Neutral Definition – 10 Color Tips for Decades to Come

ferm living geometric pillows – image via firm living

There is a belief based on misinformation that neutral design is colorless. This is a misnomer almost as profound as the perception of what shades and colors are actually, by definition neutral.

There is however, a clear dichotomy in design when it come to who practices neutral design vs the color and why….

Camp 1 – People who retreat to neutral design because color is frightening.

(All of you should go read the color articles; loads of info on how to design with color without remorse)

Camp 2 – People who love neutrals, find them calming, and prefer a brand of style that defines via shape, texture and surface that are not necessarily minimal in style.

This is for all of you!

Limited palettes do not translate to limited design. Limitations are an invitation to any designer worth his or her salt to spin gold from straw.

A pillow from Ferm Living – image from

In all design and art school programs, assignments require the student to learn to properly mix specified color ranges for a limited color palette, and then to use these shades to create artworks or designs to create drama, the illusions of depth, form, shape, and texture (I say “illusions” because no matter what magical color ju-ju you apply to a canvas, it will remain one-dimesional)

But rooms are 3-dimesional living zones, where concepts work in reality.

Here are some to combine  depth, form, form, shape, texture, and a mix of surfaces that create drama – and yes, color – in context to neutral design.

neutral organic kitchen design – image via emmas design blog

1) Let nature do the work for you! She’s got it all – wood grains, marbles and granites infuse movement and pattern. Metals add a wide variety of surface types – satins, chromes fro sparkle, and mattes for contrast and depth.

2) Mix up elements in signature furniture pieces. The acrylic arms and legs on this neutral yet dramatically patterned sofa can survive trends that come and go, because it’s neutral and will forever be considered “contemporary” vs. ’50’s, 70’s or any other design era specific.

Lartell Pop sofa in Missoni –

3) Design with shades tinted with gray. Yes, yes – I am going to tell you this again. The colors below all sip from the same gray straw, and share a neutral base. Gray is your best tool in defining a neutral space. All compliments (opposites on the color wheel) that are the same hue, or intensity create the color gray when mixed in equal proportions.

Framed shadow boxes in shades tinted with gray –

Tan vs a Gray RGB distribution in the color mix

Likewise, Gray on an RGB scale is the only color that is absolutely neutral – seriously -I won an article competition   because this is not widely known.  Colors in the beige or tan range are far less neutral as background colors, as they derived from the 3 primary colors; red, blue and green, and have residual saturation in one of the primary tones. As such, they are better foreground than background players in a neutral scheme.

4. Mix up the surfaces and the light sources!The image below is a neutral masterpiece, optimizing all the elements of neutral design that make it work – PLUS, layering lighting sources. This is the most frequent oversight in ALL design, not only neutral schemes – I will be doing a more comprehensive article on this in future, but as incandescent lighting passes into the history books, layering lighting (which is easier suggested than applied) will become a de riguer of color.

Surfaces play a huge role in design – image via lifeloveliness blog

5) Infuse Drama combining shape with the unexpected. The Zeppelin chandelier by Flos may be the best example of  “je ne se qua” – a French term used in design to describe the infusion of the unexpected that translates quite literally as “I don’t know what”.

flos zeppelin pendant light – image from A White Room Blog

This lighting element oozes drama and surprise and stands on laurels completely freed from reliance on color. It’s organic design imbues a fairy-tale appearance as though silk worms conspired to cocoon a traditional chandelier while everyone slept. Shape is the best tool for either unifying design elements, or creating visual surprise or tension. The piece below is created from canvas stretcher framing, mitered and assembled as wall art – genius art turned inside-out!

Untitled wall art – Stretcher Bars 27.5” x 25” 2012 – Stella Artois II

6) Mixing texture with dimension in unexpected ways is another way to add new and unexpected definition to design.

image via nuvola

It works in the traditional sense in more traditional or vintage applications as well – stand alone statements need only be neutral and have eye-catching dimension, such as globes.

Vintage globe image via unnecessary extras

7) Be Consistent. The best designs are consistent, whether neutral or not. If you want a sophisticated look, try to stay in character – baby’s nursery notwithstanding.

image from Feathered Nest via Lisa Hewitt on Pinterest

Baby’s brain is an exercise in exploration and seeking information. Personally, I would incorporate color in a nursery even if neutral color like the shadow box images higher up, due to overwhelming research that color instigates the development of intelligence. But perhaps there are 2 schools of thought – if baby’s nursery is a neutral landscape, perhaps he or she will be riveted by brightly colored pictures in story books and even more receptive to reading.

8) Add one color to otherwise neutral room designs. This design hat trick helps establish and define living zones by providing a color oasis in each room for differentiation and interest – particularly in open floor plans where look-through demands unification at a glance solutions. Candice Olson, whose gorgeous designs people love to discuss has honed this trick to a tool. Look at the design below:

Candice Olson Design from HGTV

This kitchen is completely neutral other than the glimmering soft blue glass back-splash picked up on the seats – not neutral because of the soft blue? Look at this and write to me if you can think of a color motif or style that would look ill at ease in this kitchen (I am not going to hold my breath here).

bedroom image via loft lovlieness1

9) Add 1 color via light combined with color transparency. This is a design trick that never disappoints – the design above added their color and light via neon text – a step beyond your typical wall text design! Those Kartell transparent lamps come in red, gold, black and silver but transparent is a great choice here. There is are thousands of variations in white, and mixing them up never fails to add something dimensional and unexpected to a neutral landscape….

All these colors in the paint store appear white, viewed separately.

10) Create wall art with unexpected textural materials. This is a budget-friendly tip. Do any of you tool efficienados recognize the material used to make this focal wall medallion?

wall medallion created with nails – image via makingitlovely1

pneumatic nailer roofing nail refills – image via Great Northern Roofing Supplies

That’s right –

It’s spray painted pneumatic nail gun roofing nails refills! They are circular refills that load into cartridges of roofing nail guns, and are really quite pretty and dimensional – I have considered creating a coffee table display below a glass top with these…

So now you are armed with just ten of the hundreds of ways to define a sophisticated, warm and striking room design that relies on not a colorless, but a very sophisticated and refine use of a limited color palette.



Below are some great elements I saw on Design Milk, but there are also some limited color palette selections from my studio that won’t bust your budget, available in this week’s finds on Kim’s Room’s in Designer’s Closet here on Re-do it Design. Create and Enjoy!




CMYLK: Sticks and Stones

Clockwise: Vitra Cork Stool C by Jasper Morrison19 Series by Omer Arbel for BocciGranny Suspension Lamp by Pudelskern for CasamaniaWire Braid Deep BowlAcate Coat Stand by Driade, Stone Hook by Helga I. Sigurbjarnadottir for Normann Copenhagen, Scrapwood Wallpaper by Peit Hein Eek, Vintage Rya Scandinavian Rug, Unraveled Rope Necklaces by Tanya Aguiñiga, Retro Plant Table by Cult Design.