Article Summary:White walls no longer have to be a decorating dilemma, if you find your own shade of white and put it to work as part of a well designed room.
The bane of renters everywhere hoping to stamp their personal style on their homes is the common refrain of landlords, "You can paint it any color you want, as long as it's white." When Henry Ford told customers they could have his car in any color they wanted as long as it was black, there really was just one choice. However, white is a whole different story - because there's a wide, wide world of white out there that you can use as effectively as any hue in the palette to create a particular mood and showcase your furnishings in their best light.
White, along with black and gray, is achromatic, technically not a color in the true sense. When an object does not absorb any of the colors in the light spectrum and all of the reflected colors combine, we perceive white. It is this highly reflective property of white paint that can make it an ideal backdrop for smaller spaces and rooms with poor natural lighting. In rooms without overhead lighting, all too common in many rental apartments, you'll find that you won't need to add as many lighting sources to get adequate general lighting in a room that has been painted white. As you might expect, the other side of the coin is that glare can be a problem in white rooms, so much so that the other colors in your interior design may wash out.
While I'll always opt for the highest quality paint when specifying a paint job for clients, because the durability and value is there in the long run, using a high quality paint is even more important when working with white. You want a rich, even finish with a lot of depth, not easy to achieve with such a highly reflective color. White also will show dirt more readily, so you need to be able to clean the walls easily without damaging the paint job.
The good news for renters is that in today's wide, wide world of white, we have literally hundreds of choices that will enable us to get exactly the effect we want from our white walls. Benjamin Moore, for example, has 140 shades of white in its palette, ranging from the purest white to those with buttery warm undertones and to the coolest blue undertones. Among them are whites with hints of every color in the spectrum that will range from the bright whites which will lighten your rooms to those that are gray-based and will help reduce glare.
A Decorating Dilemna: Choosing the Right White Paint
Choosing the right white paint can be tricky. In fact, many decorators find it much more challenging than choosing colors. However, you can approach the panoply of whites available to you in the same manner as you would approach choosing any other paint color for your scheme. Simply follow the same basic rules and use white to add or reduce contrast, warm up or cool off a color scheme and manipulate how the size of the space and ceiling height are perceived.
The subtleties of white can be difficult to see in isolation. You might find it helpful to gather a sizable assortment of white paint chips from your local paint store and create a "white wheel," based on the undertones in each chip. Model your white wheel on the traditional color wheel. (If you are not familiar with the color wheel, you can search for and find many instances online. Be sure you are looking at a traditional red-blue-yellow based wheel and not the red-blue-green wheel that is used in lighting applications and digital color manipulation.) Mimic the traditional color wheel progression of warms to cools around the wheel, placing the brightest whites in the outer ring, and the grayer, less reflective variations of those whites as you approach the middle of the wheel.
Once you have your whites arrayed in this manner, it will be a simple matter for you to see the relationship of each white to the other colors in your room and to choose one or more that will transform those "landlord white" walls from a neutral backdrop into a real component of your color scheme and interior design.
For example, working off the Benjamin Moore palette, try pairing Onyx White with its relatively low reflectivity, with brick or cinnamon for a warm, toasty-feeling room. Easter Lily, which magically captures the very instance where the bud green center of the calla lily becomes the white flower, works wonders with the mossy greens and deep chocolate woods of today's Zen-inspired rooms to create a serene, relaxing, environment. Or watch your deep blues and violets pop against the canvas of the rich, cool White Opulence.
Putting the right white on your walls and ceiling can make a world of difference in any room. But don't stop there. While I rarely see a room in which the color on the walls has been ignored in the rest of the room, the most common design issue I see in white-walled rentals is that the white hasn't been fully integrated into the color scheme. Pulling the white on your walls into the room in small touches - for example, as an accent color in fabrics and as a dominant color in some accessories - is an easy way to give the room a cohesive, pulled together decorator look without letting the white overpower the room.
In my experience, almost every landlord is willing to allow you to give your rental a nice clean coat of white paint. So find your white and put it to work as part of a well-designed room.
Peggy Berk, IDS Associate, is an interior decorator who has worked with a wide variety of residential and commercial clients throughout the New York Metropolitan Area and Florida. Her design firm, Area Aesthetics, specializes in interior redesign, home staging and full service interior decorating. Peggy has authored many articles in her area of expertise.