How to Pack Some Punch into an All-White Space

A few creative touches can turn a blank slate into a lively tableau.
an all-white space with concrete floors and pink, fuzzy furniture
Photo by Zhao Yihong

The concept for this Shanghai apartment centered on living with art and collectible furniture, says New York–based designer Chris Shao. “We focused on the client’s personal collection and designed the home to function as a livable gallery to showcase her pieces.”

One such piece is the Lorenzo Bini marble desk in the study, which is perfectly complemented by the colorful rug, a custom design by artist Jiajia Wang.

Shao believes that furniture can go a long way toward adding life to an all-white space. Here, the iridescent coffee table by Glas Italia and fuzzy OBJ+ chair do the job and then some.

It’s also hard to ignore the impressive wall of cabinets, which Shao covered in de Gournay‘s iconic Chinoiserie wallpaper. He explains that it’s a canvas archive, a simple system for storing paintings on track-mounted panels that slide in and out, like the drawers of a giant file cabinet. “It’s something that’s typically utilitarian but is made special by covering its curves in de Gournay.”

a patio with pink roly poly chairs
Photo by Cameron Carothers

In a maximalist home in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles, Argyle Design founding principals Kat Bell and James Drew made the patio a bit more demure. “The pink Roly-Poly chairs offer a wonderful pop of color against the neutral and white tones of the backyard,” says Bell. “The plants we curated also had subtle pops of purple and yellow, which organically incorporated color.”

The designers placed the chairs around a custom table, kept neutral to let the chairs do most of the talking. “All white can sometimes look sterile,” Drew says. “By adding statement pieces or interesting forms, you can still retain an ‘all white’ look but sneak in some fun too.”

a small dining space with a black table and white dining chairs
Photo by Sean Litchfield

Becky Shea made it her mission to endow a renovated farmhouse in Port Washington, New York, with sense of timelessness. Her trick? A pale palette with moments of color here and there to provide dimension.

“An all-white space can feel daunting, like a bleak winter day,” says Shea. “When I’m designing a space that has a white foundation, I like to incorporate layers of textiles in warmer hues, like oatmeal and olive green, paired with bolder tones like cognac leather and rich woods. But most importantly, living walls or flowers are paramount in making an all-white space feel welcoming, warm and reflective of our primitive nature.”

Photo by Scott Frances/OTTO

“We wanted this space to feel clean and functional, with a few bright spots,” Steven Harris says of a brownstone he revamped on Manhattan’s West Side. “We chose to use some color but really wanted the art to remain a focus.” In the dining room, Harris hung a dramatic but neutral-toned Jean de Merry chandelier above the table, which he surrounded with Joaquim Tenreiro chairs.

When decorating an otherwise all-white room, Harris notes, “keeping the color spectrum focused and closely related still allows the white to feel dominant.”

a white foyer with a green rug and a white table
Photo by Werner Straube

In the Chicago pied-à-terre of a client who favors fresh, unfussy decor, Summer Thornton gave the windowless elevator foyer a touch of warmth. “This space gets its illumination from surrounding rooms, so we wanted to keep it super light and simple,” Thornton says. “It’s a chic, welcoming space for this bright apartment.”

The Windy City–based interior designer has a tip for animating small rooms like this. “One of my favorite tricks is to go super white on the walls and bring in big fields of color,” she explains. “In this case, it’s a bright green rug and a pop of blue on the upholstery.”

A Slim Aarons photograph on the wall provides another splash of lively hues. “Photographs are great in windowless spaces because they really add depth and act like a window,” Thornton says.

Further depth is supplied by the unique pattern overhead — “a signature ceiling treatment for us,” notes Thornton, who used hand-dyed marble papers, applying them in a patchwork pattern. “It’s a great way to add interest, color and drama to an all-white space.”

living room with a green coffee table and a white rug with red details
Photo by Emma Tannenbaum

In her first apartment, Sarah Mendel, founder of Cochineal Design, opted for crisp, white decor with spots of color in unexpected places. Mendel worked with her team, she says, “to reference the Art Deco era but also deliver a timeless space.” They started with a neutral base layer, mixing in pieces of different silhouettes, textures and periods.

That kept the spotlight on the artwork, which includes a mid-century portrait by a friend of Mendel’s grandmother and a large-scale homage to Alex Katz’s tulips that the designer painted herself. The custom Nordic Knots rug cleverly adds dots of color underfoot as well.

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