Essay

The White Wall Controversy: How the All-White Aesthetic Has Affected Design

by Grace Bonney

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Over the past 11.5 years of blogging about interiors, I’ve seen a few core controversies pop up over and over again. But few have been as incendiary — and representative of larger issues in design — as the lightning-rod issue of all-white walls and homes.

Whether you call it modern minimalism, a reaction to the pattern-heavy aughts, the Marie Kondo effect, the Kinfolk-ization of design or just a love of classic neutrals, it’s impossible to escape how popular all-white homes and walls seem to be right now. The reasons are rich and varied (we’ll get into those below), but the depth of the trend’s effect is astounding. At least 90% of the homes we see every month (we reach out to and get submissions from hundreds of people around the globe on a regular basis) have “that” look: white walls, a mix of vintage Kilim rugs, lots of house plants and a carefully curated selection of found/salvaged objects. Whether you love it or hate it, this aesthetic has defined the zeitgeist of the past 5-6 years of the online design world.

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Much has been said (both gleefully and angrily) about this look. Typically, I let those extreme reactions go in one ear and out the other because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the Internet is great at producing intense reactions to nonessential things. But lately, I’ve seen a swell of well-thought-out and reasoned responses requesting a move away from this aesthetic and a desire for something different. So today I wanted to talk about this look, what I think it means (and why it gets fairly and unfairly blamed for some problems), and how we can both embrace and understand this style while also making plenty of room in our hearts — and our publications — for color, pattern, stylistic difference and abundance in addition to minimalism.

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Images above, top to bottom: One Eleven East Tour, Dawn and Ian’s CA Home, Audrey Bodisco’s SF Home

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Image above: Sarah’s kitchen

The Origin:

Let’s start at the beginning: all-white walls and homes are not a new thing. Throughout histories and across many continents this look has been celebrated and prized. As with most design trends, things are cyclical and memories are often short. You don’t need to look much further than the incredible Greek, Japanese, Moroccan, and Scandinavian interiors (among many others) of days past to know that while walls and a sense of clean minimalism (often offset by more colorful handmade textiles and artwork) have been popular and coveted long before the contemporary take on this trend that we know right now.

That said, I find this current interpretation to be inspired and in reaction to several different ideas (these are just a few):

  • A reaction to patterns of the past: In the early 2000s, pattern was everywhere. Quirky plaids and retro prints dominated the first ICFF shows I attended and brands like Flavor Paper made us fall in love with mylar wallpaper, flocked designs and as many over-the-top patterns that we could find. Was there anything wrong with all of that detail and highly decorative style? Absolutely not. But with most swings of the pendulum comes an equal and opposite swing in the other direction. For me, that swing led us to the current trend of minimal, simple interiors.
  • Budgets and finances are tight: With the economy suffering at home and abroad, most of us are tightening our belts and spending less on decoration and more on essentials. Having spoken with thousands of homeowners (and renters) over the years, I have heard from more and more people that embracing white walls and this simpler found/thrifted aesthetic can be more cost-effective and budget-friendly.
  • Risk aversion/idea overload: As design becomes a more everyday and pervasive idea, people have more control over their spaces, and have a wealth of ideas at hand. Just load the home page of Pinterest and you’ll see what I mean. With all those ideas, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in options and the simplest thing feels the safest and most realistic. Hence, white walls with an emphasis on furniture and art that can easily be moved and changed without a lot of work. Re-painting or investing in a bold wallpaper is a bigger undertaking, and I’ve found a lot of people want to find something safe and simple that won’t make them want to redecorate next year.
  • Craving an in-between space: Because we’re all so used to “perfect” interiors being shared online in every possible place now, we often expect all people to live the same way — as if we’re all preparing for a huge photo shoot at all times with our rooms “finished” down to the last detail. But most of us aren’t living like that. A lot of us are in transition, moving to a new city, embracing being somewhat nomadic or just not knowing what pieces around the house we want — or are ready — to invest in. Often times that stage comes with embracing what’s already there in our homes — which is typically white walls and bare floors. We might add to that and make the best of what we already bring with us, and for a lot of us (myself included), that’s more than enough. Sometimes this look is intentional, but sometimes it also just means you’re waiting to find your dream sofa or waiting to save up for the wallpaper you’ve been dreaming of.

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Image above: Renata and Henrique’s home

The Reactions and Interpretations:

No matter the origin story or original inspiration, some people just can’t stand (or get enough of) this particular minimal/all-white aesthetic. Much has been projected onto it and about it, and I thought it would be interesting to break them down here.

  • The negative reaction I hear the most often about these homes is, “These people/this home has no soul, no character and no personality.” For some, it may feel that way, but it’s very important to acknowledge and accept that not all people define “soul and character” in the same way. Is it everyone’s cup of tea? Nope. But an all-white room does not inherently equal less personality and character. Just in the same way having a “maximimalist” home with lots of color and accessories doesn’t automatically equal a fascinating personality or style. They’re just different choices and the people (and stories) behind them are what usually reveal a space’s real personality and intention.
  • The positive reaction I hear the most often about these homes is, “This looks so clean and fresh!” I always feel slightly offended by this idea because in this statement I hear the assumption that white/minimal = clean, and colorful/carefully cluttered = dirty. That may not be the overt intention, but it’s often the feeling and meaning received. Cleanliness has nothing to do with color, period. A dark red room can be just as clean and neat as an all-white room. And an all-white room can be just as cluttered as an electric orange room. “Clean” has a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people and wall color rarely has anything to do with it.
  • The reaction I’m most intrigued by these days is the idea that this aesthetic is somehow inherently American or, more specifically, tied to white Americans. There is most definitely some truth to the idea that this aesthetic is associated with young white hipsters, as they’re the ones most often shown (in print, TV and film) living in and around this aesthetic. But they are, by no means, the only source of origin or the only people who enjoy this aesthetic. I’ve seen (and published) homes that have this look from as far away as Tokyo and with inhabitants that represent a wide range of races, religions and backgrounds. That said, it’s interesting that the mainstream media chooses to often show this aesthetic in the form of home tours, interviews and features that highlight white “hip”-looking people. But you could also say that the media favors stories about those people in general (which is a whole other problem and story on its own), so I’m not sure that this look is necessarily is to blame…

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Image above: Caroline Kim’s bedroom

My Conclusions:

I like my inspiration (design, food, friends, music) from as many diverse sources as possible. I often fall into ruts and moments where I play the same song over and over or find myself window-shopping the same style of pillow over and over again. But like a lot of us following design online, we know those moments and trends and obsessions wax and wane and get replaced by entirely new ideas and exciting moments every week, month and season.

So what does that mean for white rooms and the all-white trend? I think this look is one of the many styles in this particular zeitgeist that will be beloved and revered by some for years to come, but changed and moved past relatively soon for many.

If the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that people like to see the art and design community change, grow and react to new ideas and sources of inspiration. So while this look may be highly pervasive for those of us obsessively refreshing our Instagram and Pinterest feeds, this style is something that will continue to work its way down to the broader community at large and change and grow as it does. And for those constantly looking for the next new thing? Hang in there, it’s coming. Trade shows like ICFF are always a good indication of where things are moving, but a quick look around social media feeds and student design shows are a great reminder that color, pattern and new ideas are ALWAYS happening. It’s just a matter of broadening your sources of this inspiration and finding more ways to step outside the current trend bubble.

Here at DS, we’re well aware of the desire to see MORE of MORE. More color, more pattern, more diversity of home styles, budgets and locations, and we’re working double-time to bring that to you. We’ve never had more people working on home tours alone and we’ve never spent as much time scrolling through social media platforms, recommendation lists and exhibition lists looking for exciting people and interiors in unexpected places. Our goal is to provide a wide range of styles and aesthetics, without judgement, that can inspire as many of you reading as possible. For those who love the all-white look — fear not. This look is firmly entrenched in a large portion of the design community and we’ll continue to share homes in this vein for as long as they inspire us and introduce new or clever ideas for everyday living.

But we’ll also continue to work hard to bring you homes that are colorful, cluttered (with purpose) and embrace a slightly more “maximalist” look. We know all of these looks are important and life (and interiors) are never just white and black. So much of what we do is about exploring the grey area in between (often literally), and we promise to always work to bring you a wide range of interiors that represent all facets of the design community and all the different forms — colorful and not — that it may take. xo, grace

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Image above: Colina’s home

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Image above: Bennett and Ariele’s home

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Comments

  • Okay, I can appreciate the minimalist, white/off white aesthetic. But what I can’t understand is when professional interior designers apply it to homes and buildings that clearly cannot support the look. I’ve seen countless cases where magnificent old interiors of oak and walnut joinery are unceremoniously ripped out in favor of cheap, and in some cases, no trim to achieve “the look” in order to be trendy. Some of these homes and commercial buildings are quite historic in nature, and these “improvements” are irreversible. Paint and wallpaper is one thing, but what are the next owners to do when the very fabric of a well crafted interior has been removed?

  • Although I greatly admire those folks who can go minimal it is not a style that I could embrace.

    I don’t have a white wall in my home and I have no desire for a white wall, there are just too many gorgeous colours in the spectrum for me to pick white. Right now I have this love affair with greys/pinks and blues

    I am collector and a retailer where my home doubles as my warehouse and so my home is constantly changing and I love that. My friends surprised when they walk in to my home as it doe snot stay the same for long, my look depends on what I find on my travel and what sells in my store.

    I am very open to having a home that is changing constantly and love the look of things that have a long and storied history.

    • White walls are not for me but there have been a few homes I have seen that I think look rather nice with white walls. One being the Audrey Bodisco’s SF Home shown above. I love that the wood around the the doors and windows is natural and not painted white too. I have seriously considering doing this in my home. It was built in the 80’s and has very little character. It think doing my trims this way would give it some life. I will not have white walls though. I just don’t like them. Maybe if I lived in Oregon, or some other place where it is gloomy a lot I might NEED white walls to bounce the light around during the day. Thankfully I am much farther south and so I will be painting my house interior a light variation of taupe . Thank you for this article it was good to read and has softened my stance against white walls.

  • One word: stuff. We have become overwhelmed with stuff. Both my husband and I have full-time jobs and we have young kids, our house is full of stuff, it is almost another job just to try to constantly get rid of all the stuff that comes in – the gifts, toys, clothes, books, etc. We don’t even buy much of it – it comes at holidays, birthday parties, school, art classes. Most of us don’t want to spend lots of time designing or “curating” our homes, we just want to live our life and focus on other things. These minimalist houses are the ultimate fantasy for the overwhelmed parent.

    • You read my mind.

      My mother is a wonderful designer and collects amazing pieces. I grew up with carefully arranged centerpieces and really nice wall art. When I grew up, I did the same and I felt that it was necessary to do so in order to make a house into a home.

      Then life happened.

      I was an only child. My kids were not. Throw in the cats and the dog (that I never had) and I got overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by noise and decisions and constant management of my brood. Visual “noise” added to the cacophony. Throw in the work necessary to maintain clutter (dusting!!) and suddenly that carefully thought-out design just wasn’t worth it anymore.

      So I did what any woman in my situation would do.

      I lost my mind and threw out ALL of my stuff. Everything that wasn’t necessary for living. No more centerpieces being knocked off the coffee during a wrestling match. No more wall art to dust and clean. No more collections to move to get to the never ending layer of pet hair that settled on every available surface.

      And I could finally stop fighting my family and relax. Stop shopping and searching for that illusive piece that would fit in a strange alcove. Cut my cleaning time by 2/3rds. (Believe me. A white/light neutral palate doesn’t hide anything and it *is* cleaner. I can’t count the times that I’ve been horrified to find grime that was camouflaged by an interesting pattern.)

      But the stuff keeps coming.

  • In the picture with the blue chairs, is the white used on the walls “true white” or white with something else in it (like black to make oyster white)? I’m am struggling with going with white walls and trim or something like antique white on the walls and white trim. Am afraid of the too-cold look of true white, but I hate some of the murky, greenish-whites too. What to do???

    • I had the same trouble.

      I bought tiny sample cans in the color range that I was interested in and painted 1×2 foot squares on all four walls of the room I was decorating. And in lots of spots on those walls.

      It’s amazing how much light messes with color. In one room, the same paint can look white, yellow, green-tinged, or beige with different light or even with the reflection of color from a nearby item. It’s also going to look different at night and different times of the day.

      The only way that I could figure it out was by investing in the samples and actually *looking* at the paint.

      I wish you luck. It’s so frustrating.

  • i grew up in a house with white walls. lots of colorful, rotating art, collectibles from around the world, & a mix of new & antique furniture. also, an open floor plan with soaring ceilings. white made sense. most definitely NOT soul-less. it kinda bums me out when people complain about the white-wall “trend.” white walls aren’t new.

    now i live in a 70s home with vaulted natural wood ceilings, a sunken pit, floor-to-ceiling brick fireplaces, & wood trim. i still love colorful, rotating art, collectibles from around the world, & a mix of furniture (i have a thing for funky-colored sofas). again, white walls just make sense. colorful walls would be overwhelming! like others have said, i love being able to swap out colorful furniture or accessories when i tire of a color. i like a blank canvas.

    that said, we do have a family room/den which we’ve painted dark blue! the room has a ton of natural light, & it makes it so cozy at night. also, the furniture in there is more neutral (a light gray sectional), so it really works.

  • I love the white wall look, as I love color, too. However I don’t see how anyone with children or pets can maintain white walls. I just keep picturing dirt.

  • I prefer white because it’s easy. I despise painting, don’t want to pay anyone else to paint, so if you use the same white everywhere it’s easy to retouch. I also prefer to use just a few colorful pieces on the wall for interest.
    I like clean & simple.

  • I embraced the white walls (although mine have a tint of creamy yellow undertone – omg – not grey!) about 15 years ago – we have been in 3 homes with this look. This look has never let me down – and I have received so many compliments thru the years as in “you should see her house” – we are not on an expansive budget anymore. I also embraced creamy couches about 10 years ago and then change pillow colors. Used rugs to hang on walls starting about 20 years ago. Started using less art (and I am a painter!) on walls. All I can say is this: I did not do this following any trend – it was instinctive as I became overwhelmed with all the loads of crap I have purchased over the years ( oh yes – it was at flea markets and it was not Michaels crap) – but in the end, it still felt like crap. I have edited so much and keep special books and beautiful things (to me) in mission cabinets I have had for years and on an open shelving unit. I am not trying to brag – all I can say is this look has set me free. I still have pottery collections and a few others…but I edited them and my entire life is better for it. Our culture throws so much useless junk at us. I began to wake up to this in my mid 30s – earlier than many friends. It is empowering and joyful to say “no” to Veranda and House Beautiful and any debt all kinds of purchases can lead to…. medium dark wood floors and tall milk sugar (an old Laura Ashley paint) baseboards and trim also work well for me. Add plain linen curtains in whites and yes – a light grey in one room. Oh – I just love it and I think while style always evolves – that this simple style is here to stay for me as it is 20 years later and I am still in love with it. Freedom from stuff is liberating. Start young and get off the buying train if you can. It is pure joy. Also – less dusting/maintenance. Heavenly!

    • You hit the nail on the head. “This simple style is here to stay…” Simple, timeless and classic, the look of clean white walls and trim work with natural wood floors will never date itself. It transcends trends and frees us! I, too, embraced this look about 15 years ago. We recently moved to a new home that has blue carpet and dark wood trim and cabinetry everywhere. Horrors! It feels sad and cave like for me. My delicate collections and soft toned accessories are lost amongst the heaviness. I am slowly transforming the house with walls and trim in BM Cloud White and eventualy the dark kitchen cabinets will receive that treatment, too. Nothing but a white kitchen for me! I have lived with both and know the white is essential for me. Then we will replace the dreaded carpet with wood floors in a natural finish. It will feel complete and like I am in my home again, nothing to change or “update”, as this style is timeless and forever.

  • I live in Europe, in a rented apartment and white walls are “normal” here. We lived in the US for a few years and where so annoyed at our landlady expecting us to keep the walls beige…

  • As a woman of color who has had to take a break from the design world because of “white washing” (no pun intended) this post really means the world to me. Thank you for working to address the intersections of race/diversity and design. I am recently letting myself be creative again after having been worn down by the industry, and this inspires me to see people in the industry adjusting as well.

  • I think we are all so overwhelmed by incoming information, that there becomes a need to minimize “visual information” in our homes. I once worked as a store decorator and worked with so many objects, art pieces, and furniture all day that my bedroom at home was all white…linens, walls, and curtains. I just needed to just my brain off from so much stimuli.

  • I like that your reasons for the white wall, eclectic reach are largely practical: Transitional people with hodgepodge but still good pieces who cannot justify a large piece at this time and do not want to risk dissatisfaction in a few months. It adds the most humanity I have seen to this divisive topic.

    I am a prime candidate to absorb the white wall chic. In fact, at the time of this publishing I was reading Marie Kondo, dreaming about wall shelves/open cabinets/ going minimal and clean lines. Now though I am a time when I could really use some coziness, (I blame too much transition). I need a hug everyday and the appeal of a wide, bright, airy space is instead replaced by quite a vast, sterile, and museum-like place.

    Where once I sought to regain order and purpose (the appeal of minimalism to me) I instead feel the effects of lost history and misdirection. In my frustration, I am off-put by the emphasis on ‘serene’ sanctuary. Not calming: serene. The ones with spa design and meditative touches.

    The bedroom is not solely for sleeping. It is for waking up. It is for sex. It is for self-indulging luxury. Certainly, no one wants to come home and feel doubly burdened but the mood can be a big snuggle with its own character.

    I live on the shadowy side of my apartment with small windows. Copious natural light is a luxury that does not fit my lifestyle atm. Neither can I budget for the kind of home I’m yearning for but at least I can look at magazines and not feel envious.

  • I have decided to paint my living room gray. Not just a hint of color, but gray, with white baseboards. Am I already out of date and should be looking for a REAL color? I am also enamored with the lack of dust collectors in the homes. I have some antiques that I would like to sell, but am told that today’s people don’t want my hand-me-downs. What to do?

  • I live in a European country where renting rather than home-owning is the norm and landlords in most cases require walls be painted white for the next tenant upon end of the lease. White walls are the norm and very rarely somebody will put forth the money and effort to wallpaper a rented apartment, so the most you will see is an “accent wall” (quite overplayed and cliché by now) or wall tattoos (YIKES).
    So the white wall controversy is quite amusing to me… for a long time I’ve enjoyed this particular aesthetic (houseplants, ethnic prints and colorful art), as it provides an attractive and attainable alternative for making use of white walls to the regular IKEA furnished student apartments seen on this side of the pond. If it gets too old and overplayed something else will replace it here, but the white walls certainly won’t go away!

  • White has been my favorite color since I was a kid — was just always drawn to it. So now I live — finally!! — in a home with high ceilings, white painted walls, big art and a lot of white-white furniture. I find it so peaceful. The only other thing that drew me was paneled wood walls a la Eichler homes. Oh yes, and diagonal wood paneling on staircases. (But am beginning to feel a tug toward color.)

  • I think Airbnb and the likes also have a role to play in the rise of the “white walls/minimalist” aesthetic. It does make a flat look light and airy in pictures, it makes for a space where people can easily see themselves staying, and eliminates the problem of leaving strangers among your many treasured (and possibly delicate) possessions.

  • I agree with all of your points. I like the white-wall, minimalist design because it draws out simple geometric angles in decor, which I find relaxing and which also helps me feel more clear-headed (but that can also be said of any space, really, that is tidy and well-organized, so this feeling is not always contingent on design). But I also like colors and patterns. It really just depends on my mood. My biggest challenge in developing taste is that I can appreciate a wide variety of styles and don’t like to settle on just one. It’s the same for my wardrobe situation. This was so nice to read. It’s the first article I’ve read on interiors where someone has tackled the issue of the white wall epidemic. That you’ve acknowledged it as something to be discussed at all shows an awareness you have of your industry that a lot of other people in interiors haven’t, or just won’t, acknowledge. <3wren

  • GREAT article. Thanks. My bigger issue is all the pictures of homes that are DONE. The idea is “homes that are put together slowly, thoughtfully, over time.” Yet, the pictures of all the houses, DONE. My house is still in process. Sometimes because I cant afford to do the next thing, sometimes because I just dont know WHAT to do. Looking at lots of pictures of perfect houses can be inspiring and motivating, or discouraging. Design is my hobby, my passion, my love, but not my job. Im limited by time, money, and soccer practice. :)

  • Interesting read! I’ve definitely noticed the all-white trend and I have another theory to perhaps add– it’s easy to photograph, and it photographs well.

    I was scrolling through my Instagram feed a few days ago and noticed an over-abundance of white walls and white homes with a lot of the lifestyle & design bloggers that I follow. In our increasingly instagrammed and snapchatted world, white walls help make everything look true to color and they provide an excellent background for high-contrast photos and vid. They really help make things pop! More and more of us are also ditching our DSLR’s and using cameras on our phones to snap photos, and white walls help make photos easier to edit with even the most bare bones of technology.

    I don’t have white walls in my house–the majority are gray, taupe, and dark charcoal gray. To add to the fun, I also have reddish hardwood floors that reflect and give EVERYTHING a pink cast. As a blogger myself I am constantly fighting with color correction issues if I take a photo of anything in natural light in front of one of my gray/taupe walls, or if any of my walls are in the background of a photo. Sometimes they look gray, othertimes they look red or even green. It drives me batty, and I’ve been planning on painting a guest bedroom white just so I’ll have a better backdrop!

    If you can’t beat the trend you might as well join it–eh?

  • I moved to Florida two years ago from Philadelphia. There I had dark furniture and my walls were painted in various colors. Since moving to Florida; I have found my taste changing. I am now loving white walls, while using color in my artwork and decor. My furnishings are soft pastels and I actually have a chair that I love; which has flowers with colors both soft and bold, this is so new a taste for me. My mother always had her walls painted white and I thought; “how boring”. I told her this often, “there are different paint colors; so use them”. Sorry mom, I guess I don’t know everything after all.

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