What do a homespun picket fence, an archetypal wrap-around porch and layers of frothy molding have in common with a glossy kitchen, a spa-quality bathroom or even the sleek interior of a futuristic space ship?
All would look right in white.
"No other color has white's versatility and range of moods, or totally transcends the comings and goings of trends," says Linda O'Keeffe, former creative director of Metropolitan Home magazine and author of "Brilliant: White In Design" (The Monacelli Press, $50). Like the many facets of a brilliant diamond, the book reveals white's dazzlingly abundant spectrum of shades, talents and applications.
In fact, its abundance astonishes. Benjamin Moore has a color wheel devoted to white, featuring the 155 incarnations of the shade that are currently popular. "White is actually quite a few colors," says Sonu Mathew, a senior interior designer with the company. And its variations range from cool to warm and soft to sharp.
These properties explain why a variation of the color has been Benjamin Moore's bestselling hue every year since its inception in 1883. White Dove has topped the chart for the last three years, with Cloud White at number two. And Linen White has been in the top ten for three decades.
White's decorative capacities are equally varied. In her tome, O'Keeffe points out that white can be nostalgic or high-tech, earthy or sophisticated, retiring or radiant, serene or sensational, puritanical or decadent, sterile or sensual, romantic or icy, and more. And its application is limited only by the inventiveness of its users.
Yet its all-embracing demeanor is deceiving. "People always think that white is safe and neutral, yet it's not. They use it because they're color-shy, but in truth, there's usually a lot of color in white," points out Mathew.
Tint and finish give white a range of properties and are critical to the way it works in an interior.
So how to best learn the language of white? Here's a bit of shorthand from O'Keeffe.
Despite the high-wattage glamor of this dazzling dining room, New York interior designer Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz crafted it with "flexibility, practicality and ease in mind. The faux-leather chairs and lacquered tables can be wiped, the cotton slipcovers on the bench can be bleached, the stone floor can be mopped and all the furnishings and finishes are durable and tough," ticks off O'Keeffe.
Romantic and restful
Interior designer Kara Mann, who splits her time between Chicago and New York, is known for dark colors but often uses white in bedrooms and bathrooms. In her former bedroom, a relaxed canopy draped over a four-poster bed and curtains are executed in sheer, light-reflecting fabric.
White pulls together seemingly disparate architectural underpinnings and furnishings in these living rooms. In a Victorian row house in Boston, white pulls together pieces that range from sleek to ornate, and in an early 19th Century European flat it fuses every style from baroque and neoclassical to mid-century modern and industrial.
With white as a foundation, a little glitz can go a long way to up the glamor quotient in a room — regardless of its size. Gilt-framed mirrors of appropriate proportions in a Monterrey, California bathroom by Los Angeles interior designer Catherine Fellowes and a Seattle house decorated by its owners add majesty to pristine demeanors.
A pre-war Minneapolis apartment is an eclectic hybrid of rustic cabin, French salon and mid-Century chic that works thanks to its palette of whites, creams and beiges. The high-gloss white on the ceiling amplifies the light in the room and tempers the sedate sisal rug.