A white wall often gets a bum rap. Some people think of it as an uninspired choice, a cop out after indecisiveness strikes, a last resort when all else fails. My latest book, BRILLIANT: WHITE IN DESIGN shows how in fact white is anything but unexciting or dull, that designers turn to it over and over again for many good reasons.
As a child whenever I walked into a room with a white wall I assumed it was newly primed and waiting for an application of paint or wallpaper. As an adult I see a white wall as a necessary antidote to clutter. I value it as both a quick fix and as an enduring act of commitment.
Just as a white gallery recedes to let artwork shine a white wall in a living room forces everything into silhouette and disperses halos of light. Without the distraction or emotionality of color furniture and objects can be seen in their purest form; people become physical manifestations of their life experience. It’s arguably why studio photographers traditionally shoot their subjects against white seamless paper?
A white wall serves the same function as a white matt board that forces the eye to appreciate the photograph or painting it surrounds. It’s the architectural equivalent of a classic white shirt that flatters every skin color. It’s related to a translucent white plate that renders even the grimmest food palatable.
The stark white, art free walls in designer Kara Mann’s Lake Shore Drive bedroom serve as canvases for the southern light as it streams through the windows in the early morning hours. The walls serve as visual palette cleansers for Mann. They enable her to clearheadedly discuss color with clients throughout the day.
In this San Francisco apartment Orlando Diaz-Azcuy created a white lacquered shell to house his clients’ disparate collection of furnishings. Thanks to white walls (and the timeless white marble floor) contemporary furniture and edgy art feel akin to Louis XV armchairs even though they were created centuries apart.
In various shades of white a diverse range of materials finds common ground in Andrew Flesher’s Minneapolis living room where rattan, leather, faux bois, sisal, raw silk, blond oak and an antler chandelier feel like a cohesive family.
White’s diplomacy is essential to its enduring appeal — whether it be classic Decorator’s White or the ivory-tinted Linen White. This power is blatantly obvious in an all-white table setting that mixes everyday and formal wares. It’s how a 1950s milk glass pitcher can be at home alongside a Victorian ceramic tureen and a baroque porcelain figurine can relate to generic earthenware Crate & Barrel plates.
Linda O’Keeffe is a writer and design editor and formerly Creative Director for Metropolitan Home magazine. She contributes regularly to various architecture and design publications.