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.
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.
Image above: Sarah’s kitchen
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.
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…
Image above: Caroline Kim’s bedroom
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
Image above: Colina’s home
Image above: Bennett and Ariele’s home