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The Ultimate Palette

White is soothing, complex, and perhaps the most vexing -- yet satisfying -- color in interior design

The all-white room is, for some decorators, the holy grail of interior design: pure, essential, and devilishly hard to achieve. When freed from color’s definition and dominance, a decorating scheme has to concern itself with scale, proportion, and texture. It must be about architecture, the play of light, repeated or hinted-at motifs, shape and mass, and exquisite nuance.

“Color is easy,” says Boston-based interior designer Charles Spada. “White, on the other hand, is elevating and uplifting, a pinnacle of aspiration.”

Spada echoes the ambitions of reform-minded designers 100 years ago. Once aniline dyes and automated printing processes invented during the 19th century made color and pattern readily available to the masses via paint and wallpapers, it became radical to eschew color. By the early 20th century, forward-looking designers turned away from heavy Victorian furnishings in favor of light and airy interiors. Among them were the artisans of Vienna’s Wiener Werkstatte and Glasgow architect and furniture designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who painted their avant-garde furniture white to go into white rooms.

But no one went all the way until 1927, when, at the stroke of midnight, British designer Syrie Maugham threw open the doors of her newly decorated London flat on Kings Road, Chelsea. Her artistic friends beheld a wonder of white: white walls and drapes, satin sofas,

low silver tables, a mirrored screen, and “pickled” Georgian furniture. Maugham was forever after known as the “princess of pale.” When she traveled to India with fellow decorator Elsie de Wolfe in the late 1930s, her friends quipped that it was “to paint the Black Hole of Calcutta white.”

Maugham was much decried for whitening 18th-century furniture (even though most of the “antique” pieces she bleached were probably 20th-century reproductions), but she wasn’t the first to lighten up the ancestral chairs. Carl Larsson’s evocative late-19th-century

paintings of domestic bliss at Sundborn, his family’s summer house in the Swedish countryside, depict wife Karin’s inherited Gustavian chairs painted white and softened with blue-and-white-striped fabric. Side chairs, a Regency gateleg table, a chest of drawers, a blue-and-gold upholstered bergere, even a tall case clock appear in Larsson paintings freshened with white paint.

Those paintings gave birth to the style now known as Swedish country. Loved for its association with serene, pretty, and light-filled interiors, its allure to homeowners has only increased since Carl and Karin Larsson’s time. Its hallmark furniture displays the simple curves and tapering legs of the Regency or Empire period, always in white. Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, interior designer Joyce Jordan created a traditional Swedish Country dining room for the 2005 Old York Historical Society show house.

Still, when executed by less than skilled hands, all-white schemes can seem forced, more academic exercises than livable spaces. “It’s a lifestyle,” says Fernanda Bourlot, an Argentine-born Boston designer known for her color-free rooms. “If you have a white base, it’s like a sheet of white paper: You can erase what’s not necessary. White is very Zen. It can bring you peace, which is why I like it.”

“There are many shades and tones within the white spectrum,” says Spada. “Some whites are creamy, some are chalky, some are crystalline, like snow. The challenge of making white work is considerable, but it’s extremely rewarding when it does.”

He cites his business’s office suite in the Boston Design Center as an example. “We moved in here four years ago, and today I love it as much as I did then. Looking at so many shades of white is beautiful and soothing, and nothing reeks of yellow or blue or anything that distracts from the satisfying simplicity, from the pure function of the space.”

“All you really need are some chairs, a table, a bed,” says Bourlot, whose design firm Simplemente Blanco is in the South End. “If you make things light, you focus on the essentials and on the architecture.”

She acknowledges that her aesthetic is not for everyone. “Some people like clutter,” she says. “And often I use an accent color as a concession to people who can’t imagine living without it. I like soft lavender, which is beautiful with snow white. Browns and earth tones work well with creamy whites.”

Cohasset designer Susan B. Acton used a white she calls vanilla to integrate several ornate antiques into a contemporary bedroom. “The simplicity of the white balances the heaviness of the old pieces,” she says. “The homeowners have small children, so the white fabric is a

washable chenille. White is contemporary, modern.”

“A lot of color and pattern is dizzying and gets tiresome,” Spada says. “In design terms, white is the leader of the pack. I look at a lot of different shades of white, and the view never gets boring or irritating. White is a higher form of beauty: pure, clean, and about values beyond color associations. Being in a well-designed white room is like being up in the clouds.”

Regina Cole is a freelance writer in Gloucester. E-mail her at


When "Sex and the City" character Charlotte redecorated her Park Avenue apartment in white, she winced every time her nudist boyfriend sat down. What makes white so appealing also presents the challenge that frightens many relaxed homeowners: It only looks fresh and clean as long as it is, in fact, fresh and clean. Is a white room like a wedding dress, beautiful but impractical for the messiness of real life?

“If you think that way, you might as well forget about design,” says Boston interior designer Charles Spada. “You’re missing the point if you think that interior design is supposed to hide dirt.”

Spada claims that his white interiors require no more upkeep than any other color scheme. “If we decorated according to practical color considerations,” he says, “we’d all have brown rooms.”

“For some people, it can be very difficult to keep things balanced and neat,” says Boston interior designer Fernanda Bourlot. “Life is like that: We are all different, which is why I think of my decorating style as a lifestyle choice. Since I was a child, I’ve liked things that are clean, neat – and I like to keep them that way.”

Regina Cole is a freelance writer in Gloucester. E-mail her at

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