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Why Dark Walls Work in Small Spaces

by Kevin O'Gara

When it comes to small-space decorating, the common advice is to go all-white on the walls to reflect the most light and make the space feel bigger. This theory made sense to me when I first heard it, and is a great way to brighten a room, but after painting my father’s entryway grey, I’ve begun to appreciate the value of darker walls in small rooms. While white is an easy and versatile base, the way that light interacts with white can be very static — there are no subtleties in its hue because it reflects all the colors at once. This is where the dynamic color of a dark shade gets interesting: as the light in a room changes throughout the day, so does a dark wall color. Even black can have cool or warm undertones.

Now, the main purpose of a fresh white coat of paint in a small room may be to make the room appear larger, but the fact is that a dark color can do the same thing — although in a different way. Instead of reflecting more light, it reflects less, and though this difference may seem misleading, the depth of its color and shadows — and the fact that it’s not so clearly defined by the light — blurs the edges of the room. By absorbing the light, the walls of the room are less clearly marked and can give an illusion of more space.

So, next time you see a white wall, think of it as a blank canvas and consider the impact of a moody charcoal or luxe jewel tone, just as these rooms showcase. I love the mix of colors here — from shades of grey to cool blues and greens. Would you consider painting your walls a dark shade, and if so, do you prefer the rich colors or modern monochrome?  Kevin

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The moody bathroom of a Catskills vacation home by Tara Mangini and Percy Bright pairs blue with a gold mirror and hardware. The metallic accents shine in the shadows, offering warm reflections.
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From the creative home of Luke Edward Hall in North London. A forest green is made playful by pops of red and yellow.
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A minimalist vignette from the LA home of Eva and Ian Goicochea. Warm, dark wood and a small rug make this corner cozy.
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This warm ebony in Emma Reddington‘s Toronto Victorian was ahead of the curve when this home tour was shared back in 2010.
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This corner captures the light on Anna Potter‘s green walls beautifully. Her home tour showcases the changing shades of green that this paint color produces throughout the day.
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A hand-stenciled pattern brings interest to this accent wall in the home of Amber Hampton. The playful pattern brings this dark wall to life!
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A sophisticated study in the Brooklyn townhouse of Melissa and Keye Lee. The richly hued and paneled wall shines over the light bleached floor.
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A high-contrast bedroom in the home of Paige Morse creates a cozy reprieve. The light, fringed textiles create the effect of an airy cocoon.

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Comments

  • It’s scary, but you have me partially convinced this is the way to create my man’s dream, book-nook or library. Monochrome for me, rich colors make me very awake and/or anxious. Unless it’s my kitchen, where I like to be very awake.

  • Kevin – This was a well written article. I enjoyed it! Every single thing about the picture from Anna Potter’s space makes me feel like swooning in delight – the gorgeous green, the soft light, the breath taking floral arrangement and the stunning vase – all of it is just so perfect!

  • I love the dark monochrome look. We’ve got a few dark rooms in the house and they’re cozy and little bit glam. It was definitely a bit scary to paint that first brush stroke of dark olive green, but I haven’t regretted it for a second!

  • I’m sold, though I think a lot depends on the light (amount & direction) of the room and the height of the ceiling. I have a small, south-facing, high-ceilinged upstairs room I use as my studio that used to be a dark blue grey—I painted that room white and it looks SO much better because the room itself is very airy.

    But I also have a downstairs dining room that is tiny, low-ceilinged, and has a dark wood chair rail and only one small north-facing window. It used to be white, but I just painted it (including the ceiling) Sherwin Williams’s Holiday Turquoise, and it is 1000% better. The color, which looks pretty bright on the swatch card, is now a beautiful moody seafoam green that catches the light differently throughout the day. The whole room looks bigger because there is so much visual interest.

  • Love the dark colours but have one caveat, painting a bathroom dark where one puts on make up is not a good idea. I think a powder room in dark colours feels much more elegant and luxurious though.

  • Dark colors make the walls recede to the background of your consciousness and the contents (and people) in the room become the center of your attention. It’s an optical illusion that makes your world feel larger, much like the lighted stage in a darkened theater is the whole world at that moment. There isn’t enough white and light to make a truly small room feel larger than it is, the floor plan is plainly evident. Better to dress the room with a definite character thru color than leave it a wan imitation of grand space that it can never be.

  • It’s so true, what you wrote on the much discussed topic of light versus dark walls. I have hopped over to the dark side just recently by painting the steps in our little doll-house/sized home in northern Norway a nice flat charcoal with a hint of blue in it. My friends were sceptical (as Norwegians tend to be when you take even more light away from them), but the result is really just wonderful – not dark – but glorious and elegant. Do folks… Don’t worry… Just do it!

  • I had to browse through the photos to see what you mean and somehow it does work. I loved the stenciled wall the most, I think it would look even better if the stencils were metallic like gold or silver over that dark wall. I may try this in the near future.

  • We have a couple of small rooms but we’ve always avoided the dark colors in there. It’s also true we never used white, we don’t like it either but light, light colors, but dark, never.

  • We have a small toilet with no windows off the kitchen. After seeing a relative’s small toilet papered in navy, I learned then to trust dark colors in small spaces. The truth is, the ceiling and fixtures are all white, and no one is ever in there without the light on anyway, it works fabulously! For many years I had a very dark green floral wallpaper, but the last few years I’ve had chocolate brown painted walls. I have an oversized sepia toned framed print on the wall opposite the door. I may try a warm charcoal next, but I’ll keep it dark.

  • Was actually looking for paint to consider for the new home we bought at Commodore Homes. I love the idea of trying dark colors for small spaces, I am actually not a fan of all white as home color as I feel it is very pale.

  • Hey Kevin! BTW, Firstly – Nice Article. Secondly, We have tried using Dark colors ( expecially interiors ) where there is a room for sunlight to pass… To do this, we have used 3 sided Glassdoors ( French Doors ) .. It looks vibrant…especially in our corridor. Dark colors with a touch of light or pearl white would give a nice ambience like feel when you enter.. Just felt like sharing… Cheers Dora…..

  • We have charcoal walls in our dining room (Ralph Lauren’s Warwick Lodge). The room feels larger – it’s as if the walls disappear. The effect is best at night when the chandelier is the only light source.

  • I love this. I was really skeptical of doing dark walls, but decided to make the back walls and a portion of the side wall in our showroom a dark blue — it totally exceeded all of my expectations! Not only is the color really rich and clean, it draws you into the space and complements a lot of my rugs in a way that white walls do not. I’m sold!

  • Totally my vibe!! I believe that illusion of more space with dark walls works truely and what is more fun than using a space to create illusion and fantasy???
    I have only one white wall left in my pad. And that’s only until I check what to do about it. It isn’t easy since the room has no windows and it’s a central passage to other rooms… I set a huge mirror to reflect the sun light and there is enough white furniture in it so I do think that last wall must go dark pretty soon.

  • I love the idea of dark paint, and, my son, who has Asperger’s, really loves dark and moody paints as they make him feel calmer. But, I also love to read, draw and paint and I need lots of light for those activities.

    I do most of my drawing in my bedroom which is south facing, though, and, most of my reading right at the window of the north facing living room, so, I am not sure having a lighter colored paint would help a thing.

    I’ve tried Gypsy Teal as a sample on the living room wall and door, in various places. When the daylight plays on it, it is heart-breakingly beautiful; but, at night, it is very dark and not much lovely. Only, it occurred to me, tonight, that I may need light bulbs that are less yellow and more light, in general, in my living room.

  • We couldn’t agree more on that, too! For one of our latest microliving projects we used a dark grey on all walls and thus added a very cozy atmosphere to the space.

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