peachy tint at certain times of day.

The names of paint colors may hint at their underlying tone (Dunn-Edwards offers Sonoma Chardonnay; Peaches and Cream; Smoke and Ash; and Rain Song to name a few), but the darkest shade on the paint swatch gives a better idea. That color will show up as subtle undertones in even the lightest shade on the strip.

While Lowell says using a neutral on the walls and sofa is just about foolproof, others assign a more flexible role to neutrals. “I always suggest that people start with three colors for a room. One of them should take up the most space, but not necessarily the neutral color,” says Carina Russell, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Design-Interiors, with locations in Bozeman and Livingston, Montana. “It could actually be the boldest color, and then the neutral becomes the accent.”

For example, the walls could be emerald green, the sofa a deep plum and the pillows a ginger-tan.

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