White rooms are white hot

An Eastern Shore home designed by Patrick Sutton, a Baltimore interior designer.
An Eastern Shore home designed by Patrick Sutton, a Baltimore interior designer. (Erik Kvalsvik, Baltimore Sun)

Labor Day has come and gone, but there's no need to pack away all that white. Not only can you still wear it, you can use the color to give your decor a lift.

Fashion designers from Derek Lam to J. Mendel stocked their fall 2012 collections with crisp winter whites. And interior designers agree: All year round, white is hot.


Patrick Sutton, a Baltimore interior designer and owner of Patrick Sutton Home in Harbor East, has long extolled the virtues of decorating with white.

"It's been one of my favorite colors for my whole career," he says. "It never goes out of style."


Sutton praises the way white rooms reflect and play with natural light. In a client's Eastern Shore retreat, white walls and furniture help capture the glow of sunlight streaming through oversized windows and glass doors.

"If you're in an all white room," says Sutton, "the color of the light outside permeates the room. Whatever is going on outside is reflected inside. A beautiful orangey sunset, or the early morning bluish light."

The home's outside setting becomes an integral part of the decor and the mood inside changes with the hour and the season.

Designers often choose white walls, and simple, neutral decor, as a practical backdrop for art.


Baltimore-based event planner and interior designer Stephanie Bradshaw says, "When everything is neutral and you put a piece of statement art in the room, it really sings."

Sutton agrees. "White is very striking. It's great for art." He shoots for contrast in other ways, too. In his own home, white sofas are "a great counterpoint to dark, rich cork walls. The contrast is what's interesting."

Taking the opposite tack, Bradshaw recommends layering shades of white. "I really like white on white, but also white on cream. It gives you a little dimension," she explains. "When you layer it with texture, you get even more dimension. Choose pillows that are furry, or a sofa fabric with a pile to it. Or layer a cowhide rug on top of a sisal rug. I love natural elements in white, with texture."

Bradshaw and Sutton both appreciate the way white works with warm wood. Sutton has paired white with a variety of wood pieces, from an intricate four-poster bed to a sturdy cocktail table to an elegantly distressed armoire. The effect is captivating, but comfortable.

Floral arrangements are an easy way to incorporate white into existing decor without long-term commitment or major purchases. For autumn, Paula Dobbe-Maher, owner of the Dutch Floral Garden shops in Harbor East and Belvedere Square, recommends simple single-flower groupings of a few white amaryllis or anthuriums. "They make a beautiful statement," she says.

Or for a more romantic look, "you can make a beautiful fluffy arrangement of white flowers — make it big. Combine white roses and lime green viburnum for a fluffy abundance of flowers."

Dobbe-Maher is a fan of white-on-white decorating, especially for entertaining.

"It's extremely elegant," she says. "It's beautiful when you do a table setting. When you have a white tablecloth, you can do whatever you want."

Decorating with white poses some challenges, especially for families with young children. Bradshaw admits that pale spaces may be easier to manage — and clean — for some people than others. But she believes even parents of sticky-fingered toddlers can embrace white, as long as they make smart choices.

For families, she suggests choosing white furniture that is less expensive, so if disaster strikes in the form of a permanent juice stain, replacing the piece isn't out of the question.

"In the areas where the family spends most of their time," she says, "you don't have to spend as much money. For example, the kitchen table. You can buy a beautiful Saarinen [the mid-20th century architect and designer known for his iconic "tulip" table] for thousands of dollars, or you can get an equivalent someplace like Ikea for much less."

Bradshaw is also a fan of washing machine-friendly decor. "Slipcovers are a go-to for any decorator," she says. "You can just stick them in the washing machine!" Throw pillows and area rugs are also easily cleaned ways to add white to a room.

With the practical issues surrounding white rooms sorted, people can relax and enjoy the emotional boost white interiors provide.

For Sutton, white signifies optimism, freshness, and purity. "White represents a new beginning — think wedding dress, fluffy white bath towels and freshly fallen snow. Think of that happy feeling you get on a sunny day after it snows," he says. "It's sunny outside and your whole house is bright. All of that light reflects back into the home. It's cheerful!"

Sutton believes that cheer is especially appropriate — and necessary — right now. "After several dark years of economic uncertainty, war, and discord, it's not surprising we are all clamoring for a brighter, happier future."

5 tips for decorating with white

White is versatile: It works with every style, from elegant and sophisticated to cool and comfortable. Here are some tips from the pros on how to incorporate white into your own home:

Focus on the feel

White's neutrality makes it easy to experiment with textures like cozy fur or rough sisal. Playing with textures adds "dimension," says Stephanie Bradshaw.

Consider contrast

In a client's Eastern shore retreat, Patrick Sutton paired smart navy pillows with a crisp white sofa. "It is all white," he says, "with little punctuations of navy. It's really quite stunning."

Go floral

Experiment with all-white flower arrangements. For fall, Dutch Floral Garden owner Paula Dobbe-Maher recommends minimal, vertical groupings of a few amaryllis or anthuriums, or "fluffier" combinations of roses and lime green viburnum.

Slip it

Bradshaw is a proponent of easy-to-wash slipcovers, especially for families with young children. Slipcovers are also a great way to freshen a room's look without investing in all new furniture.

Explore the shades

Bradshaw creates a rich look by layering multiple shades of white. Mixing darker creams with bright white turns a simple palette into a sophisticated aesthetic.