Katie Groves decided to paint the walls in her home white, a light and cheerful canvas on which to display her art and furnishings.
It seemed a simple choice. So, her husband was surprised to come home and find her contemplating more than a dozen paint swatches on the wall.
“There are so many nuances to white,” she says. “White is exciting. It’s refreshing yet soothing.”
White is not plain vanilla. Consider the icy purity of new-fallen snow. The elegant coolness of clotted cream. The cottony softness of billowing clouds and lamb’s wool. The rustic allure of bone and seashells. The warmth and luster of grandmother’s pearls. It’s a timeless hue that resists trends and is supremely adaptable, equally at home in an industrial loft and a historic country house.
Groves and her staff offer design services for diverse and varied interiors at Studio 882 in Glen Mills, a destination for furniture, rugs, accessories and lighting. She’s fond of white-on-white décors (her showroom has white floors and walls) and the serene and sophisticated aura a pale palette invokes.
“White leaves space for reflection,” she says. “Antiques always look wonderful with white, because the white highlights what’s special about those pieces.”
A vast expanse of white can create a void as chilly as the Arctic and leave a space feeling sterile. To avoid whiteout, vary the shades, textures and sheens. “In the bedroom, you could do a white velvet upholstered headboard—sumptuous, with crisp white linens, shaggy, fun fur pillows and bone mosaic around a mirror,” she says.
Performance fabrics that repel spills and stand up to pets and children take much of the fear factor out of white upholstery. Linens, silks and velvets are now offered in variations that resist stains and mold. After decades of protecting awnings and sailboats, Sunbrella has moved to the home. And though originally developed for restaurant and hotel furnishings, Crypton is now producing easy-to-maintain residential fabrics. “They’re also smell-resistant,” Groves says.
Pieces crafted in unexpected materials add a layer of complexity to white spaces. And to keep white rooms from looking too monochromatic, Groves often adds wood pieces and greenery to warm up the space.
As for the paint on the walls, Groves chose Benjamin Moore’s Snowfall—a mellow and restful white—in her home. “It’s one of my favorites,” she says. “It has depth.”
Paint is an essential element in a white-on-white interior. Think of it as infrastructure. Farrow and Ball paints are also on Groves’ go-to list. Made from natural pigments, they’re pricey—about $100 a gallon. “But the shades are magical,” she says.
Named for the British market town where the paint is produced, Wimborne White leans toward off-white, while James White is a smooth, creamy latte. Finishes include dead flat, which replicates the look of 18th-century leaded paints, and estate emulsion, a chalky matte that enhances depth.
Interior designer Larina Kase chose a glossy white with the warm tones of Devonshire cream for the foyer of a stately home in Chester County. It offers a welcoming sense of light and brightness, showcasing elegant wall moldings and wainscoting without allowing the details to overpower the space.
Kase often pairs paints with different sheen levels. “You can do stripes alternating between flat and semi-gloss white,” she says. “Or matte walls with semi-gloss wainscoting.”
To add texture, consider white grasscloth wallpaper. Kase also recommends bamboo roman blinds that have been painted white and tables of white-washed wood, preferably with a live edge. “More great texture,” she says.
While shiny lacquer introduces a cool element, other white elements can make a room feel relaxed and cozy. Picture a shaggy white rug, soft faux-fur pillows “and knitted throws and blankets that feel like your favorite sweater,” she says.
Have something more formal in mind? Imagine tone-on-tone ivory draperies or wallpaper.
Bathrooms are a natural fit for a white palette. Pair glossy porcelain fixtures with classics like white subway tiles or Carrara marble (a milky stone with pale gray veining). Island Stone’s Spindrift Marble line features Carrara that’s cut into slices the size and shape of river rocks and installed in sheets instead of slabs or tiles. “It’s a natural shape whose curves add a playful, eye-catching aesthetic,” says spokesman Jeff Nibler.
To create a connection between the interior and the outdoors, keep the white vibe going in the garden. English writer Vita Sackville-West designed her iconic White Garden at Kent’s Sissinghurst Castle in the 1920s. It’s still a mecca for gardeners.
There, the silvery blooms of Pyrus salicifolia, a willowy pear commonly called Pendula, create a living veil for the statue of the Virgin, while parchment-like Mme Alfred Carriere roses dispense their perfume as they climb the side of a house. Light and lacy Ammi majus—Bishop’s weed—billows like clouds in a summer sky. The bluish foliage and cones of the thistle Eryngium giganteum—Miss Willmot’s Ghost—are hauntingly romantic.
“A white garden is lovely by moonlight,” says Danilo Maffei, a Kennett Square-based landscape designer. He suggests planting bulbs, flowers, shrubs and trees that provide an evolving tableau of white, from the first snowdrops of early spring to Nagoya kale’s fancy white ruffles, which remain crisp through fall.
In deep shade, variegated white foliage is a natural counterpoint to green, adding mystery and allure to plots. Creamy caladium unfurl heart-shaped leaves. Flowering fruit trees usher in spring with a profusion of ethereal blossoms that float on the breeze like confetti in a parade.
“White is cooling even on the hottest day,” says Maffei. “It’s peaceful—the way a garden should make you feel.”