Home & Garden

Home decor: Warming up to shades of gray

Cambria's new Oceanic collection of quartz countertops shows that gray can be a playful kitchen element.
Cambria's new Oceanic collection of quartz countertops shows that gray can be a playful kitchen element. Courtesy of Cambria

If you ask a thousand people to name their favorite color, you might get one that would say gray.

But look at any lifestyle or shelter magazine and you’ll see that gray is hot and seemingly here to stay.

Though white remains the best-selling color for most categories of home furnishings, gray is catching up.

Not only have homeowners embraced gray for things that are easy to change – such as wall colors or throw pillows – they also have embraced gray for things they expect to be using 10, 20 and even 30 years from now, including kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures.

Gray has even gone global, influencing traditional crafts that most of us assume to be impervious to fashion and trends. For example, carpet weavers in Tibet, Nepal and Northern India are still producing patterns that are hundreds of years old, but now the colors are contrasting shades of gray. These same weavers also produce contemporary designs with a strong gray presence, said Salesh Adhikhary of Globalcraft Rugs, a carpeting wholesaler based in Houston.

How could a color more often associated with bad weather, somber moods and illness acquire such broad appeal? Its astonishingly broad range, design experts said.

As a color, gray encompasses everything from a soft silver to a stark, dark charcoal. It’s the perfect neutral because it’s compatible with almost every other color, and it folds easily into every style of decor. Dee Schlotter, color brand manager for Glidden Paints, succinctly summed it up: “Gray plays well with other colors.”

Though most people think of gray as a 50-50 mix of equal parts black and white, most grays are actually a mix of other colors that give it a unique chameleon-like quality. A gray wall paint that appears to be slightly greenish when upholstered furniture with a strong green theme is placed against it will acquire a slightly bluish cast if the furniture is reupholstered in blue tones.

All this has obvious advantages: As London-based interiors blogger Kate Watson-Smyth pointed out, “You don’t have to worry about redecorating every time you change a piece of furniture.”

Scott Bodenner, a Brooklyn-based textile designer (who said of himself: “I am that one in a thousand who says that my favorite color is gray”) explained that when gray is the backdrop, small changes can produce a big effect. “It gives people the ability to change the mood of a space by changing the accent colors of small things like throw pillows and small rugs,” he said. “Switch out a soft, calming blue for bright colors like red, yellow or orange and you add pop and action.”

Gray gives life to everything in a room. Gray makes everything look more modern and fresh. Gray makes all your possessions pop out. It gives them presence. A good picture on a gray wall — it’s amazing!

Kate Watson-Smyth, interiors blogger

Watson-Smyth, whose affection for gray is evident in nearly every room in her own London home, offered yet another reason to favor it: “Gray gives life to everything in a room. Gray makes everything look more modern and fresh. Gray makes all your possessions pop out. It gives them presence. A good picture on a gray wall – it’s amazing!”

Gray’s trajectory toward a central position in the home-decorating pantheon began about six or seven years ago as a desire for a “new neutral.” After nearly two decades of nothing but “beige, beige, beige,” said Jackie Jordan, director of color marketing at Sherwin-Williams, “We were beiged out.”

Gray was first promoted by celebrity interior designers, whose work was widely published in the shelter magazines that focus on upscale interiors. This initial coverage conveyed an important truth long known by colorists like herself, Jordan said. It showed that gray can be inspiring. “They showed that gray is not cold, industrial or boring, that it can be calming and sophisticated,” Jordan said.

And that began to change the thinking of the general public as well as the larger design community.

Gray began to appear in fashion and hospitality settings (hotels and restaurants) and eventually in the editorial pages of magazines that more closely mirror the preferences and aspirations of the average homeowner. As editorial exposure to gray increased, the more comfortable people became with the idea of incorporating gray into their own houses, Jordan said. At the same time, home-furnishing stores such as Ethan Allen, West Elm and Restoration Hardware began to include gray in their furnishing vignettes, and this showed consumers – in a very hands-on way – how to work with gray, Jordan said.

A desire to connect with nature and bring the colors of the outdoors inside and timing also account for gray’s increasing popularity, said Lita Dirks, an interior designer based in Greenwood, Colo. “As we got through the recession, people wanted to ‘open the window’ and make a more efficient cleaner look that went in another color direction. All the softer colors of nature come from the family of gray, so it was an obvious way to go.”

In many cases, Dirks said, homeowners are incorporating nature into their living rooms in the literal sense by using old barn wood and repurposed wood for floors or furniture.

An indication of gray’s increasing acceptance with the general public is their purchase of gray “investment pieces” like sofas, said Jill Waage, executive editor of Better Homes and Gardens Brand and a keen observer of American interior trends for more than 20 years. Though she still sees a lot of white in kitchens and bathrooms, “Gray is common now,” she said, adding, “When we see gray cabinets, that’s a huge impact on color. It’s here to stay.” The most common use of gray that Waage has observed is flooring.

Indeed, Jackie Dettmar of the Mohawk Group, one of the largest carpeting manufacturers in the country, noted that in residential carpeting, their top sellers for the last five years have been shades of gray. Melanie McGeehan of Forbo, the top selling linoleum brand in the United States, said that beige colors are still their “strongest sellers,” but grays are a “strong number two.”

Because consumers expect to use “hardscape” items like cabinets and bathroom fixtures for two or three decades, manufacturers do not make the decision to offer gray lightly, said Nancy Yusko, a design manager for kitchen and bathroom fixtures at Kohler. “We would never launch a color we didn’t feel had staying power because a homeowner puts our product in and expects it to stay for 20-plus years.”

To distinguish a fad that comes and goes within one or two years from a trend that lasts for 10 to 20 years, Yusko said her firm “tracks across multiple industries.”

“We watch fashion, architecture, the auto industry, interior design. We also reflect on the zeitgeist as well,” Yusko added. “When we actually look across industries and reflect on historical data, we find a lot of indications on what is penetrating culture and what’s on the surface.”

Kohler offers five shades of gray in its lines of plumbing fixtures for both bathrooms and kitchens.

Yusko also pointed out that, in a bathroom, the color of the fixture itself can enhance the relaxation that comes with a long soak in the tub or a few minutes under the pounding jets of a multi-showerhead shower. Most people assume that the benefits of the “spa experience” come from their contact with water, but when you reduce contrast by replacing standard white fixtures with ones in a softer color like gray, you will feel calmer whether you are in the tub or not, she said.

Jennifer Gilmer of Gilmer Kitchen & Bath in Bethesda, Md., said many of her clients are interested in a gray kitchen but fearful that it will make a kitchen feel and look dark. They become convinced that it’s a great idea when she shows them examples that combine gray with other colors.

For example, combining dark charcoal cabinets with white cabinetry and counters and lighter grays for walls, backsplashes and an island counter produces a “happy” kitchen, she said.

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