White Space

Decorating with subtle hues helps to take the heat out of summer.

June 04, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Color is hot in home design these days, but white is cool. Which would you rather have your rooms decorated with on a sultry summer day?

White is classic; you never have to worry about it going out of style. With white you can avoid the problem of home design trends altogether.

An all-white or mostly white room is invigorating in the morning light and an oasis of calm at the end of a hard day.

"In Europe whites and creams are the biggest color in fashion," says Stephanie Hoppen, a Londoner and author of the just-published "White on White" (Bulfinch Press). "It's very high end at the moment. And I do think home design follows fashion, don't you? Everywhere I looked when I was in New York recently there was so much white and cream."

If she's right, stores and catalogs will be carrying all sorts of wonderful furnishings and decorative accessories in shades of white this summer. The challenge won't be in finding white items, but figuring out how to use them most effectively to create harmonious spaces -- and how to keep them clean.

Think of how many shades of white there are, from chalk to creamy eggshell, beige and pale sand tones. Benjamin Moore, the paint company, offers 39 shades of interior whites.

What looks white on its own may actually be a pale gray or have a faint blush of pink. Mixing the wrong whites in a room will create a subtly jarring effect. It's safest, say designers, to stick to either warm whites, those with a touch of pink or yellow, or cool whites, those with elusive undertones of blue, gray or green.

"While naturals don't exactly clash," says Tricia Guild in her book "White Hot" (Clarkson Potter, 1999), "great care is needed when mixing them. Yellowish naturals don't always sit well next to grayish tones; too many different shades of cream create a cloying , claustrophobic atmosphere."

When interior designers talk about an all-white room they aren't really talking about an all-white room, which would look as sterile as a hospital operating room. Next time you notice a white room in a design magazine -- and there always seems to be one -- pay attention to how little of it is actually white. The walls and fabrics might be shades of ivory and pearl, but naturally finished wood tables and cabinetry, and metal accents and accessories add warmth or contrasting noncolors. They make the space more intriguing, while the impression is still that the room is monochromatic.

The importance of texture

In a room where the most striking color contrast is between oatmeal and ash, texture becomes a major player. Surface detail may be the most important feature of an upholstered chair or a decorative pillow.

"You should seriously consider textures and patterns created by texture," says Tom Williams of Hale-Williams, an interior design firm with offices in Baltimore and Carmel, Calif. "We generally use natural fibers and materials when decorating an all-white room," he adds. "Leather is a wonderful resource."

Dylan Landis, author of the Elegant and Easy series of decorating books, agrees. "The more monochromatic a room is, the more you have to play textures off against one another."

You might pair a vanilla linen slipcover for a sofa with a creamy leather ottoman and add a white-on-white striped fabric to the room, as two New Orleans designers did in Landis' book "Metropolitan Home American Style" (Clarkson Potter, 1999).

Form, too, becomes a primary focus in a mostly white room. "Sinuous lines and shapes become front and center," says Susan Sunderland of Sunderland Interiors in Pikesville.

Most of us, though, probably aren't going to start from scratch and create a completely white room in one fell swoop. And not every designer thinks we should.

"I have a rule of thumb," says Sunderland. "The architecture of a room has to be pretty spectacular to support a white-on-white scheme."

What you might do instead is take up your rugs and introduce white slipcovers into your living or dining room for the summer. Good-looking, inexpensive ready-mades in natural fabrics can be found in home furnishing stores and catalogs. Or take down your heavy draperies and hang sheer white curtains. Stephanie Hoppen started changing the rooms in her home to white by buying vintage linen sheets with pretty edges and turned them into simple curtains.

"You can do it just as easily with modern sheets," she says. "Change bit by bit and see how you like it."

She suggests adding a white knitted throw to a chair or displaying white china in the kitchen.

"The only room I redesigned from scratch was the living room," she says.

Fear of white

Just about everyone agrees that a pale, monochromatic room is soothing, a haven from too busy lives. But the reason most of us don't actually have one in our house is fear of dirt, stains and the Persian cat shedding on the new cream wool carpet.

Hoppen scoffs at the idea.

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