White walls -- you either love 'em or hate 'em. Because it goes with anything, white has come to be seen as the safe choice for houses going on the market and for apartments. It's that unimaginative overuse of white that has led to the color's reputation as boring and sterile. But it doesn't have to be that way.
White brings in the light; it's airy, clean, serene, and contemplative. It's the perfect backdrop for bold artwork and contemporary furniture. (That's why the walls are always white in contemporary art museums.)
And white has more personality than you think. Paint companies offer collections of whites that range in tone from coffee-with-cream to mint, pink, and violet. The paint chips by themselves appear to be pastels or various shades of beige (except for a few pure whites), but when you get them on the wall, the overall effect is white -- with an undertone that's either cool or warm.
As with any color, painting or staining the doors, door frames, window frames, and any other trim a contrasting color can enhance the white on the walls, bringing out the undertones.
Bright white trim will make beige-white walls appear slightly darker by contrast, while cool whites will appear clear and fresh when outlined with bright white. Be cautious about pairing bright white with antique or creamy white, because the latter may look dirty by contrast. Test poster-size swatches before committing to paint on the walls.
White-on-white decorating creates a pristine purity conducive to contemplation and relaxation. With all surfaces and details bathed in the same light-reflecting brilliance, your eye focuses on shape and texture, and ordinary objects take on sculptural beauty.
Textures supply the variety needed to keep things interesting: Shiny damask, smooth porcelain, chalky plaster, fuzzy chenille, matte cotton, and weathered painted wood will reflect light differently, providing the contrast that the eye craves and engaging the sense of touch as well.
Also incorporate different shades of white. In paints and fabrics, most whites are either warm (leaning toward yellow, rose, or beige tones) or cool (with a hint of gray or icy blue). Off-white, antique white, ivory, ecru, and cream evoke romantic warmth but remain within the family of white. Grayed whites can look dirty next to brilliant whites, and some decorators shy away from using pure white altogether, because it makes other shades appear muddy.
Of course, no room in the real world is totally white. Houseplants, fireplaces, artwork, and accessories introduce touches of color that keep white rooms from feeling sterile and clinical. The contrast only enhances the beauty of white on white.
A white room filled with white furnishings is too much of a good thing, but if you add natural textures and a rich array of neutral colors, white becomes the clean, serene backdrop for comfort and relaxation. White sets the stage for a sleek contemporary look, but it's also the key to modern country style.
To achieve that livable quality, include the full range of wood tones, from blond to cherry to ebony, when you select tables, picture frames, and accessories. Leave golden pine floors bare, or add sisal or jute area rugs for extra texture. Use wicker baskets for storage and select weathered wood or rusted metal accessories to introduce still more types of surfaces.
To maintain a mostly white envelope, add these touches sparingly. For a stronger color impact, bring in more neutrals. In addition to the expected browns, beiges, grays, and black, neutrals can include olive, ocher, blue-gray, and muted gray-green -- colors readily found in nature.
Is white practical? If you love white but think it's not for you because you have a houseful of kids and pets, don't be too quick to dismiss it. Walls painted with satin- or eggshell-finish latex can be wiped to remove jelly handprints. Washable cotton slipcovers on the sofa and chairs will make a major impact on the room's appearance and offer easy maintenance.
White is a good choice if you like to redecorate often, introducing new window treatments, new bedding, and slipcovers to create a different color scheme. The shell of the room becomes a backdrop for the personality pieces you bring to it.
Fabric, artwork, floor coverings, and accessories become the carriers of color. In the living room, chairs, sofas, and area rugs will have the most impact on the room's color mood, with pillows and accessories accenting the theme. In the bedroom, change the bedding and the area rug, and you change the look.
Even in dining rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens, fabric introduces color -- at the windows, on chair seats, in shower curtains and towels -- and artwork and accessories reinforce it.
To keep the focus on an art collection, avoid fabrics with a lot of pattern. Instead, use solids in a range of values from light to dark.
With white as your unifying theme throughout the house, you can imbue each room with dramatically different colors in the fabrics and floor coverings and still have a sense of flow.
The good thing about starting with white is that it allows you to introduce strong color in small doses that will delight your eye without overwhelming you.