1. Arts & Entertainment

Banish boring and add an edge to neutrals in home decor

A living room designed by Betsy Burnham features carefully chosen pieces of black furniture and black accents that bring out the beauty of the softer, neutral shades of white and tan.
A living room designed by Betsy Burnham features carefully chosen pieces of black furniture and black accents that bring out the beauty of the softer, neutral shades of white and tan.
Published Mar. 6, 2015

There are plenty of practical reasons to decorate with neutral colors. The shades we think of as neutral — whites, beiges, tans — don't clash with anything. They are calm, soothing and never go out of style.

There's just one problem.

"Beiges and neutrals," says designer Brian Patrick Flynn, "can be super boring."

To solve that dilemma, designers like Flynn have a simple trick for making an entirely neutral room feel as edgy and exciting as one filled with bold colors. Bring in the only neutral color that isn't bland: Black.

Mixing in the right amount of black accents, print fabrics or furniture can make the white, beige or tan shades in a room look more interesting, putting them in the spotlight.

How much black is too much, and how do you make sure a room done in this color scheme really pops?

Here, Flynn, the founder of Flynnside Out Productions, and two other design experts — Seattle-based Brian Paquette and Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design in Los Angeles — offer advice on mixing the darkest and lightest of shades for a truly beautiful result.

Creative additions

You don't need an entirely black wall or a solid black sofa. "Sprinkle it around," says Burnham, by adding things like print fabrics that include black.

"There's something about a fabric when it's grounded with a little bit of black in it," she says. "It just becomes chic."

Flynn agrees: "Anytime I can use a black-and-white print, I do," he says, "especially classic prints like checks, plaids and gingham. If black and white is too contrasty, consider a mix of charcoal, brown and taupe. My closet doors are upholstered in a classic ikat featuring those colors, and although it's traditional in style, it's fresh and modern in application."

For extra punch, Paquette suggests covering throw pillows in a print that includes black, then sewing a solid band of black or charcoal fabric about 1 1/2 inches thick around the edges of the pillow. "It allows the print to really stand out," he says.

Paquette also loves black metal accents on light fixtures. Consider a black lamp shade on a lamp with an antique brass metal base, he says, finished with a black braided electrical cord. He also likes black metal chair legs, and windows with just the casements painted black. "It's just something that sort of draws the eye in," he says.

Another option: "Art is a great way to use neutrals in a one-of-kind manner," Flynn says. "I'm a huge fan of mixing modern pieces with traditional oil portraits. When you choose dark oil portraits and hang them on light neutral walls, the juxtaposition of the light and the heavy is fantastic."

One thing Paquette avoids: photos in black frames. He thinks they're overdone, and white frames do a better job of spotlighting photos.

Making black less intense

A sleek, shiny, black dining table or black grand piano conveys drama and elegance. But even if your decorating style is more casual — maybe farmhouse chic or beachy — you can still make black work.

Black "doesn't have to be uptight," says Burnham. She likes distressed, rubbed finishes, which can make a piece of black wood furniture feel "really farmy or beachy. Really casual. Especially if you use it with oatmeals and pale blues."

Another way to make black less overpowering is to use it on lighter materials, Burnham says. "Glass and wrought iron, and even driftwood, look great with black finishes," she says. "It takes some of the 'weight' out of it."

Getting your beiges right

Beige and black can be wonderful together, or awful if you use the wrong shade of beige.

"I think most people have an aversion to beige because of the super yellowy, flesh-toned beige that was popular mixed with mauve and brass in the 1980s," says Flynn. "But if you're going to do beige, stick with sand tones that have a lot of white in them. The absence of yellow makes the color much lighter and even beachy."

Another way to make beige work: Use a mix of pale gray and beige, known as "greige." Flynn says "greige" is also a good alternative to white. It's warmer than a true white or ultrawhite, so it doesn't "come across as clinical or sterile."

Pairing black with brown

Another way to make a neutral room look fabulous, Burnham says, is to add brown as well as black. As with classic, leather riding boots, "a mix of black and brown is really sophisticated," she says.

"Throw some cream into that, and some oatmeal," she says, and you'll have a casually elegant room that's remarkable and yet still neutral.

Paquette is also a fan of that pairing, especially in lighting and furniture: Think of a black leather sling chair with walnut legs, he says, or a lamp that combines black and a deep shade of brass.


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