Design debates can be fun: Minimalism versus maximalism, traditional versus modern, white walls versus anything. What a white-paint devotee heralds as that option’s greatest asset others might see as its biggest drawback. It got me thinking: How do off-whites like cream and ivory factor into the debate? Let’s tally up the virtues and drawbacks of white paint and off-white paint and see where you land. Let us know in the Comments which neutral hue is right for you.
The allure of white paint
To many, a white room is a breath of fresh air. An all-white version like this bedroom can encourage the mind and the eyes to relax by virtue of its intentional lack of stimulation. Conversely, such a room might strike you as dull and uninspiring. Same space, two totally different experiences of it.
An affinity for modern style can correlate with an attraction to white interiors of the sleek and sparse variety. While white doesn’t have to lean modern, it was certainly a favorite among some of the most famous modernist architects, notably Le Corbusier. Today, many modern and minimalist homes still look to crisp white as the color of choice.
Art gallery effect
White walls tend to create what color expert Janice Lindsay calls in her book All About Colour the “art gallery effect.” She writes that white walls “spotlight attention on every object, so each must be worthy.” Lindsay suggests that “good white rooms always meet three demanding criteria: They must have good light, harmonized proportions and a few attractive objects artfully arranged.”
Cleaning friend or foe?
A neatnik may appreciate a bright white kitchen for its association with sterility and cleanliness – and for its ability to make spotting surface grime a breeze. A bustling family that struggles to stay on top of housework, however, might not like the prospect of having every lingering trace of peanut butter and jelly on full display.
Highlight with white
If you’re hoping to tone down a bold color, white is a false ally. It brightens color and makes it more strident. On the other hand, white is ideal for showing off fine architectural details. This entry combines a white trim against billiard green walls to define the transitions, amplify the wall color and set off the elegant mouldings to boot.
The case for cream
A refined choice
Off-white walls are a better bet for keeping color in check. In this living room, we see how a soft cream on the walls makes the aqua of the drapes, rug and pillows read as timeless and serene.
A traditionalist would argue that an off-white paint such as ivory, ecru or cream is more suitable than bright white for a bedroom because of the coziness and intimacy the warm undertones impart. When paired with color, like the pastel purples in this bedroom, off-white walls cast a sense of maturity and restraint better than white paint, which tends to brighten surrounding hues.
Since off-white walls are warmer than white, they can soften the contrast that results when pairing white and black elements in a room (a look that many modernists love). Cream shades can serve as a bridge between black and white to mitigate the stark contrast.
Adding some heart to your home
For anyone who likes the idea of a light, bright kitchen but finds all-white kitchens a little too cold, off-white paints like ivory and cream may be the solution. Chromatically, they offer what white does but with added warmth. Their effect is magnified when paired with metals: The chilliness of cool whites, metal fixtures, and stainless steel appliances feels very different with a touch of cream instead.
Have your cake and eat it too
Happily, white versus cream paint is not an either-or proposition. The two can be used together to great effect. Here, white furniture and trim against a cream wall keep the room light and airy but not blinding white, cold or stark, the common complaints of those who shy away from white walls.
The inverse also holds true: If cream walls feel a little too traditional or muddy to you, a white wall with off-white accents allows you to add a little depth to the all-white color scheme. This bedroom strikes that stylistic balance to a tee.
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