Design Mistakes: How Not to Design a Boring Neutral Room
***written by Arlyn Hernandez
We all know someone (heck, some of you might be that person) who is annoyingly effortless. You spend 2 hours getting ready for a night out with a friend trying to avoid looking like you crawled out of a dumpster, and just when you start feeling a little good about your vibe, nonchalantly catching glances of yourself in your rearview mirror on the drive over, you get to your meet up spot and realize you look like the Hamburglar compared to that person. How do they do it? Are your genes that much more garbage than theirs (thanks, mom)? Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s actually Maybelline? I’m not here to tell you how they do it, but what I am here to report is that your friend—the one who makes you think they just threw on some ol’ thing, tousled their hair and swiped on some Chapstick—is lying to you. Well, that is if your friend was a neutral room. THAT WAS A STRETCH, HUH? But for real, they relate. Keep reading, folks, because it’s about to get helpful.
Neutral/beige rooms aren’t as “effortless” as they look. In fact, they’re kind of an oxymoron in that most people go this route because it’s “easy”…beige goes with beige, after all, right? It’s not necessarily a difficult feat, but it’s not as simple as just buying everything in the same shade of off-white. There’s a reason beige gets a bad rap and is synonymous with lackluster or uninspired rooms. B is for beige…is for boring. Really good neutral rooms all share similar qualities, including the right balance of texture, tones and a sprinkling of je ne sais quoi (we’re about to dive deeper into all of that, promise).
In fact, when done right, it feels nearly masterful. I’m all for color, but some hue-deficient rooms are done so well that they can take your breath away. You envision what it would be like to live in a home that’s so visually light…I mean, just look at Mel’s previous apartment up there. She couldn’t possibly ever have a bad day in there right? Never once did she argue with her mom about posting a well-intentioned super unflattering photo of her on Facebook. In a room like this, bad photos don’t exist, so said fight would NEVER happen to begin with…
Let’s jump to the “tip” and “educate” portion of this blog post before I start making other unnecessary comparisons, shall we? So, the seven talking points to follow are key elements we pulled out of studying dozens and dozens of photos of successful neutral rooms.
1. Varied wood tones
You’re going to notice that a common thread in all the rooms we’re showing you is variety, be that in tones of textiles, finishes and, for this point, wood. Successful neutral rooms need depth and complexity to be special, so picking everything in a matchy-matchy shade will fall flat (unless you have some other factors, which we’ll get into). Here, in this room I wish I could move right into at the very least for a long weekend, you’ll notice that there are both deeper rich tones (like the sweet chair in the background), middle shades from the coffee table, trays and rattan armchair, and some lighter finishes via the bench holding up the art.
2. Mixed shades of beige, white and other neutrals
Remember that time (45 seconds ago, depending on how fast you read) I mentioned varied tones of basically everything is crucial to a good neutral room? I was serious. This room by M. Elle works so well because of the subtle variations. The walls are a nice crisp white, then a few shades down are the sofa and armchair in a nice creamy hue. The wood tones of the shelving, coffee table and floors are all pretty similar (all which add some really nice warmth), but are separated by the toffee rug. Once that foundation is set, it’s easy to layer in all the extras that bring in some life (pillows, trays, decor, curtains, art…), and kept in a quiet palette, they just perfectly meld into the scheme like butter on a warm biscuit. It’s like the “no makeup” makeup look of interior design.
The varied hues don’t even have to be that severely different, as showcased in this bedroom. The walls and bedding are a bit brighter than those buttery curtains that are just barely a shade lighter than the knit poufs, which are a touch lighter than the rug (it just has darker stripes throughout that tricks the eye a little).
3. A touch of black or metallic (or both)
Look, a touch of black will ALWAYS be a welcomed addition to a room. It’s grounding, adds depth, draws the eye…it’s interior design panacea, and it absolutely has a place in a mostly beige room for all the same reasons. Here, in a room by Alyssa Kapito that feels like a deep breath personified, the painted black fireplace surround, the…tooth (??) stools and the peppering of matte black via lamps and vases help the eye to move around the rather one-note cream colors.
The home of Erin Fetherston has always given me palpitations. Mostly because it’s the type of room I could likely never put together because I swear up and down I only want to live in a home with lots of patterns and colors, but then in my heart of hearts, I realize maybe I don’t want that at all? I’m a very complex person who knows nothing about her own true desires. Actually, I’m polyamorous when it comes to interior design and would gladly take many aesthetic “wives” if I could, BUT back to why this room works. It has a lot of the elements we’ve already talked about (and will talk about): varied wood tones, texture, a touch of pattern and, last but not least a bit of black and brass. These provide much-needed contrast and tension in an otherwise quiet room and this is CRUCIAL to neutral spaces. Do I need to say it louder for the seats in the back? Write this one down.
The same thing goes for this room in a home by Tamara Magel. The addition of the black door frames, pillows, coffee table frame and aged brass chandelier and sconces really add such richness and depth that would otherwise be absent here.
4. Interesting shapes and silhouettes
Sure, this room screams I HAVE A TON OF EXPENDABLE INCOME TO BUY CUSTOM AND DESIGNER FURNISHINGS…AND SHEEP! But there are still everyday lessons to be pulled from the Berlin home of Emmanuel de Bayser. When your palette is this pared down, something has to provide visual intrigue. In this case, it’s the rounded and sculptural seating as well as that sinuous coffee table that makes your eyes buzz. It’s like a DING DING DING, this room is interesting. Now, you don’t need an entire room full of insanely expensive furniture, but try to bring in at least two or three things that break the monotony a bit, whether it’s a funky armchair or a super special grouping of side tables.
While that last room was basically a work of art, this shot proves that you really need just a handful of “interesting” items to bring a neutral room to life. Here, that knot pillow, the zig-zaggy sconce and the rustic milking stool take a simple vignette to the next level.
5. Tons of texture
When Brady refreshed his living room last year, he went way more beige and neutral than in his previous reveal. He kept it interesting by bringing in so much texture via the rug (which was already there), slipcovered sofa, and that chunky knit throw and pillows. They’re all in relatively the same shade, but it doesn’t feel stagnant because of all the other elements (black, metallics, wood).
This is such a simple, quiet space that I’ve loved since the moment I saw it. The mix of linen, mud cloth, rattan, caning and seagrass comes together in an insanely lovely and welcoming marriage.
This is the third Tamara Magel room we’ve shown in this post, but well, she knows what she’s doing when it comes to neutrals. This shot sings because of the delicate balance of textures between the threading and wood of the dining chairs, the nubby rug, the plush animal skins (which I don’t suspect are faux, but really hope are at least vintage??), and the grain of the table top and ceilings. So quiet, yet it screams of success.
6. A subtle layer of soft color or a statement pattern (but just a little)
When you have a pretty neutral backdrop, even the littlest bit of color and pattern will sing, like the Rebecca Atwood pillow and peach throw in Samantha Gluck’s living room.
Excuse me while I have a bit of a fangirl moment over Josh Young’s Chicago apartment. It’s homes like his that make me want to cross over to the neutral side (though I know I say that but don’t fully mean it because I am who I am). There’s so much to look at here, but it doesn’t feel cluttered because of the soft, colorless palette. However, it’s those wild tiger-print pillows that take this from sophisticated and lovely to a bit edgier and…younger? Sometimes all it takes is a little out-of-the-box pattern, people.
7. Architectural interest certainly helps
And finally, we get to something that is likely quite hard to help for most people, unless you plan on moving or renovating, and that’s architectural detail. Designer Kerry Vasquez’s LA home is such an effortlessly pretty study in neutrals, but let’s get real…the domed ceilings, original fireplace tile and woodwork (which you’re not seeing in this photo, but it’s there), add that much-needed sprinkle of character. This is not to say to run out and find a new place to live should you be paying rent or a mortgage in a detail-less tract home or basic apartment, BUT if you are so lucky as to live in a home with some original detailing or spectacular moldings/built-ins/ceilings/etc., remember that that’s nearly enough to carry an entire room without having to bring in a crayon box of color.
So, that’s how you build a really fantastic neutral room. Beige can be beautiful and interesting and full of character, and hopefully now you have the treasure map to that design bounty. Oh also, we want to keep working on Design Mistakes for you guys, so please share in the comments below what specific topics that we haven’t already covered you guys want to read about. We’re an open book!