Work magic with white around your house

With a lot more to it than meets the eye, white is an incredibly versatile palette to work from when choosing a scheme for your space, just as long as you avoid the potential pitfalls, writes Pallavi Dean.

Executed incorrectly, an all-white interior can look sterile and unwelcoming; but get it right and it will give your home a bright, timeless feel, as seen in this Dubai villa. Duncan Chard for The National
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For thousands of years, humans have used colour to decorate space - the earliest works of art, cave paintings, were liberal in their use of white. In the past, white was used excessively because it was cheap and available, but even today, with a seemingly infinite pallete available, white remains hugely popular. From brides to doctors and artists to minimalist designers, we are all drawn to white for its symbolism. Colour psychologists suggest that white represents equality and balance, calmness and serenity, purity and cleanliness, and perfection and efficiency.

From an interior design perspective, there's no denying that white can be a high-risk option. Get it wrong and your home will feel like a soulless, sterile hospital. But get it right and you have a timeless classic. Follow these five tips used by professional interior designers to bring the sophistication of white into your home.

50 shades of white

The first and most crucial step involves picking the right shade of white. White comes in a whole range of shades, ranging from "bright linen" to "warm antique". To make it easy, there are two basic categories - warm whites and cool whites. Warm whites have a yellow or peach undertone, and, as the name suggests, they give a space a softer look. Cool whites have grey, blue or green undertones, lending a crisp, clean look.

To decide between the two, determine the look and feel of your space. If you crave a minimal, modern look coupled with metallic accents and bold graphics, cool whites are the way forward. Alternatively, for a homey feel with natural textures, vintage photographs and detailed furniture, warmer whites will serve as a better backdrop. One word of caution: cool whites can make a space seem institutional if used incorrectly. But remember, you are not limited to using just one shade of white; layering different tints from the same colour category will create more depth.

Can you live with it?

An all-white palette may look pristine in an interiors magazine, but is it practical? In reality, you probably have pets that want to snuggle up with you on the furniture, kids that play in your main room and a partner who spills coffee on the sofa. How do you make a white interior feasible with these dynamics? Make a design statement by using a shabby chic style for your interiors. In simple terms, you're creating a lived-in look by using washable, unironed slip covers and oversized throws for your sofas.

This cottage-style decor can be glamourised with the right accessories - think crystal, glass and polished surfaces. If you live in a busy family home where mess is a fact of life, consider the following: coat your white walls with wipeable paint, make your upholstery stain-resistant with treatments like Scotchgard, invest in durable surfaces like Corian for counter tops and opt for easy-to-clean stone flooring. High-gloss lacquer finishes and glass furniture complement the shabby chic style well, and are easy to maintain.

Avoid that sterile 'hospital' feel

Achieving visual balance is essential in an all-white space. An overdose of white can make your space look institutional and even banal. You can remedy this by adding texture and pattern in your space.

Texture is perceived by both touch and sight, so bear this is mind while putting together your palette. Wood finishes, knitted fabrics, faux fur throws and textured paint will add tactility to the space.

To heighten visual interest, play with patterns - geometric and floral forms in upholstery, graphic wallpapers, reflective materials like glass and metal, as well as natural materials. These patterns in tone-on-tone white will create a subtle texture within the space.

White is flexible

If remodelling is a passion and your interiors are always on trend, then a timeless, classic white backdrop is for you. This palette gives you a neutral blank canvas that can be easily updated. I'm a big fan of monochromatic palettes that can be infused with pops of colour - this gives you flexibility and allows the space to grow with you. My colour preferences change, as do colour trends. With a white backdrop you can replace Pantone's colour of 2012, tangerine tango, with accessories in Pantone's colour for 2013, emerald green.

You can easily swap around artwork, accessories and accent furniture pieces between rooms. Throw-pillows and rugs can be replaced every few years (or months), while leaving the main design elements in the space unchanged. Albeit a superficial uplift, it's cost effective and can transform the look and feel of your space instantly.


One important spatial attribute is white's ability to make places look bigger. That's because white surfaces reflect both natural and artificial light, creating an illusion of space. However, having one colour over a large expanse of space can tire your eye - imagine sentences without punctuation. Adding variety with different tones, textures and patterns will help, but an accent colour adds definition to the space. Contrasting pure white with a bold splash allows the white to stand out, while giving your eyes a visual break.

Boutique designer stores and mass-market furniture retailers are full of accessories to help you achieve this with rugs, cushions, flower arrangements or accent furniture pieces. Be sure to pick one colour and dot this about in a few places through your space - it will not create a balanced effect if used in isolation.

There are three tried and tested accent colours that I would recommend: black, emerald green and cobalt blue. For inspiration on creating a white-and-black palette, look at the work of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. Interior designer Kelly Wearstler combines emerald with white artfully in the Santa Monica Viceroy hotel, a must-see project if you are leaning this way. For the classic white-and-blue palette, research Delftware porcelain and Greek architecture. But don't let my suggestions limit you - add reds and oranges with a black-and-white palette, or contrast an emerald-and-white palette with yellows. That's the beauty of a white backdrop; the design possibilities are limitless.

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