The Case Against Color


How pale décor can reveal your true self


Aaron Fedor, courtesy Tori Golub Interior Design

WHITE ON: Texture and finish enliven the non palette in Tori Golub’s dining room, featured in ‘Brilliant’ by Linda O'Keeffe.

Pulling the decorating trigger would be much easier if I removed seven of the nine major color options. Left with just black and white, raging indecisiveness would give way to calculated precision. The tough calls could be solved with a coin.

Pale rooms, sucked free of distracting reds, blues and yellows, are having a moment. A few months ago at a trends seminar at the Decoration & Design Building in New York, super-decorator Miles Redd showed slides of crème colored rooms. Gasp. Even the king of saturated hues was hankering for something more soothing.


Courtesy Anouska Hempel Design

PALETTE CLEANSE: A bit of the rough anchors a floaty white bedroom by Anouska Hempel.

“Occasionally I get a client who doesn’t want color,” Mr. Redd explained to me. “Most recently I worked for a woman with very edited taste, and her directive was to keep it calm. We conjured up rooms in the palest blonde and ice—what became interesting was how shape, texture and paint finish were the strong cards.” Becoming more enthusiastic about the subject, Mr. Redd went on to describe, in hilarious detail, his imaginary “total black and white apartment” featuring, “an under-furnished ballroom with chalky plaster walls, an ivory terrazzo floor with a small black star in the center, three pairs of leaded French doors and four Jean-Michel Frank club chairs on a lambskin rug.”


Courtesy Don Freeman/Random House/Black & White (And a Bit in Between)

HIGH CONTRAST: From Celerie Kemble’s new book 'Black White,’ a salt-and-pepper wallpapered room and stairwell and mismatched china that hangs together thanks to an ebony-and-ivory theme.

Call it a trend. Celerie Kemble—the neotraditional decorator to the jet set known for Palm Beach brights—has just come out with a book called “Black & White (and a bit in between)” (Clarkson N. Potter). In it, she catalogues some of the finest no-color work she and her peers have done, listing a million reasons why going color-free is painless, stylish and timeless, even dragging in literary masters to elevate the sell. “Shakespeare constrained himself to a limited meter, and in it, wrote the world’s greatest plays,” she argues. “By narrowing the mission, you can concentrate your energies, focus your embellishments, and multiply your opportunities.”

Ms. Kemble’s book is not unlike an ink-blot test, a window into what you are all about. Looking at the range of styles she presents, reduced to black and white, one can zero in on a higher design truth: What style of room you find most appealing. Do you prefer crisp Hollywood high gloss or rough-hewn organic minimalism? You may find your id more easily without all the color noise.


Courtesy Don Freeman/Random House/Black & White (And a Bit in Between)

Mismatched china

Ms. Kemble’s book got me daydreaming about the plaster-y white rooms 1970s decorator John Dickinson swore by. Pale slipper chairs against burnished vanilla walls—everything white right down to the silverware. His was a modernized version of the creamy 1920s sleekness of decorator Syrie Maugham (Somerset’s wife). Like Syrie, I’ve had my fill of overly stuffed and colorfully decorated. Her sophisticated cool with a touch of dark complication is right for the times.

Further evidence of a movement toward starkness: Design editrix Linda O'Keeffe singles out the joys of going all white in her newest book, “Brilliant: White in Design” (The Monacelli Press). For whatever reason—lean economic times or overstimulation—Ms. O'Keeffe joins the white party with a gallery of sumptuous rooms and plentiful evidence to solidify the campaign for a non palette. I ran into the author on the street and didn’t even recognize her—Ms. O'Keeffe’s signature red do had gone completely silver fox.

You can’t help but feel good about all this palate-cleansing decorating. To quote Ms. O'Keefe quoting Elsie de Wolfe, “I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint.”

—Ms. Ruffin Costello is a freelance writer and design consultant based in New Orleans.