Learn how to preserve, paint, clean and style a brick wall to fit your design scheme
An interior brick wall can be considered a timeless treasure, an eyesore, a quirky feature or many other things. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and bold brick certainly draws a lot of glances, imploring passersby to consider it, judge it and deem it either beautiful or too gritty.
But with the right design knowhow, brick can add a unique, perfectly imperfect touch to any room — it has an organic character not found in plain drywall and can suit modern, traditional, eclectic or contemporary spaces equally well. So before you write off brick, get to know some basics of preserving, finishing, styling and otherwise falling in love with brick.
If you’re lucky enough to have a home that includes a beautiful exposed brick wall, in many cases you won’t need to do anything more than show it off. However, to make sure your brick stays stunning, you’ll want to seal and protect the surface to reduce the risk of disintegration over time.
To keep a space feeling bright, a slight gloss finish can help your brick look lustrous, which is perfect for a slim entry or hallway space. Otherwise, a matte sealant won’t change the look of the brick but will help keep out mites and dust to help it stay
If your wall needs a little cleaning before sealing, a mixture of vinegar and water will generally do the trick. Simply spray the solution lightly onto trouble spots and rub with a towel, scrubbing with a coarse bristle brush only where necessary to remove stubborn soil. In general, it’s best to start with a gentle approach in an inconspicuous area to make sure your brick won’t crumble, and use harsher cleansers only where absolutely necessary.
Moisture and Grouting
In moist areas like bathrooms, it’s especially important to make sure your brick is well sealed to avoid mold and other issues.
Where grout is worn away or in bad condition, it is possible to repoint (regrout) the brick to restore a more solid surface. This requires the existing grout to be carefully routed out to at least a ¾-inch depth before being refilled with new mortar, so it’s something you’ll want to do just once and then carefully seal and maintain it.
If you prefer to cover or soften your brick, there’s an option for everyone.
White. A few coats of white paint is a popular choice for those who want to preserve the texture of their brick wall but give it a cleaner, more modern look. One advantage of this look, besides its ability to brighten a space, is the way it can help a space feel less busy, blending different elements like bulkheads and window trim (and the ceiling) together for an overall larger and more streamlined effect.
An all-white look is especially effective for bedroom brick, as it has a dreamy, cloud-like appeal.
Whitewashed. For a true whitewashing effect, mix a small amount of water into your paint (roughly 1 part water to 3 parts paint as a starting point) and loosely apply the mixture with a large brush, letting it absorb and reapplying in uneven patches to achieve an aged finish. Just be sure to tape off any baseboards or adjacent walls and cover the floor with a dropcloth — drips are to be expected.
Exactly how much water you use and how unevenly you apply the mixture will determine whether you create a patchy, broken-in effect (as shown here) or a more even, cloudy wash (as in the previous photo). Use more water and even coats for overall softness, or drier paint to let more brick remain uncovered.
Gray. Another beautiful option for painted brick is a warm, soft gray. This has an earthy, organic quality while still creating a clean look; it’s an excellent compromise between white and au naturel brick.
Stained. If you have a lighter brick palette and would prefer a deeper and richer tone (as shown in this picture), you can stain your brick much like wood to change the color without completely erasing the variation and texture.
If you’re careful with your handiwork (and use a small brush in key areas), you can leave the occasional brick uncoated to create a faux-vintage look, with the illusion of a few bricks’ having been replaced over time.
Keep in mind when painting brick that although it is possible to strip paint from brick later, the ability of brick to absorb paint into its porous core makes this a somewhat tricky task.
Masonry paint stripper gives off strong fumes and takes time and effort to be effective, so it’s best as a last resort. If you’re unsure whether you’ll still love painted or refinished brick down the road, skip any trendy color choices and work with what you have with some of the following styling tips.
In a room with a long, exposed wall, the amount of brick can be overwhelming. But rather than changing the original color, try breaking up the brick with art, furnishings or a mirror to give the eye a visual break while letting the texture peek through in smaller doses.
Mirrors. A large floor-length mirror will also reflect the opposite wall, making the two disparate surfaces feel more visually tied together.
Conversely, in a smaller space or where less brick is exposed, a mirror can help brick visually repeat so it seems more present in the full space and appears to be sprinkled throughout instead of the room’s looking lopsided.
Art. A brick wall can make a nice backdrop for a gallery wall, but keep in mind that hanging art (especially a heavy piece) on brick requires extra effort.
You’ll need to drill into the mortar (not the brick itself) to a depth of at least 1 inch with a specific masonry-use drill bit, and be sure to use masonry screw anchors to reinforce the connection. Once this is done, you’ll be able to hang art as usual and create your own hip gallery space.
Open shelves. Layering open shelves over brick, especially in a kitchen, creates a very warm, intimate feel. To echo the brick, display solid dishes and containers in earthy tones and materials, with muted bronze shelves for a transitional look or lightly finished wood to go rustic and eclectic.
Punk. For an edgy appeal, consider a graffiti-inspired look, especially for a teen bedroom or cool hangout space. Down the road you can remove a smaller area of paint or simply paint the entire space white to update it.
Colors. If your brick wall is already bringing in lots of color, the safest bet is to pair it with a variety of neutrals, mixing light and dark tones to pick up the subtle variations in the brick without fighting it.
However, if you do want to mix in more hues for a livelier look, consider a traditional Persian rug. The same ruddy brick tones will typically be mixed with coordinating colors, like rich blues and pops of hot orange.
Feeling a little brick envy now? An authentic brick effect can be created with half-brick dressing, which can be layered over an existing wall or fireplace column to give true depth and texture without dramatically shrinking the space or requiring a structural overhaul.