Gray in Interior Design: Still Going Strong

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s had internet access and even a passing interest in interior design or décor over the past few years that gray is the contemporary neutral of choice in interiors. Not only that, but the blend of black and white (and other colors in between; we’ll discuss this later on) will likely be around a long, long time. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that, “gray is controlled and inconspicuous and is considered a color of compromise, perhaps because it sits between the extremes of black and white” – Sensational Color.

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Although color trends in interior design are “frequently fickle, … for once, forecasters say that single hue has entrenched itself as the current and future favorite: gray” – Delta-optimist. In this article, we’re going to look at a variety of grays used in a variety of ways in interiors and discuss what makes it such a desirable and successful neutral.

Gray can appear white.

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Stark, or true, white is very striking in home décor. When what is desired is a very light background or surround, but not one that stands out on its own, a pale gray is actually the more common color choice. Bright white is shocking; pale gray is softer and calmer…and it can read as white, which means you’re getting the best of both worlds.

Various grays complete a gorgeous monochromatic space.

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Technically, gray is a perfect neutral (making it an unsurprisingly common background color choice of designers). Interestingly, “the human eye can distinguish about 500 shades of gray” – Forbes. This is amazing, and one of the reasons why the color makes an excellent choice for a monochromatic space. By varying the tone, tint, and shade of gray used in a space, you can create depth and focus, rhythm and vitality as well as cohesion and serenity.

Gray can be warm and soft.

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Although gray is often associated with industrial style (more on that later), some tints of the neutral can be equally soft and organic. Benjamin Moore’s Edgecomb Gray is becoming a popular choice for this very reason. A sort of very pale version of mushroom gray, edgecomb gray is “a go-to gray that’s timeless with a modern edge. This earthy, organic neutral is soft and stylish, creating a setting that feels distinctly personal” – Benjamin Moore. We couldn’t agree more.

Gray is incredibly versatile.

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Versatility is key to gray’s popularity as a neutral – there is a shade of gray that can communicate any desired emotion. That is probably why gray, “in all its variations, has emerged as the overwhelming choice of designers for spaces ranging from home interiors to elegant office settings, and everything in between,” says Paint Quality Institute color expert Debbie Zimmer.

Gray is a designers’ favorite.

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Few other colors are as aesthetically calming as gray while still maintaining a very high level of sophistication. Interior designers love this combination, because it’s both welcoming and inviting but also classy and chic. Whether gray is on floors, walls, ceilings, furniture, lighting, and/or accessories, its usage will be neutrally stylish.

Gray looks well white and cream accents.

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Interior designer Donna Maselli prefers using white with gray accents in living rooms and bedrooms – Nola. Gray helps to break up a potential expanse of pale white or cream boredom, while cream and/or white help to perk gray up to make it look and feel fresh and revived. It’s a pairing that definitely brings out the best on both sides.

Gray should be balanced.

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Gray and all its varieties are definitely colors with super-powers, but that doesn’t mean you can use them carelessly and expect magic to happen. Even spaces with neutral gray need to be balanced carefully. Project designer Adriana Gerbig stated, with regard to a soft warm gray and surrounding cool colors, “Just as you see in nature, a balance between warm and cool colors is important for interiors”- HGTV.

Gray isn’t always a simple color.

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While our knee-jerk reaction to the color gray is to say it’s merely a combination of white and black, this isn’t necessarily true in all cases. It’s not even true in most cases, these days. “What we call ‘gray’ actually refers to a white range of complex grayish colors that often contain hints of red, green, blue, yellow, or some other hue” – Delta-Optimist. This is key to the color’s ultimate versatility and neutrality.

Grays soften a small space.

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A lightened up gray reminiscent of elephant gray is Benjamin Moore’s Revere Pewter. This “light gray with warm undertones [is a] classic shade [that] creates a unifying look that calms and restores. A great transitional color” – Benjamin Moore. This subtle tinting of the gray foundation is what makes this entire home office nook take on its sweet, rose-tinted, almost nostalgic vibe.

Gray beats out beige.

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While beige, ivory, and eggshell were The Neutrals of Choice for many years, those days with those neutrals as the foundation of every room are gone. “It’s hard to mix colors with beige because beige has such an orange-y, yellow undertone, and so you can’t necessarily mix cool items in a beige room. Gray, black, and white – you can pretty much do anything you want,” says Kirsten Grove, an Idaho-based interior designer.

Gray is the color mascot of industrial design.

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Industrial style thrives on functionality. That is, industrial objects originally existed to perform a task, not to look pretty or catch anyone’s eye. Gray is, at its true core, “virtually absent of color, it draws no attention to itself, it keeps its distance, remaining separate. Industrial environments don’t necessarily need to be seen, so gray is a suitable color,” explains color expert and consultant Karen Haller.

Gray is a hard-working kitchen hue.

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While the all-white kitchen had its time in the limelight, the sterile look is on its way out. Taking its place in the contemporary design world is the gray-and-white kitchen, where light and dark (and everywhere in between) grays are united with white in a classic combination “that always looks clean and open”. The overall effect is still spacious and neutral, but incorporating gray into the kitchen definitely softens things up a notch.

Gray is practical.

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Gray walls can easily accommodate a variety of color palettes on and among the other design elements of the space (e.g., furniture, artwork, area rugs, etc.). Similarly, other colors on walls and flooring can provide the perfect punchy backdrop to gray furniture items and accessories. When working with gray in a space, it’s relatively easy to “introduce a new ‘punch’ color by adding accent pieces”. Whatever your choice, gray fills in the gaps easily and with dignity.

Gray is the hot (neutral) shade.

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It is believed that gray affects us physically with an unsettling feeling or creating a sense of expectation. However, its commonality has perhaps morphed that traditional reaction into something quite different. “Once associated with sadness and dreariness, [gray] has gained in popularity among top designers. … The cool color works in any space from the kitchen to the bedroom and serves as a beautiful backdrop for any style of furniture, artwork, and accessories” – Architectural Digest.

Gray’s subtle tinting is key.

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The subtle tinting and color undertone of grays is what facilitates the color’s versatility and complementary abilities. “Gray[s]… that contain a little yellow pigment work well with gold, beige, or brown, while those containing red pigment coordinate beautifully with burgundy or purple,” states color expert Debbie Zimmer.

Despite its popularity, gray has little, if any, positive psychological effect.

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“Gray is the color to wear when you don’t want to be seen, ‘cloaking the personality’. It can convey seriousness and the message, ‘I mean business,’” says color expert Karen Haller. It is this very sense of flirting with invisibility, perhaps, that draws us toward gray. You get the feeling that, if gray could talk, it would be quietly non-judgmental, down to earth, and a great listener.

Gray is the color of intellect.

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It may or may not be a coincidence that “gray matter” in our brains is named so. Gray is viewed as being the “color of intellect, knowledge, and wisdom. … It is a color that is dignified, conservative, and carries authority” – Sensational Color. The fun part of interior design is playing off of concepts like this – paint your walls an intellectual gray, then add a freeform-shaped mirror as a feminine, light-hearted juxtaposing element, for example. Have fun with gray!

Gray is as undertone does.

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Everyone has their preferences for the vibe their space exudes, of course, so it makes sense that you would study the feeling of the space before choosing your gray. While interior designer Penny Francis recommends “staying away from gray tones that have a brown base because they can make the space look and feel murky”, perhaps you secretly like a bit of murkiness. Of course, you could go with a classic gray in this instance and introduce your murk via other colors in the space; a mustard wall, for example.

Gray is instinctively urban.

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Maybe it’s because industrial style has such a key role in the urban environment, but gray is ultimately a color tool of choice for the urban space. Benjamin Moore’s aptly named Metropolitan color (represented in the lighter aspects of this concrete paneled wall) is a “stylish gray with cool blue undertones, reflect[ing] the modern sophistication of the 21st-century urban spaces” – Benjamin Moore. A pop of vibrant aqua blue on the desk is particularly effective because of these underlying blues in the gray.

Gray is formally informal.

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Next to black-and-white, gray is one of the top “classic” colors used in interiors. (And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it ranks right up there next to its “parents,” black and white.) Gray “is perceived as long-lasting, classic, and often as sleek or refined”. We’ve all heard of the “gray area,” where things hazily and simultaneously Are and Are Not. It is gray’s very nature of uninvolvement that brings out its sense of formality and authority. (But on a lush faux fur pillow? Forget about formality! Bring on the nap-drool.)

Gray brings blue and brown together.

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Few other colors, even neutrals, could be as adept at merging two colors as dissimilar as full-of-marine-life aqua and don’t-bother-me-I’m-being-mud chocolate brown, but the two-toned gray walls in this space complete the room beautifully and unexpectedly. The darker gray wall, similar to Benjamin Moore’s Kendall Charcoal, is a “rich, deep and luxurious… versatile neutral [that] works well with most color schemes” –Benjamin Moore. You can say that again!

Gray is an old soul.

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I love this quote from Odilon Redon: “The fundamental gray which differentiates the masters, expresses them and is the soul of all color”. It has been associated with pessimism, although I tend to look at the color gray as being an old soul, with wisdom and the ability to avoid useless levity while welcoming genuine emotion of any kind.

Gray is a dark you don’t have to be afraid of.

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Dark gray can be a little intimidating for homeowners to use in their spaces, because it seems highly dramatic and, well, dark. But dark gray used in a powder room, even the most petite of powder rooms, is an excellent choice because of its dramatic effect. Use dark gray on the floors, walls, and/or even ceiling. It makes an otherwise small, no-nonsense space feel incredibly significant.

Gray can match any style or mood.

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For being such an old soul of a color, gray is impressively spry in reflecting the mood and/or style of a space just perfectly. Tranquil country bathrooms, intimately cozy bedrooms, art-filled contemporary living spaces– all these and more are stylish and easy ways to use gray in your home. It’s a chic neutral that you can use time and time again.