Decorating 101: How to Use White Right

If you’ve ever been in white-paint-swatch limbo, you know white can be tricky to work with. Here’s how to get the fresh look you’re after

By Laura Gaskill / Courtesy of

White has long been beloved by architects and interior designers for its versatility and freshness. But as anyone who has ever tried to choose from among hundreds of shades of white paint can attest, decorating with white isn’t as easy as it sounds. We’ve pulled together the best tips — starting with how to choose that perfect paint color — so you can decorate in white with confidence and style.

How to choose the right white paint. Why is it that the same white paint that makes one room look fresh and crisp can make another seem stark and cold? It all comes down to the light. By working with the natural light in your space, you can find a shade of white that enhances your room’s best qualities.


  • Before painting a room white, identify its orientation to the sun.
  • Use a clear white paint (neither too warm nor too cool) in rooms that face away from the noonday sun.
  • If you have a north-facing room in an area like New England (with snowy winters), clear white will feel too chilly; try a warmer off-white instead.
  • South-facing rooms (in the Northern Hemisphere; north-facing in the Southern Hemisphere) receive the most intense sun during the day; use a cool white with gray undertones to reduce glare.

Guides: What to Know Before You Paint Your Walls White
How to Pick the Right White Paint

How to choose the right white trim color. On its own, a white paint swatch simply looks white — but put several side by side and you should start to notice that some white paints appear warmer (more beige or a touch yellow) while others appear cooler, like a very pale gray. So, which one to choose? Picking the right white trim depends on what color the walls are painted: Generally speaking, warm goes with warm, cool with cool.


Guide: Trim Color Tips: Get Your White Trim Right

How to use white in the bedroom. To ensure that white walls don’t feel like an afterthought in the bedroom, consider other elements that can make your space feel inviting and comfortable, from architecture to textures.


  • Exposed wood framing (as seen here) looks rustic and charming when painted fresh white.
  • Shiny metallic and reflective surfaces add glamour; just keep in mind that a little goes a long way.
  • Layer in light grays for a cooler palette or off-white for a warmer feel.

Guides: 5 Ways to Rock a White Bedroom
10 Ways With (Almost) All-White Bedrooms

How to refresh your bedroom with white linens. White bedding is classic, chic and totally effortless. It’s a can’t-miss choice if you’re looking to refresh your bedroom.


  • Add a textural pillow or two to a bed made with simple white linens for a luxurious look.
  • White bedding makes other neutrals look richer; it’s a good choice in a bedroom with beige, cream, brown or gray walls and details.
  • If you love changing the look of your bedroom frequently, white bedding is easy to update with colorful throws and pillows.

Guide: 11 Reasons to Love White Bedding

How to use white in the kitchen. A white kitchen is timeless, but without a bit of contrast it runs the risk of feeling cold. This kitchen is a beautiful example of how to get a white kitchen right: with glossy stainless steel and warm wood accents.


  • Wood adds warmth, charm and character to a white kitchen: hardwood floors, a rustic farm table or wooden stools look especially welcome against a backdrop of white.
  • Because white reflects more light than other colors, quality is important when choosing your materials — consider beautiful white marble, glossy subway tiles or perfectly simple Shaker cabinets.
  • The expanding quality of white makes it a good choice for compact kitchens.

Guide: Cooking With Color: When to Use White in the Kitchen

How to use white in the bathroom. As in the kitchen, an all-white color palette in the bathroom can feel a bit clinical if you’re not careful. But done right, a white bath feels clean, refreshing and spa-like — and who wouldn’t like that?


  • Use white in the bathroom as a foil for really interesting and beautiful fixtures, such as a gorgeous claw-foot tub or unique sink.
  • A white scheme, when paired with good lighting, can make even the darkest windowless interior bathroom feel light and bright.
  • Pair white with warm, rich wood for an organic modern look. Even small details (like a wooden bath mat and sink-side accessories) can add interest to an all-white bath.

Guide: 8 Ways to Use White in the Bathroom

How to use white in an open-plan space. When multiple rooms of a home are visible at once, the use of one wall color throughout helps the space feel more serene. White is a good choice because it goes with everything, and it makes compact spaces feel larger.


  • Update your white space whenever you like simply by swapping out colorful accessories.
  • Enhance a summer mood with beach-inspired textures like seagrass, sisal, linen and cotton voile.
  • In the winter, bring in cozy textures like faux fur and wool, and add some candlelight.

Guide: 10 Reasons to Embrace White Walls

How to refresh your space with white curtains. White curtains are a classic, and they work in any room of the house. Take a cue from the dreamy space shown here and give a canopy bed a tropical makeover with sheer white curtains draped about the corners.


  • Hang sheer white curtains in the living room for a breezy, beach-inspired vibe.
  • Create an alfresco dining destination with floor-pooling white curtains enclosing a porch or patio with a welcome note of softness.
  • Give your tie-top or tab-top white curtains a natural look by using a found branch as a curtain rod.

Guide: 16 Fresh Ways With White Curtains

How to use white on your home’s exterior. Wondering what color to paint your house? With a few exceptions (Victorian and Craftsman homes come to mind), white almost always works. It looks fresh, simple and classic, and if you tire of plain white you can always punch up the color on the door, trim and shutters. 


  • Use white to make a modestly sized home, like a Cape Cod or cottage, appear larger.
  • Use parchment or antique white to enhance a historic home from the 18th or early 19th century.
  • White stucco looks fresh and cool, ideal for sunny, tropical locales.

Guide: White Delights on Home Exteriors of All Styles

How to embrace easygoing off-white. Warmer and more welcoming than stark white, this creamy hue is easy to work with — and also happens to be right on-trend, with both Benjamin Moore and Glidden choosing off-white as their “color of the year” for 2016.


  • Use off-white to warm up a white kitchen — it’s more forgiving than clear or cool-toned white.
  • Pair creamy off-white with a range of other neutrals like gray and brown for a rich, timeless look.
  • Play up interesting architectural details by painting an entire room in crisp off-white.

Guide: Color of the Year: Off-White Is On-Trend for 2016

Cabinet paint color: Simply White, Benjamin Moore

How to embrace simplicity with bright white. This non-hue is beloved by architects, and it looks amazing in beach cottages. Bright white is the heart and soul of simplicity.


  • Use bright white from floor to ceiling for a really fresh, light-filled look.
  • Bring a bright white space to life with a few pops of bold color, like turquoise or lemon yellow.
  • Three bright white paint colors to try: Decorator’s White, Chantilly Lace and Super White, all by Benjamin Moore.

Guides: Color Guide: How to Work With Bright White
An Architect’s Guide to Color

How to pair white with off-white. Can’t decide between bright white and creamy off-white? Use them both! Pairing subtly different whites and off-whites highlights texture and makes for a sophisticated look that will stand the test of time.


  • Ground a white and off-white scheme with a touch of gray or black somewhere in the room.
  • Use warm off-white on retro appliances in the kitchen for a charming yet subtle look.
  • Create a warm and welcoming cocoon in the bedroom with a mix of white and off-white hues in a range of touchable textures.

Guide: Must-Try Color Combo: White With Warm Off-White

How to gather color inspiration from nature. Think of freshly fallen snow, a clutch of white eggs, the papery skin of garlic, bunches of white daisies — start noticing white in the great outdoors and you may be surprised at how it’s hardly ever “just white” —there’s always a hint of blue, gray, green or yellow.


  • Earthy whites (think of creamy milk or a woolly sheep) work well with other warm neutrals, as well as rich hues like barn red and turquoise.
  • Winter whites are cooler, and work well to emphasize shapes and architectural features.
  • Beware of going overboard with absolutely pure white in the home — too much white with no break would feel akin to being stuck in a blizzard.

Guide: Nature’s Color Wisdom: Lessons on White From the Great Outdoors

How to add color to a white-walled room. It may seem a bit counterintuitive, but white walls can actually be one of the best choices for people who love bright, bold color. The reason? With white on the walls, you’re totally free to go hog-wild with color and pattern in the rest of the space, and you can change it all on a whim.


  • Bring in bold color with a statement light fixture — or a pair of lights, as shown here.
  • Add colorful chairs around the dining table.
  • Hang one oversize piece of artwork as a focal point.
  • Layer on color with rugs, curtains and rich upholstery.

Guide: 10 Wonderful Ways to Colorize a White-Walled Room

How to liven up a white kitchen. All-white kitchen a bit too blinding? Don’t fret; there are plenty of ways to bring in color, from the big (appliances) to the small (cookbooks).


  • When it’s time for new appliances, choose retro models in a juicy hue like turquoise or cherry red.
  • Pile up your favorite (colorful) cookbooks.
  • Display a collection of colorful pottery on open shelving.
  • Add a burst of color: Paint the ceiling or the interior of glass-front cabinets in a bright hue.

Guide: What to Do if Your Kitchen Is Simply Too White for You

How to use white as an accent color. Have lots of deep or rich colors in your space? Flip the usual formula on its head and use white as an accent rather than the main event.


  • Bring much-needed light to a deep, dark-hued room with bright white accents.
  • Highlight intricate architectural details with white paint.
  • Break up a dark wall with framed artwork that uses oversize white mats.
  • Use white to give the eye a place to rest in a room with lots of busy patterns.

Guide: Why White Is the Ultimate Pop of Color

How to keep your white spaces white. White spaces look fresh and clean … as long as they are fresh and clean! Say goodbye to dingy white linens, wall scuffs and more with these tips for keeping your beautiful white spaces as clean as can be.


  • Vacuum white walls every few weeks to keep dust from accumulating; use a Magic Eraser to remove marks.
  • Install draperies, blinds or window film in the kitchen to protect white cabinets from yellowing in the sun.
  • Invest in removable, washable white slipcovers for upholstered furniture. (Replace while still slightly damp from the dryer for the best fit.)
  • Launder white sheets separately in hot water with regular detergent; add bleach as needed to keep them looking fresh.
  • Wash delicate white linens by hand in the bathtub and air dry.
  • Consider a no-shoes policy to keep white floors white.
  • Frequent light cleaning is best for white kitchen and bath fixtures; avoid abrasive cleansers and scouring pads, which can cause damage to the finish.

Guides: How to Keep Your White Spaces Looking Great
How to Keep Your White Kitchen White