How to incorporate strong colors into your neutral space

Are you paralyzed by color choices? Do you look at rooms with a lot of color and long for them, but are too scared to pull the trigger?

Are you or have you ever started out a blog post that kinda sounds like an infomercial?

Then you are in luck!!

The answer is a lot easier than you think — keep reading.

I recently designed a living/dining room where the homeowners were a bit color-shy. Unless you really LOVE, LOVE, LOVE color then you often run a risk of getting sick of it. I love it, I can handle it at all times, nay, INSIST on it. But I know so many people who are paralyzed design-wise because they1 are scared to commit to a risky color palette. And I totally get it.

Here’s the room before we entered the scene; the homeowners had just moved in and had sold most of their starter furniture. They were ready to buy a few investment pieces — nothing fancy — but the futon was going, obviously.


The Jonathan Adler rug is awesome, but the rest needed to go except that West Elm martini table. It was a pretty blank slate to work with. It took about three months to fully complete the project (a little bit here, a little bit there, approval, denial, approval, rejection, the usual process), but we finished it, and here you are, folks:

Photo by Lauren Pieri

Ah yeah. Now that’s a proper living room for a very young and fun couple. Let’s break it down:

They wanted something young and Jonathan Adler-esque, without exactly the budget of Jonathan Adler. And they are a little more minimalist and streamlined than yours truly, which is always a good challenge for me. Most importantly wanted the space to feel bright and airy and modern, with some unique pieces and colorful accents that they can change out. Nothing too committal, but definitely still fun.

So here’s what you do and what I did …

1. Start with a neutral/masculine color palette with your major pieces of furniture:


Photo by Lauren Pieri

Navy, black, gray and sisal. All neutrals. There is a mix of warm tones and cool tones, and it’s fairly evenly dispersed throughout the space, keeping it balanced. We kept the walls white since we wanted it to feel bright and airy, and you kinda can’t go wrong with white walls.

The sofa is from Room Service in LA, the Milo Baughman chair you probably recognize from Joy’s house was a vintage find ($1000), the other club chair was a newly reupholstered Craigslist find ($450, I think). The coffee table was a flea market find for $300 (and someday they’re going to get bigger glass, but for now it’s fine), the sisal is from West Elm, vintage black side table, Ikea cowhide, West Elm silver martini table CB2 white lacquer console, standing lamp from DWR, and custom roman shades from a place in downtown LA.

But we made one permanent change:  We updated their fireplace from this dated ’70s brick:

To this more modern gray cement situation:

Which is SUCH an easy fix. Basically you pick a color of cement (they come in all sorts of neutral tones) and have it “faced” out. Sure you can re-tile, etc., but this is just way cheaper (around $800, including all labor and materials, which I’m sure you could do yourself). You put it on like grout, layer on top of layer, until you have a fully concealed brick fireplace. It’s a simple update that makes it more modern instantly.

2. Layer on your accent colors, but evenly disperse them and make sure you have at least two pops of the same color. Three is even better, and if you are nervous, keep these really bright colors limited to two colors.

Image 13

Photo by Lauren Pieri

3. Don’t really SPLURGE on these accessories. If you are scared of color, then keep that budget relatively tight so next year when the “it” color is lavender or ruby or whatever Pantone dictates, you can switch it out without feeling any regret.

They actually already had these X benches, which I love, but otherwise all the accessories were fairly budget-friendly. The pillows are both West Elm, the yellow elephant vase/planter is vintage, the black horse head is vintage, that black and white painting is by one Orlando Soria and it’s awesome. You can buy more of his paintings here in his Etsy store that he so aptly named “Storelando“. I can’t get enough, just can’t; the fact that his blog is no longer “Orblogdo” kills me. Why would you change that name? You are fired. The pink and yellow painting we just brought in for the shoot and it’s vintage in an Ikea frame.

The wig lamp you ask?

Photo by Lauren Pieri

This lady is a vintage find for $175, I believe, which isn’t nothing but it — pardon me — SHE has such character. While all the other accessories are more tame in style, she makes the room wildly more interesting. Plus, she’s Italian and every room needs a little bit of Italian design in it.

So there you have it; if you are scared of committing to trendy colors just do these three things:

1. Start with a neutral foundation of both warm and cool tones.

2. Evenly distribute your stronger more “accent” colors in the room.

3. Don’t splurge on the trendy colors, go vintage or big box … nothing too custom.

I even Gif’d it all out for you.

I can’t decide if this is totally annoying or fun or both … but I’m strangely mesmerized.

The great thing about this space is that they can seriously change out their color palette so easily. Those X benches could go underneath the windows and they can store the yellow pillow and planter, and really start all over with new accent colors next year without spending too much money or feeling guilty.

What do you think? Can you handle the hot pink? And do you like seeing the Gif (the moving picture) or is it kinda waste of my time?

And thank you Lauren Pieri for the pretty photos!

  1. Mandolyn

    I love it, and I so appreciate the genius way you break down the thoughts behind pulling such a great room together. You make your creative abilities and process so easily accessible—and fun to read at the same time. And I love the GIF :)

  2. sue

    i actually love the gif… it helps visualise how the colour additions completely change the room without having to scroll up and down feverishly!

  3. Angela

    1. This is a great post. 2. That wig lamp is AWESOME!

  4. Angie

    love the gif. It quickly lets me see the process and the simple steps followed by a dramatic transformation. Beautifully done.

  5. Kimberly

    Darn you Emily Henderson! Now I'm obsessed with the wig lamp! :) This post could not have come at a better time. I've been pinning a TV Room Mood Board on pinterest for a couple weeks now and I'm just about ready to begin but then I got nervous because I don't want it to be too masculine or too feminine. I want color but wanted to make sure I didn't go overboard and have my husband not love it (it is our cuddle room after all). This is exactly what I needed to help me sort it all out. Thank you!!

  6. Kimberly

    Oh, and I love the moving picture. I need to see the layers like that and find myself having to scroll back and forth to catch all the pieces…this way its much easier so totally worth keeping that functionality!

  7. I like how you helped them approach a more colourful home! Colour rocks, and there needs to be more of it, everywhere. What also rocks? The gif. I really really want that for every room you do, it's Teh Awesome. Seriously, it's great, thank you for making it :)

  8. patty blaettler

    Great looking room! And love the GIF.

  9. Archana

    Love the gif..wht color/fabric is the roman shade?Thanks in advance.

  10. Seriously Emily??? I have a grey-blue-sisal-ish color palette at home and was thinking about yellow and hot pink accents for this spring (I just posted yellow inspiration pics yesterday). THANK YOU for this awesome inspiration!

  11. Anne

    I love the gif – and the room. My husband loves modern & sleek looks and I've been slowly showing him how much more personal a few "softer" elements add. This room reminds me of our house.

  12. mosey

    So this was a seriously awesome and helpful post so thank you. I'm always trying to figure out our own living room and I'll def keep these tips in mind.

  13. Wendy

    Love the pink, but the man doesn't, so we compromised with chartrusie-yellow in our space.
    Love the gif. It allows us to see the process of layering in style/color to a neutral space.
    Love you, Emily..and appreciate your tips, advice and expertise.

  14. Katie

    Fabulous job. Love it. Love the pink and love the GIF. Really really helpful way to break it down. Was the couple mad they couldn't use the blue and white rug? It did look too small for the space. The fireplace re-do is also genius. So many bad 70s fireplaces out there. Thank you!

  15. mtodo

    1) you are awesome & hilarious 2) love the HOT pink 3) the gif is nice, but if you can save a ton of time and help more design-challenged souls by skipping it and just posting the pictures you would have used, fine by me 4) noticed a couple of typos ('muc' anc 'mad') and only telling you as I'd want to know 5) I miss your show, is it ever coming back?

  16. christine

    Your blog is the only design one I read regularly, and I loved the gif!

  17. Sara

    Love the moving picture..definitely fun without being annoying :) Great use of color and I love the pink, subtle yet exciting!

  18. Brandy

    Fantastic post. I learned a ton. The gif is very cool. They are all the rage right now with the whole vine thing. Just be careful not to start using them all the time. I really like how you photographed the room in layers. That is your 'thing' and its super helpful and educational for n00bs like me.

  19. Marlene

    Love the room. Love the gif. I just couldn't look at it for more than a few minutes because it would probably give me a headache. But those few minutes were super fun!

  20. amber

    love the gif, love the PINK and the room!

  21. Austin

    Great post. And it couldn't have come at a better time. I have a very neutral color palette going on in my living room, and after reading your blog for a few months now I've been inspired to add some color—namely, Peacock blue (told you you got in my head!). I'm struggling with the warm/cool balance though. I have a warm beige-y couch and a brass coffee table with glass top that might be my favorite possession of all time. The two together do create a lot of warmth though. The coffee table is sitting on top of a black/white/grey cowhide. I've added some plants to bring some green in, and I have plans to upholster an awesome vintage wingback I found on CL in a peacock blue velvet. What else can I do to make the peacock blue addition feel less random and create more warm/cool balance?

  22. lauren

    LOVE LOVE LOVE THE GIF!! Please do more of these – it's so helpful and representative of what it feels like to layer a room – super helpful!!

  23. Arlene

    Like the gif. Love your advice on purchasing inexpensive accessories to make it easy to change up the colours (Canadian way of spelling color) when you feel like it. First time reader of your blog, will be a regular.

  24. Jen

    I love the GIF! Actually my first love was that you showed the picture of the room with just its neutral base. It's SO HELPFUL. The GIF at the end was an awesome bonus to help visualize the layering process. I'm a person who is currently struggling to figure out my room's color situation and from this post, I think I really need to look at my base :)


  25. Tim

    Emily – Do you have video/pics/GIF of the fireplace process? You've had similar fireplace updates in at least two show episodes and they look like a great way to make a high impact without all the hassle of tiling over or, worse yet, demo'ing and rebuilding a fireplace. It would be cool to see a step-by-step instructional post about updating/"concreting" fireplaces. Thanks!

  26. Awesome post Emily. The gif is good. Don't fire it!

  27. suz

    One of your best ever. Love it.

  28. Holly

    This is awesome. I love your posts – they're like my version of crack or porn or something… After months of redecorating my place, I've learned that I know a lot less about color than I thought I did. My guest room is a warm neutral base with pops of red, deep royal blue, black and a soft orange. I know how that sounds, and actually it went through a period where I wanted to throw a molotov cocktail in the room and shut the door. But then I realized that I had to take out all the bright whites, and suddenly the whole room came together. I wish I'd had this post last year! Thanks :)

  29. Jessie

    one more vote that's pro-gif! Love. Helpful for visual learners. Love that room. siiigh. Also LOVE to see a room the way many people live, with a tv above the fireplace! Designers are always saying to hide it, get rid of it, banish it, but it's our main source of entertainment and needs a place in a living room! the room is so great, I had to go back to see if there WAS a tv in it! that's some good, solid design work, ma'am. Props.

  30. Faireden

    Totally pinable!

  31. Laura

    Thanks for breaking it down for us! i imagine you in the corner like I Dream of Jeanie with our arms folded making the pops of color happen magically!

  32. LOVE the way everything came together. Thanks so much for really breaking it down for us. It's crazy when you look at it before the accessories and color. It totally feels more masculine. I like the gif I think it's fun!

  33. Bridget

    Um . . . isn't that my wood horse head you showed yesterday that I called dibs on? I'm one of those neutral people and the closest I've come to injecting color in my living space is luggage/caramel brown (which is a neutral for other people) and bits of gold. I had considered peacok blue but couldn't make it work. Now I'm going to try to include a dusty pink through artwork and a vase because of you!
    I appreciate your tips for livening up the space with color with inexpensive, non-permanent solutions. I tend to want to spend too much on the accent pieces which ultimately derails the concept for me. And yes, the animation is cute. I like that you keep tryng new techonology (this and the short vids on Vine) to keep the spice in your blog. Thanks for making the effort, it does not go unnoticed or appreciated.

  34. I LOVE this. I love the room. The hot pink is gorgeous. and the way you pulled it all together is brilliant. I'm definitely keeping these tips in mind. I do have a question, though…what do you think about getting a statement "investment piece" in a bright/crazy color? I saw this teal loveseat that I really thought was gorgeous. But I wouldn't want to blow a bunch of $$$ and then regret it 2 years down the road.

  35. Elise

    The gif is GENIUS!! And the room is delicious. Love love love!!!

  36. Stacey

    Emily and Orlando. You have some serious skillzzz. For REALZ. I don't know why I'm talking like this… But just wanted to say that you are ace! The sofa is ace, the colors are ace and that wig lamp is BEYOND ACE. Ignore all naysayers you are both fabooolous.

  37. This room looks young and stylish! I love the fresh pops of colour and I also can't stop staring at the GIF. :)

  38. this is exactly why i read your stuff! i seriously just made my own blog post about trying to decide which colors to use. i unfortunately don't have the funds for new furniture, so i've been doing my own diy projects to inject some more neutrality into my space before i splurge for the big pieces of furniture and accessories.


  39. Wow, that room looks amazing now! I'm kinda inspired to re-do our living room…

  40. Angela N

    LOVE this space!! And I am totally in love with the slideshow at the end. I struggle from pulling the trigger on color (especially an accent color) and usually end up doing the whole space in different variations of the same color. I love how the slideshow shows how it is all layered. It's what I struggle with the most in my home.

  41. Keeley

    The GIF is AWESOME!!!!!!!!!

  42. Jody

    Love the room transformation and LOVE the gif! Not a waste of time, helpful in seeing the process in motion. More More ; )

  43. Barb

    Emily – do you mix a lot of navy and black? I stuggle with this – I have navy in my Master Bedroom and have wondered if mixing in some black would work or not.

  44. Heather


  45. Joanie

    Love the GIF! Hot pink is fantastic! I love a little pink just about anywhere.
    I always learn something from you and love your blog!

  46. Rose

    This post is both jaunty and educational. Love the room.

  47. EmJane

    I love the gif :-). Nice work lady!

  48. Ashley

    Love the gif!
    It's nice to see the layering process. I love this room-so beautiful!

  49. sg5785

    Gif is awsome! But the room is even better! I love the vignette above the console, and the rule of 2 pops of color. I have a grey/white/black living room, and just got two purple chairs and a turquoise blue painting. So, Emily, you've put me on the hunt for purple, blue, and yellow accessories – got a little yellow on one pillow, it looked great but I didn't know how to blend it in. Now I do – YAY for Emily Henderson! Now off to Storelando…

  50. suzan

    Love the room and the GIF is cool but can you make it go slower? It's like the blinky icicle lights some people put on their houses…too blinky. Whoa.

  51. Melissa

    Love it all! The room, the neutrals, the colors, the gif. I'm adding my plea to the "make it slower" crowd.

  52. Bryan

    Moving gif is nice but slow it down if you can. It will be less annoying and also give the eye time to really take in the differences of each layer.

  53. Jeanette

    You inspire me so much! I love the hot pink and yellow – I recently bought some chevron pillows in hot pink and yellow! Love the advice The gif is great but would be even better if it was a bit slower…love, love, love

  54. Ironshef

    Love u, love the new blog, this post was an inspiration. You have such a great eye and the way you always break everything down and openly sharing is so appreciated by us average-no-style-bone-in-my body people.

  55. Jennie

    I love the way this design is simple and airy but still warm and cozy. It’s masculine and feminine. The furniture looks so comfortable and inviting. The walls look brighter as well. All your tips are so helpful. I also think the gif should be slower.

  56. Love the room! And your new site! Its the first change I’ve had to check it out:):):)

    And gifs are always fun!

  57. Carolynn

    I love the blue pillow but I just looked on the west elm website and I can’t find it. E M I L Y H E L P!!!!!

  58. Jane

    Love this! Especially the gimmick with the gif, such an insight into the whole process really. Thank you

  59. Julia

    Love the GIF. Actually, I love the whole concept of this post. You should make this the basis of a book. I would love to have your aesthetic on my shelves and in my house.

  60. jenn

    I love the room and the animated gif is fun too. I really like the roman shades with the wide navy trim. I am thinking of trying to DIY something similar to the inexpensive roller shades that are in my bedroom. I have 4 of them and they are really wide. Also, I love the new blog design.

  61. Naomi

    Suppa Fancy Blog! This thing is way easier to navigate. I Like it. I just need a few days to get over my nostalgia.

  62. Thank you for this post, it’s soooooo helpful!

  63. Jackie jade

    I love the animated gif! Also I’m trying to bring some pink into my house but not sure if the man in my life with allow. But love your tips for bringing in color!

  64. Amy

    I’m a new reader to your blog but watched you on Design Star. I think the gif is great. Also, I find this kind of post very helpful. I read a number of design blogs and I can’t think of any other design bloggers that are doing what you do. You aren’t just doing a tutorial on how to slipcover a chair or paint furniture etc… You are trying to teach your readers to think like a designer by explaining the process that you use. I have found the other posts that are like this one to be very helpful too. Thanks so much!

  65. Appreciate it for all your efforts that you have put in this. Very interesting information. “Perfectionism is the enemy of creation, as extreme self-solicitude is the enemy of well-being.” by John Updike.

  66. nice post.added to my bookmarks cheers