How to Decorate with White

Alabaster by Sherwin Williams

Alabaster by Sherwin Williams

2016 is almost here and with its’ approach paint companies are announcing their upcoming colors of the year. This year Benjamin Moore, Sherwin Williams and Glidden have selected shades of off white. Benjamin Moore’s Simply White and Sherwin Williams’ Alabaster are a cool white with grey undertones, while Glidden’s Cappuccino White has a warm almost pink base. Perfect colors for any style from traditional to contemporary. For the average homeowner, however, the idea of decorating with white is a daunting one. How to decorate with white in an original way without making the room look sterile? Let’s take a look at the various whites available and how to choose a white that’s right for you.

Simply White by Benjamin Moore

Simply White by Benjamin Moore


Cappuccino White by Glidden


Shades of White

The first rule of decorating with white is avoid the need to use only “White-White,” or more precisely a white absolutely devoid of any other color. As an interior designer for over ten years I can attest that “White-White” is impossible to find outside of the paint store. Tile, carpet, fabric and wallpaper that look white usually have a base color hidden beneath.

Whites can be divided into two groups, warm whites and cool whites. Warm whites have a warm base color such as yellow, red and orange. Cool whites gravitate toward grey and blue.

Tip: How can you tell what an off white’s base color is? Simply place several off-white color samples beside one another, the base color of each should become apparent.

How to Choose a White that’s Right

Before grabbing that paint brush sit down and ask yourself a few questions about how you would like to use the white in your space.

-Do you have a wonderful view you would like to highlight? Pick a white with a base color that compliments the vista outdoors. When overlooking the ocean, an off-white with a blue undertone will disappear into the foreground, instead of competing with the view.

-Will you use the white as a neutral backdrop that allows you to re-accessorize a room throughout the year? If so, off whites with a hint of yellow work well. The yellow base pairs well with warm reds and oranges as well as cool blues and greys.

-Are you traditional, contemporary, maybe a little bit of both? Traditional off-whites veer toward warmer tones and a formal look. If this is what you want, look for creams and very light tans. Cool base colors are perfect for a contemporary and transitional style.

Secrets to Decorating with White…

Mix Whites with Similar Base Colors

When choosing white furniture, flooring and accessories to go with your white walls, be sure to pick whites that have the same base color. A creamy white will look off against a wall painted with a grey undertone. The inexperienced eye might not be able to tell why the décor does not seem to work, but they will feel as if something is wrong.


In design contrast is king. I always tell my clients, to make a space visually interesting you need to go from light to dark or dark to light. Examples would be going from white walls to dark mahogany furniture or a black leather sofa to white faux-fur pillows.

This kitchen is an excellent example. If the designer had used white doors on the upper cabinets, the cabinets and the accessories behind the glass would have blended together disappearing into the white wall. By adding the black doors, the designer not only added depth to the wall, but brought attention to the architectural detail that would have gone unnoticed in white.


Adding a variety of textures to a room is another form of contrast. The bedroom pictured below offers a wonderful example of how to mix textures. The smooth walls are contrasted by the rough carpet. The fabrics were chosen with care, the designer making sure she varied the texture of the bed linens and the chair. Even the smooth crystal chandelier adds another layer of texture.

Living with White and Keeping It Clean

sunbrella fabric

Sofas pillows and drapery done in Sunbrella fabric

For white upholstery that is easy to clean try Sunbrella outdoor fabric. Sunbrella offers a range of white fabrics in various textures and all made of 100% acrylic (plastic). Easy to clean, simply bleach difficult stains. Hesitant about using an outdoor fabric on your family room sofa? Recent advances in technology have made Sunbrella’s acrylic fabrics almost indistinguishable from the cottons and polyesters normally used indoors.

For low maintenance think carefully about where you use whites. Use white in places that do not see a lot of wear such as the walls instead of the floor. Incorporate white with accessories that can easily be wiped down or bleached. And use slipcovers that can be dry cleaned or replaced.

For more tips on decorating with color check out last month’s column on How to Decorate with Spa Blue

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