Why Neutrals Can Still Be Exciting, Says a Designer

Neutrals are the foundation of good design

Neutrals used in kitchen decor

Ashley Montgomery Design

When it comes to choosing a color scheme for your home, the word “neutral” can bring a bland image to mind. If you automatically picture rooms painted beige or greige and filled with matching, drab furniture, you're not alone. But, we're here to challenge that notion and show you how neutrals can actually be an exciting part of your home's design.

We recently connected with designer John McClain to discuss how to combat the idea that neutral = boring. Not only does McClain believe neutrals aren’t boring—he’s here to convince us all that, if done well, they can even be exciting.

Meet the Expert

John McClain is an accomplished interior designer, business coach, speaker, author, and on-air contributor. He is the creative director and CEO of John McClain Design.

  • 01 of 05

    Neutrals are Fundemental

    Neutral living room by John McClain

    Uneek Images

    When asked how McClain responds to people who insist neutrals are boring, he doesn't hold back.

    “Some statements don’t deserve a response, but to that, I would counter that neutrals are fundamental,” the designer shares with The Spruce. “What is a pizza without its crust or a canapé without its cracker? All good design requires a foundation of neutral elements to build upon."

    What is a pizza without its crust or a canapé without its cracker? All good design requires a foundation of neutral elements to build upon.

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  • 02 of 05

    Fixing Boring Neutrals is Easy

    Neutral living room by designer John McClain

    Native House Photography

    While neutral elements are fundamental, McClain agrees that if used incorrectly, they can create a boring space. But the good news? It’s easy to fix.

    “A neutral space goes wrong when a single tone is employed in excess,” he tells us. “All white is tiresome, but there are hundreds of available tones. Bright white, off-white, ivory, ecru, buff, beige…the list goes on and on. Variegation of color is critical when designing a neutral room.”

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  • 03 of 05

    Rely on the Classics

    John McClain's go-to neutral palette

    Lauren Pressey

    “I always return to the classic combination of black, white, gray, green, and brown,” McClain says. “Not only do they always provide the perfect foundation, but they are also rooted in nature and resonate with everyone. My neutrals tend to skew warm, comfortable, and chic.”

    If you’re planning out your palette, McClain has some guidelines: ensure that your patterns and playful elements are all grounded by neutral elements.

    “A neutral palette requires an understanding of rhythm, balance, emphasis, and scale,” he tells us. “Pair large-scale prints with smaller patterns and vary geometric lines with organics. Create a harmonious and cohesive design by repeating finishes throughout the space.”

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  • 04 of 05

    Neutrals are Perfect for Kitchens and Baths

    John McClain's neutral kitchen

    Lauren Pressey

    If you’re looking to scale back certain rooms, McClain knows exactly where you should start. There are two spaces in every house that work best with the zen feeling only a neutral palette can provide.

    “While every room requires neutral elements, I prefer to keep kitchens and baths in the neutral zone,” he explains. “That being said, I pull no punches when it comes to powder baths—we treat those small spaces like the dazzling jewel boxes they should be.” 

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  • 05 of 05

    Add Texture Instead of Color

    John McClain's design plan for a neutral bedroom

    Lauren Pressey

    Once your neutral base is set, it can be tempting to add in a bunch of colors. But McClain tells us that this isn't necessary. Instead, add texture.

    “Texture is the quickest way to add exciting elements to a room,” McClain tells us. “Consider a combination of sheer, shag, velvet, tweed, linen, leather, and faux fur in undulating shades. By varying the materials and finishes in a space, the eye constantly reinterprets depth and dimension.”