5 Ways to Decorate with Primary Colors for a Retro-Inspired Look

Primary colors create vibrant, high-energy color schemes. Use these designer tips to pull off this daring look.

By definition, primary colors are the most basic of hues. When mixed together, these elementary colors form every other shade on the color wheel, but no other colors can be blended to create red, yellow, or blue. The primaries represent the most intense, purest forms of color, and this vibrant combination is beginning to establish itself as one of this year's top color trends.

The playful palette received a shoutout in Sherwin-Williams' color trend forecast for 2022, and primary colors appeared prominently in Pantone's predictions for next spring and summer. This resurgence of primary colors, which were broadly used throughout the postmodern movement of the 1980s, reflects a general fondness for throwback styles we've seen across interior design, fashion, and pop culture.

Because of their intensity, decorating with primary colors can be tricky. To learn the strategies to pull off this daring combination, we tapped a few designers for their go-to strategies. Use these tips to stylishly decorate with a primary color scheme.

colorful tropical outdoor deck lounge
David Tsay

1. Use subtle variations of primary colors.

In their original form, primary colors can be a bit jarring. For a subtle take on this trend, Texas-based interior designer Kim Armstrong suggests using variations of primary colors in a looser interpretation. For example, swap in turquoise for true blue, or use metallic gold finishes in place of yellow. Experiment with different shades to put your own spin on this classic color scheme.

open living room red velvet couch
Jay Wilde

2. Select one primary color as the focus.

The right balance is key to pulling off a primary color scheme. Instead of using each of the three colors equally throughout the space, designate one as the star and consider the others supporting players, suggests Mark Lavender, a Chicago interior designer. Apply yellow as the wall color, for instance, then bring blue and red through furniture, throw pillows, wall art, and other decorative accessories. Or select one red statement piece and accent it with small hits of yellow and blue.

Modern Eclectic sitting area with red yellow accents
Kim Cornelison

3. Tone down primary colors with neutrals.

Balance the brightness of primary colors with soft neutrals. "I like to pair them with calmer, more subdued color tones, such as white, gray, and browns," says Eddie Maestri of the Dallas-based interior design and architecture firm Maestri Studio. Start with a foundation of white walls to make primary-colored accents pop, or soften their vibrancy with soothing grays and warm wood tones.

blue, white, and yellow living room with modern touches
David Tsay

4. Boost sophistication with plenty of texture.

Primary colors bring energy and brightness to interiors, but they often lack the sophistication of other palettes. To add richness and depth, Armstrong suggests decorating with lots of texture. For pillows, throws, and upholstered furniture, select tactile fabrics such as plush velvet, buttery leather, or nubby linen. Rich wood finishes and natural materials like stone or rattan can also introduce a more elegant feel.

blue, red, and yellow modern sitting room
Werner Straube

5. Bring in bold, energetic patterns.

Match the energy of a primary color scheme with patterns that feel equally bold and playful. Maestri likes using simple geometric patterns for a subtle nod to postmodernism. Armstrong, on the other hand, suggests incorporating floral motifs. Because these colors appear naturally in gardens and meadows, introducing primaries through floral prints "feels very natural and not forced," she says.

Overall, the best way to decorate with primary colors is whatever appeals to you. "Be fearless," Lavender says. "Color is your friend and creates happy spaces."

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