Warm Brown, Cool Brown, and Wood Brown – What’s the Difference?

Much of the mainstream design world has become so enamored with gray as the neutral of the moment that brown has become somewhat set aside. We want to (re)introduce you to brown as a wonderful, beautiful color and a critical part of many home designs. We’re going to look brown in three primary decorating categories – warm browns, cool browns, and wood browns – and discuss the basics of each. Ultimately, we hope you fall in love with this essential color. Why essential? Because it’s the color of chocolate, of course! (Check out our in-depth study of specific shades of brown, too.)

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Warm Browns

Inherently, particularly these days when gray has taken such a forefront as interior design’s Neutral Go To, brown is considered a warm hue. That simply means that it incorporates warmer colors (red, orange, yellow) as its base. This sofa is an extreme version of a warm brown – it’s almost gold, in fact. The warmth of the coffee tables coordinates nicely for a consistency in palette temperature.

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The net effect of a warm brown is a friendly, welcoming, and/or energizing aesthetic. The eye is immediately drawn to the warm patchwork wall in this space, and the milk chocolate brown rectangle right in the center. From here, other warm browns are peppered throughout the room tastefully to give energy into this otherwise neutral gray living room.

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Warm browns that are part of an animal skin, such as this cowhide-covered chair, are inherently organic and earthy. A black leatherette bolster-headrest pillow certainly ramps up the modern-chic aspect of this chair; the two elements seem beautifully proportioned and combined. (If you imagine a chair like this with a cool brown in the upholstery rather than the warm brown and white that are there, the effect would be much less inviting.)

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A favorite timeless version of warm brown is caramel. Its smooth buttery hue just kind of sucks you in – and you want to let it. Whether the color is used on a pillow, a chair, a piece of art, or the wall, that caramel/camel brown is one of the friendliest and most welcoming of them all.

Cool Browns

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When you think of what makes a color have a “cool” temperature, think of that color next to gray or blue. If the undertones seem to match, then it’s likely a cool version of that particular color. Brown is inherently a warm color, because its base is yellow/orange. But there are plenty of cool tones of brown that work well in spaces that seek a calming aesthetic.

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Even a brown that appears to be reddish, such as this brick-brown chair, can be on the cooler end of the brown spectrum. Notice how this chair appears relatively muted and calm? That is because the brown leans more heavily toward blue than it does toward yellow in undertone.

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Cool browns, what with their grayer vibe, often look well in a room where the color palette involves cool grays and blues. Overall, the room is not lacking in color, but the colors are all of the serene, relaxing vibe that emanates from cooler colors. Notice how the depth (light to dark) of the browns in this space is significantly varied, yet the undertones remain similar.

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Enhance the cool temperature of a cool brown by incorporating it into a speckled sort of textural pattern. The pattern feels organic, while the color feels calming. Basically, you’ve just incorporated a bit of driftwood – and all the glorious relaxing coastal appeal – into your contemporary space. Well done.

Wood Browns

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While warm and cool browns are lovely to look at, contemplate, and use, there’s something decidedly different about brown as a general color and the brown that is wood. Dark or light, warm or cool, wood browns are virtually unbeatable when it comes to neutrality, accent, grounding a space, defining a space, you name it. They are an integral part of many successful interiors.

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A wooden bench designed in a “waterfall” form is simple, minimal, and modern. The lines couldn’t be cleaner, yet the wood brown gives the sharp-angled, function-focused piece a warmth that it would otherwise significantly lack. Being paired with a sleek, slim dining table keeps this relatively chunky wood brown bench from detracting from its modern appeal.

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When the lightness and darkness is varied, whole rooms done in wood browns can look as fresh and modern as any other room. I point this out only because wood paneling has gotten a bad rap over the years as being only for Man Caves or appropriate for dens or dark basements. Not true! When the tints and shades are varied and placed strategically within the wood brown design, the overall effect is warm and welcoming.

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One trait of wood browns that you just can’t easily replicate is its perfect imperfection and individuality. No two wood grains are alike; the growth and movement of each tree is unique, which means the wood browns you incorporate into your design are going to be just that unique, as well. Embrace the “flaws” of your brown wood pieces, and turn them into focal points.