I have heard people say “it’s just plain white” – but I beg to differ! As anyone who has ever tried to paint a white flower knows, there’s nothing plain about this sophisticated and nuanced hue. It’s wonderful in interiors.
White comes in many tones and shades. It can take on a wide range of personalities: White adopts pastels into its family, relating in a gentle and romantic manner. With black and deeply hued colors, it can be bold and dramatic. Paired with primary red or blue, or an intense apple green, it can become modern and playful. When used as a backdrop for natural materials and contrasting textures – warm woods, shiny metals, stone and glass – it becomes emblematic of the International style.
You might also be surprised to learn that white – yes, the color white – has environmental advantages as well.
Many of my fellow designers share my enthusiasm for white, and I will be drawing on their wisdom in this post. (Coincidentally, all of the designers featured here today – Laurie Burke, Jamie Goldberg, and Wendy Hoechstetter – are California white girls like me.)
Why White is “Green”
The reflectivity of a surface, a color, or a material can be calibrated by instruments that measure its “albedo.” When no light is reflected, a surface looks black and has an albedo of zero. When all of the available light is reflected, the surface looks white and has an albedo of one.
Understanding how albedo works turns out to be important in managing heat and light, and hence, the energy that is used to produce them. For example, when I was redesigning an overly dark dining room, I discovered that painting all of the walls white would brighten the room more than placing an enormous mirror on the room’s largest wall! The reason: both mirrors and white walls have albedos that are near one, but I wouldn’t want mirrors on every surface. An all-white room would be vastly more appealing!
Similarly, white and light-colored roofs deliver huge environmental advantages. A black tar roof can reach 150 degrees F in the summer, and dark roofs in cities collectively create an environmental problem called “urban heat island effect.” The heat generated by the buildings can not only make a city 3° to 8° warmer than nearby vegetated areas, it also damages air quality.
Three scientists affiliated with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – Hashem Akbari, Arthur Rosenfeld, and Surabi Menon – spent nearly 20 years studying how white roofs and surfaces contribute to urban heat islands. In 2004, they investigated the impact that white roofs could have on climate change.
They were stunned by what they found. “‘When we did the calculations, initially we couldn’t believe the results,” Akbari said. “So we re-checked the numbers in different ways.” The result: Every 100 square feet of roof area that was changed from a dark color to white would be the equivalent to offsetting the emission of one ton of heat-trapping, atmospheric CO2!
Designer Favorites in White
One of my own favorite decorating items is the Barcelona chair in white. I have a special fondness for this chair in part because it was created by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was the founder of the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, where I received my first design education. Of course, the chair was designed in 1929, long before my time.
I believe that Mies designed the chair in black – not the white pictured here – for the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Exposition. It has been produced by the famed furniture manufacturer Knoll ever since. The Barcelona chair has a pure composition and sleek lines that epitomize modern architecture, and I think that white emphasizes the purity of its design.
Laurie Burke of Los Angeles is a wonderful designer and the author of the Kitchen Design Notes blog. In response to my question about favorite designs in white, she writes:
I love the use of dimensional white tile. Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, California, produces some of the interesting shapes and patterns in tile. The 3 x 9 oval pattern is one of my favorites. Simply by varying the pattern – staggered or straight, horizontal or vertical – the look changes with each new design. It is really visually pleasing.
Another beautiful use in shades of white is Artistic Tile’s Effervescence Collection. The round shapes and shades of white bianco carrara marble or calacatta gold marble paired with glass is a texturally sophisticated use of white.
Jamie Goldberg, a new San Diego resident, a kitchen design specialist, and the author of Gold Notes, has written a whole blog post – The White Album – about this wonderful color. Here’s some of Jamie’s advice about decorating with white:
White is a wonderful hue for a kitchen or bath, lending a crisp brightness to those spaces. It’s also a perfect color – and commonly used – for moldings, window trim, shutters and fireplace mantels. White enhances whatever color is put next to it, as sparkling teeth enhance a gloss-lipped smile.
I try to avoid white in kitchen tile grout, as it can be a maintenance headache. I also like to see ceilings painted something other than white, as they so commonly are, so that the room looks more finished, and the crown molding stands out against it better. There are many, many wonderful all-white bedrooms and living rooms. What makes those succeed as welcoming havens, rather than feeling institutional or sterile, is a warm blending of textures and tints.
The Practicality of White
Currently, on weekends, I’m staffing the Keane Kitchen Design Showroom in San Carlos, and I frequently find myself talking to customers about the practicality of white kitchens.
Although you can re-do a kitchen nicely for between $30,000 and $40,000, it’s not at all hard to spend $80,000-plus on a total kitchen remodel. That figure would include appliances, cabinets, counter tops, flooring, tile, lights, plumbing and electrical upgrades.
If you’re laying out that kind of money, you want a kitchen that’s going to last. On that count, white is a good choice, both because of its adaptability (simply by repainting the walls you can entirely change its mood and appearance) and its classic good looks.
While it’s obvious that white is a poor choice for couches and carpeting if you happen to have small children, muddy dogs, or cats with hairballs, in some respect, it’s a very practical choice. It can even make for easy clean-up.
After fretting over the fading of numerous darkly colored bathroom rugs, I finally discovered that pure white rugs were both a beautiful and an easy-to-maintain choice. Unlike a deep chocolate rug, a white cotton rug can be tossed into the washer and quickly returned to its pristine original condition. Fading is not a problem.
Ditto with white slipcovers. You may never be able to get that pink marker stain off your pale green couch, but it’s easy to launder a white slipcover. (The instructions usually say “no bleach,” but if it’s white and mostly cotton – and ruined anyway if the stain isn’t removed – I often find that a dab of bleach applied with a Q-Tip and then quickly flushed with cold water can work wonders. ) The cool elegance of a white room and the noisy exuberance of children need not be mutually exclusive. If you buy Ikea’s Ektorp sofa, shown at right, you will find that crisp white slipcovers for it run less than $200.
Symbolism of White
Although the meaning of white varies with culture, for Americans and Europeans it is associated peace, purity, innocence, cleanliness and simplicity.
It can also connote clinical coldness, winter, sterility, loneliness or isolation, especially when presented in unbroken expanses. In China, it is the color used for mourning and funerals.
White roses, like the ones Wendy gave me at Thanksgiving, are also traditional in wedding bouquets because the white rose symbolizes virtue, unity, reverence, and love. I am dedicating this post, and a virtual bouquet of white roses, to the three wonderful designer colleagues who contributed to it. Thank you Laurie, Jamie, and Wendy.
author of Kitchen
|Wendy Hoechstetter, author of Hoechstetter
|Nicolette Toussaint, author of Living in
Comfort & Joy
- All About Colour, book by Janice Lindsay
- Arctic Ice: Measuring albedo
- Artistic Tile: Effervescence Collection
- Barcelona chair from Knoll
- Comfort and Joy Home Design, San Francisco, Nicolette Toussaint’s remodeling design firm
- Daltile: Stone a la Mod
- Dornbrach Elemental Spa, Sieger Design
- Global Cooling: Effect of Urban Albedo on Global Temperature, UC Berkeley E-Scholarship series (Hashem Akbari, Arthur Rosenfeld, and Surabi Menon)
- Gold Notes by Jamie Goldberg
- Heath Ceramics Dimensional Tile collections
- Hoechstetter Interiors by Wendy Hoechstetter
- Ikea Ektorp sofa and slipcovers
- Kitchen Design Notes by Laurie Burke
- Smith and Noble Roman Shades
- The White Album from Gold Notes by Jamie Goldberg
- White Barcelona chair from the Regency Shop
- White roofs and heat island effect, from Mortgage News Daily
|White … is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black….
God paints in many colours; but He never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.”
– Gilbert Keith Chesterton