If you’ve repainted in the last few years, chances are your home has some gray walls. Mine certainly does. And if you’re feeling like it’s time to move on, you’re not alone. Inspired by the fresh, white walls in a recent Paris vacation rental, I’m ready to swap the many gray walls in my house for clean, classic white — and a quick scroll through Pinterest or Instagram shows that a lot of us are saying goodbye to gray.
But the number and variety of white paints available is overwhelming. To find out where to start, I turned to interior designer and assistant professor of interior design at the University of Louisville Laura McGarity. Currently teaching a class on color theory, she’s studied color for some 20 years (and consulted with me when I renovated my kitchen).
When everything went gray
And to understand where we’re going, we first looked at where we’ve been, and just why gray took over all our homes. McGarity points to the economy. “When September 11 and the stock market crash in 2008 happened there was an onslaught of gray,” she said. “Consumers, they don't feel hopeful so they were more drawn to gray and if you look back the same thing happened in the Great Depression. Anytime the economy takes a downturn, color trends change.”
But it wasn’t all just cocooning. It’s super versatile. Gray is “almost like a chameleon,” said McGarity. “You can make it do a lot of things and people liked that.” Gray can go warm or cool, and it fit with the move in interiors and design to a more gender neutral, slightly more masculine look, she said. It also let people experiment. Before I painted my kitchen walls black, I painted other rooms increasingly darker shades of gray.
Like any trend though, gray may have finally played out. “Right now people are moving away from gray, the cool gray especially,” McGarity said. “I don’t think it will ever go away but it’s hit its peak.” And once a darling of realtors, word in design circles is that realtors are turning away from it.
Gray has left the building
Where do we go from here? We’re definitely using a lot more color, said McGarity, as people "want to feel happy, they want to feel warm again.” But crisp, clean white fits our current lifestyle, she said. And we can thank … IKEA?
Think about it. In past generations, people bought furniture in their 20s when they got married, and that’s what they kept for 40 years, said McGarity. Now we have access to design-forward furnishings and accessories that are financially plausible to replace every few years.
“We live in an economy and society where we can have anything we want,” she said. “Now we can have the bright red sofa or the green chair. If you have a blue velvet couch for five years then you can change it.”
Not that this is necessarily a good thing, she added. “I’m not saying I agree. I don’t like that we have a throwaway society. But it’s influenced how we live.”
And it’s influenced how we paint. The fact is “many of those low price furnishings look better with a white backdrop because it’s clean,” she said. Trendy accessories and the omni-present houseplants pop more against white, and the interior furnishings become the star.
It also works without all the accessories. McGarity points to the movement toward Marie Kondo and simplicity. “When you get rid of things and don’t have stuff everywhere, the white is serene. White ... feels like simplicity and clean.”
50 shades of white
If this is your first leap to white, how do you know if it’s for you, and which white is for you?
A good test to see if you can live surrounded by white walls, McGarity said, is to head to a museum or gallery. They “go one of two ways,” she said. “It’s white walls or the most saturated color you can imagine.” Spend some time in those with a lot of white spaces, she said. While you’re there, consider how it makes you feel. “Comforted and at ease, or anxious like it’s a surgical suite?” she said. Most people either really enjoy the white spaces or think it’s too sterile.
If you fall into the love it camp, now the fun begins. What’s the right shade of white for you and your space? I loved the Farrow & Ball Pointing white in that Paris apartment, but does that mean it will work in my house?