The Neutral Color Palette in interior Design

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Neutral Color Palette - neutral decor trend

Why the neutral color Palette emerged in Home Decor In the United States: My Theories

Today, when I look at any home decor catalog, or most of the home decorating accounts on Instagram, all I see is a black and white, cream or neutral color palette. Or in most cases, just white. Will color ever make a comeback in U.S. interior Design? or is neutral here to stay?

neutral colors dominate the world of Instagram - neutral interior design - neutral decor trend
Based on the more than 85 million posts under the hashtag interior design, most of the top photos include neutral color schemes.

The Neutral Palette: Trend or Conformity?

When did society become so afraid to decorate in color? When did we become afraid to express our own style and color personality preferences. Or better yet, how did the neutral color palette become so prevalent here in the U.S.?

In order to determine just how and when this neutral style emerged, I needed to do some digging. Consequently, I’ve come up with a few thoughts and theories about this trend, and perhaps you can help me decide which one(s) make the most sense. Here goes:

Theory #1: Keep a Neutral Color Palette to Sell

In the past few decades, the housing market has been hot. Not only has it become easier than ever to buy a home, but homeowners seem to be lacking the attachments to their homes that they had in previous decades. Since they’re selling their homes more often, perhaps they are keeping their homes more neutral beige / white / gray in order to appeal to potential buyers. Do you think this theory could be the reason for neutral homes in America?

neutral color palette - cool gray master bathroom  - neutral interior design
Aside from the clothes in the closet, this master bathroom features a soothing and neutral, gray color palette, which would appeal to most buyers in a home sale.

Theory #2: The Natural and Organic Movement

Another trend that has emerged in society has been the move toward purchasing sustainable, all-natural or Earth-friendly things. I talked about this in my last two articles about colors of the year trends in 2020 and 2019. From produce and coffee to clothing and furniture, everyone seems to be buying organic or fair trade, and recycling things or upcycling things. This may have ushered in a design style full of natural elements, such as bamboo flooring, plants as decor, or rustic elements. These items tend to complement a neutral décor and color palette.

neutral decor style - fireplace surround glass tile in neutral family room
The neutral, green movement can encourage homeowners to stick to a neutral palette, such as using shades of brown, sea green, blue and gray in this family room fireplace gass surround.

Theory #3: We are all Tired of Color from the 70s and 80s

If you grew up in the 70s or 80s like I did, or even the 90s, you knew that color was in style — in a big way. There were avocado-green appliances, along with wild patterns and colors everywhere in those decades. People embraced color in their personal (clothing) style, as well as in their home decor. Bold graphics and prints and bold colors thrived in those decades. With color so prevalent then, did consumers need a break from all the color activity, and thus switch to a neutral-loving style? It’s a possibility. What do you think?

colorful door mat, behind the neutral decor trend
This colorful front door mat would fit right in during the 70s, 80s and 90s era of color in fashion and style.

Theory #4: Neutral Color Palette is as an Escape from Chaos

Another theory of the white / neutral trend could relate to the workaholic lifestyle we live in today. Our minds are constantly cluttered with information, from our work life to our social lives, to the advertisements we see, to all the social media chatter that accompanies an online-focused world. As a result, could we need a white or neutral interior to give our minds a break? Or perhaps we lack the time to keep our homes clean, so white gives us the illusion of clean and neat? 🙂 Either way, does white give us that much needed relief from chaos?

kitchen decor - neutral color palette - neutral white kitchen
This white vignette on a neutral kitchen counter and backsplash is very clean and soothing, don’t you think?

Theory #5: The Joanna Gaines Influence

Let’s face it. When Joanna Gaines entered the HGTV picture with her neutral modern farmhouse style, she ushered in an era of neutral decor. And it caught on like a virus. At the same time, sharing our homes and personal style on social media was becoming more popular. Why would people not join the Joanna Gaines bandwagon? After all, she has such an endearing personality, and an appealing style, so interior designers and decorators and DIYers alike have followed her in droves (and also flocked to her Magnolia Market in Waco, TX like a pilgrimage). Could she have created an entire trend all by herself? I’m convinced that she has. What do you think?

Joanna Gaines - queen of the neutral farmhouse - Neutral color palette - neutral interior design
Joanna Gaines of HGTV’s Fixer Upper. Photo Credit: @Magnolia

My Theories Put to the Test:

To further investigate my five theories, I decided to interview a few of my neutral-loving design friends on Instagram. I asked them what they loved about a neutral color scheme, and what influenced their decision to design in neutrals. Here’s what they said: 

Brooke from The Merry Morris Cottage @themerrymorriscottage:

“I’ve always used whites and neutrals. I like neutrals because they are calming. And I love the clean look. The best part of decorating with neutrals is they “go” with everything!”

This coincides with theory #4 (clean/calming) and partly with #1 (neutral as a base to match with everything)

neutral decor trend - Brooke - The Merry Morris Cottage
Brooke from The Merry Morris Cottage loves a neutral color palette, as she displays in this neutral mantel decor. Photo credit: Brooke from @Themerrymorriscottage

Ann from Dabbling and Decorating: @Dabbling_and_decorating :

“I’ve always had a love for all things vintage, antique and wood. That’s where it started. And the white just pulls out the wood texture beautifully. I do love color too though, especially blues. My parents collected antiques for their home when I was growing up in coastal Maine and I took to it from there. But my mother really enjoyed antiques and darker looks, like early American. It’s easy to thrift and flea market for neutrals and they just always seem to catch my eye. I find them cozy. But I do love color too. I like to mix it up when I can.”

Neutral sitting room - neutral color palette - neutral interior design
Ann’s beautiful, neutral sunroom and library has a very neutral palette, and has elements of wood and vintage finds. Image Source: Dabbling and Decorating

Ann seems to resonate with theory #2, with recycling and re-purposing antique and vintage items in her home. When I asked her how she thought the neutral trend became so popular in the U.S. her reply was, “I bet Joanna Gaines and HGTV had something to do with it.” Thus validating my fifth theory.

Kristi from French Creek Farmhouse @Frenchcreekfarmhouse :

“I like a neutral/natural palette — variations of white/cream, brown, black/gray and green. But not exclusively! Our kitchen is a pale, cheery yellow, and I use vintage globes throughout our home because I love the pastel colors. In my office, I use vintage aqua blue liberally, too. But the neutrals definitely anchor our spaces throughout.

This (neutral palette) has really been my aesthetic for about the past 15 years. Prior to that, I used a lot of bright colors in every room. But I found that having my home feel closer to the colors of nature was very soothing. Along with that, I use a lot of natural elements – plants, floral, woven textures, cozy blankets, baskets, rustic woods. Again, this next-to-nature aesthetic is very grounding and soothing to me.”

So we see that Kristi’s approach seems to fit theory #2 as well, with the natural/organic elements. And in addition, notice her retreat from the popular color-filled homes of the past few decades (Theory #3).

neutral workspace - neutral color palette - French Creek Farmhouse
Kristi from French Creek Farmhouse set up this gorgeous, impromptu workspace in her family room. The colors are creamy and soothing in neutrals. Photo Source: French Creek Farmhouse

My Preferences: Keep a Neutral Base:

As part of this theory investigation, I thought a lot about my own home and how I prefer to decorate it, as well as the theories I had for why the neutral palette is so popular. While my home has pops of color everywhere, our wall colors and flooring throughout are very neutral in color – from warm beige to cool gray.

In addition, when choosing furniture, I often go with a neutral, base color like gray or tan. This allows me to change out the color for seasons or holidays, or whenever as I see fit. I also follow theory #1 in that I know someday we will sell our house, and I may want to keep a neutral palette in order to appeal to more buyers. As an Indianapolis home stager, I also tell my clients who are selling their homes the same thing. Neutral wall colors and floors can help customers visualize living there, with their own color palette and style. So keep it neutral for the most versatility, whether designing to live or to sell.

Neutral color palette - entry way decor - neutral color trend
As you can see of this photo of my entryway, our neutral color palette paves the way for colorful rugs and accessories, but the main decor palette is still neutral.

Consensus: A Little Bit Joanna Gaines, a Little Bit of All of these Theories:

Even though most of my friends who were interviewed didn’t come out and say it, I do think that Americans have been influenced by the media attention of HGTV and Joanna Gaines’ neutral farmhouse style. That is the only explanation of the resurgence of farmhouse décor, and not just the neutral color palette. In Europe, where I can only assume the Fixer Upper show didn’t air as frequently, the color influence in homes seems to lean toward a more bold and colorful aesthetic.

Shop My picks for Neutral Accessories:

These wood beads are used often in neutral decor.
Neutral decor lovers often add texture for interest in their designs, like on this throw pillow.
Macrame wall hangings in neutral colors are also trending now.
Neutral wall art in wooden tones can be soothing and evoke nature.
Starting with a neutral rug grounds the neutral color palette.

Everyone needs a storage basket.

My Final thought about the Neutral Color Trend:

I’m personally not one to conform to trends, taking my interior design in a more colorful direction. While I can appreciate a neutral décor style, and I can design rooms for my Indianapolis interior design clients in neutral, I like expressing my own personal style using color in my home. I believe that everyone has a color personality, and I challenge you to find yours. I’ve created a way for you to do just that with my free download, below. After you have discovered your color personality, send me a note and let me know what it is! And if you have a different theory, or an opinion about the neutral color trend, comment below!

— Susan, Color Joy Interiors

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Susan Young

Susan Young

Susan is a Midwest mom of two and lover of all things colorful in the home. She works with homeowners to find their unique style and color palette while keeping their budgets and lifestyles in mind. Follow her on social media, where she shares her latest colorful projects and inspirations.

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Susan Young - President - Color Joy Interiors - Brownsburg, Indiana

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