Rethinking Beige in a World Gone Gray

Gray, the ‘it’ neutral of recent years, has left beige in the shade. But is it time to revisit this easy-on-the-eyes wall color?

Fisher ID, original photo on Houzz

The gray bandwagon has been rolling along for a few years now, and many interiors have succumbed to the cool elegance and versatility of the gray spectrum. Beige as our pet neutral got left behind sometime after its ’90s heyday, but some designers are giving beige-based neutrals a fresh look. If you have stayed staunchly on the beige team but feel your decor could do with an update, take a look at how to give beige 21st-century charisma.

Give beige a chance. Why is beige a five-letter word to so many people? Cries of “Boring!” and “Drab!” are heard from the anti-beige brigade. Beige is often disowned asso last century, even though we loved it to bits back then. A beige-based scheme can lack spark, just as gray can if mismanaged. If your knee-jerk reaction to beige is “Ugh!” or something similar, you may be missing out on what this quiet achiever can accomplish.

It can be soothing, sophisticated, flattering, rich and mellow, formal or casual, and a perfect launching pad for bolder decor choices. It is also never clinical or cold, an accusation often leveled at gray.

Champion a chameleon. Beige is basically light brown. With such wide parameters, it’s open to interpretation: To some, it’s as

light as off-white; to others, it goes all the way up to an earthy midtone. It covers the spectrum of creamy-warm to sandy-earthy, depending on the undertones. The color commonly has a yellow or pink base, adjusted with other pigments in an infinite variety of combinations. Beige has many aliases — think ecru, buttermilk, biscuit, oatmeal, vanilla, almond, cafe au lait, camel, flax, sand, string, straw, dune, ivory, eggshell or chamois.

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Once upon a beige. While gray has been a strong performer for quite a while, and has knocked a lot of other neutrals out of the ring, some have never strayed from the beige path. Judith Briggs from Colour Consultants Australia and author of Bye Bye Bland, says, “Many people are still in the beige phase that was fashionable before gray. I’ve worked on several new houses recently that need a contemporary feel injected into their all-beige color schemes.”

Invite today’s colors in. Invite energy and character into a beige palette with modern colors trending towards bold and saturated. Also, keep in mind that neutrals have complex undertones. Briggs says the way to get beige wrong is to choose paint colors and furnishings in shades of beige that have clashing undertones. To identify the subtle nuances of beige, talk to your paint specialist, arm yourself with fabric swatches and samples of wood when you go paint shopping, read these expert tips on testing paint colors or play it safe by enlisting the help of a color consultant.

Tara Seawright Interior Design, original photo on Houzz

Pair beige with browns. Briggs believes beige worked well when we had a lot of browns in our decor. “Creating a successful scheme is tricky as you need a variety of tonal differences and deep [wood] tones to carry it off,” she says. This room works a beige palette with tonal contrasts and rich, mellow browns for a layered and eclectic look and turns the “beige is boring” complaint on its head.

Add black and white. A sure-fire way to pick up a dated beige palette is to add contrast with black and touches of warm white. Bold, contemporary fabrics and wall treatments give it an elegant, modern edge. If black and white is too stark for you, try an alternative dark that still delivers a distinctive contrast.

Blend beige with blues. With the warmth of brown and the coolness of white, beige is quite a docile neutral that borrows cool or warm tones from surrounding colors, so you don’t have to stick to warmer colors to tease out its subtleties. Inky blues, rich amethyst and peacock turquoises are up-to-the-minute colors that add instant luxury.

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Unite beige with other neutrals. Color blocking is a stylish way to combine beige with other neutrals: Elegant combinations are charcoal and buttermilk, a pearly beige with graphite, or creamy beige with gray and taupe. It’s a confident and very contemporary look that taps into the trend for organic, natural shades that look fantastic with wood.

Pep up beige with brights. Vikki Montalban of VMDesign believes beige’s versatility is a strong asset. “Gray has its place, but I’m not keen on gray without the balance of a warmer color or texture. The same applies to beige. For a basic to suit all styles, it’s hard to beat a warm neutral — my name for beige — linen sofa. I’ve teamed beige sofas with beachy brights, highlights of white and pale aqua, and navy. My favorite look is with chocolate leather cushions. That’s four different looks with the same warm neutral base.”

Be-Attitude, original photo on Houzz

Team beige with warm whites. Interior designer Carole Tretheway agrees that people are leaning more toward the warmer beige-y neutrals. “They provide a beautiful envelope or backdrop for interior furnishings or landscaping to the exterior. I like to enhance the neutral color with one of the warm whites.”

Tap into texture. Dig deep for textural contrasts with an earthy edge when beige is your background envelope. Briggs recommends a variety of textures to stop it from falling flat. Pair it with tactile creamy caramel, chestnut or chocolate leather, bronze and golden metallics, velvets, natural linen and a combination of hard and soft, glossy and matte accessories and fabrics.

You can see the difference texture makes in this Paris apartment. It should look dated, with its subtle monochromatic beige palette, but the rich textural contrasts make it chic and classic.

Maybe because it has a touch of remembered homes, beige and slightly shabby knockabout vacation homes seem to fit together. Weathered, faded textures add to the sense of nostalgia that beige can bring on. White with sandy beiges and textures borrowed from nature have casual, unfussy appeal. Beach salvage, found objects, bleached wood and vintage rugs and furniture, freshened with indoor greenery in plants and eclectic fabrics, combine for a timeless look that has withstood the fashion for gray.

Popular beiges. Dulux’s top-selling neutrals still include old faithful Hog BristleEcru, a light coffee; and the simply named Warm Neutral. Beiges feature in Resene’s top neutrals too, with variants of TeaSpanish White; and Thorndon Cream, a cooler creamy neutral with a green hint.

Green Couch Interior Design, original photo on Houzz

And in the gray corner … Color consultant and interior designer from csd colour style design Debb Hawkins says the majority of her clients are still enjoying grays. “Although there are some truly lovely beige color options around, which we will undoubtedly see more of in the future, I don’t think we’ll grow tired of the new gray palettes for a very long time,” she says.

The flexibility of gray shades gets Hawkins’ vote — and those of her clients — over what she sees as less versatile beige tones. Gray can be warm or cool, with bases of blue, green, red, purple or yellow, according to the color expert. “These have the capacity to support a wide spectrum of style choices, from minimalist monochromatic palettes to the often intricate and eclectic color blends found in more traditional homes,” she says. Hawkins adds that grays work well with wood, look great with both highly polished and more rustic metals, and can highlight the natural tones of a textured rug or wall hanging. “They also love a green plant or two and let the right white take center stage.”

Briggs weighs in again, saying some people are tired of gray, but this may be because it has been misused. “But I don’t believe we’ll return to beige anytime soon,” she adds. “Admittedly an all-gray scheme can be very boring and cold, like a note of music played over and over, but it’s meant to be used with color.” Like Hawkins, Briggs is a fan of the versatility of gray and how it quietly supports other colors, allowing them to get the spotlight.

Suzie Parkinson SUZA DESIGN, original photo on Houzz

Cuddle up to warmer grays. Some of our experts say gray hasn’t been knocked from its perch yet, and there’s a definite trend toward the warmer shades. Of the grays that are getting a big nod of approval from clients, Hawkins cites Haymes’ Smudge GreyWhite Tea and Smoke Signal, and Dulux’s Dieskau and Silkwort. “The all-out favorite is a warm gray from Murobond called Cracker,” she says.

What’s with “greige”? A neutral that’s winning votes is “greige,” basically a warm gray or a cool beige. Beige loses some of its warmth and cools towards gray, but not all the way. It has a foot in each camp and so is a very easy neutral to live with. At the lighter end, it’s placid and organic; in darker tones it packs a stylish punch. Check out some greiges among Dulux’s Perfectly Greige, Taubmans’ Stonehenge Greige and Resene’s Triple Rakaia.

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