Interiors: Did grey kill magnolia?

Grey doesn't have to be dark, it can bring out light and colour

Grey doesn't have to be dark, it can bring out light and colour - Credit: Archant

Elegant and sophisticated, cosy yet light- if ever there was a chameleon colour to suit your home’s every need it’s grey. Find out how to use the shade to bring out your interior’s full potential.

It’s an interior designer’s murder mystery – did grey kill magnolia?” teases Kate Watson-Smyth, whose new book, Shades Of Grey, explores the power of a grey palette and explains, with a liberal dash of humour, how to use it stylishly.

“Unfortunately, not grey, but new lighting in the Nineties was the real culprit, which gradually brought about its demise. The harsher, cooler light of halogen, LED and fluorescent lamps, which replaced incandescent bulbs, simply made magnolia look terrible and left the field clear for grey. Our love of all things Nordic and the popularity of grey in fashion has also played a part in our passion for this palette.”

Making grey work

Fresh, modern and easy to match to other colours, it’s hardly surprising that elegant, sophisticated grey is currently regarded as the perfect neutral. There’s only one snag – deciding which shade to choose, and the number on offer can induce paint chart paralysis. Fifty shades? Forget it – Dulux recently expanded its range and now offers a mind-boggling 557 greys.

The way a room is used should guide which shade of grey you choose. If a room is mainly used in the evening, or there are always lights on, you can afford to opt for a darker shade, while rooms which are used all day long and beyond, such as the kitchen where you also eat in the evening, require a grey that works with both natural and electric light.

“Dark walls in a kitchen work well with a light floor and cabinets – choose warm greys for north-facing rooms and cool greys for south-facing rooms,” says Watson-Smyth.

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“Dining rooms, which often suffer from lack of light, can be painted in dark greys which will create an intimate, cosy atmosphere but if this room’s also used in the day, opt for a lighter grey.

See the light

“Grey’s enduring popularity over the last decade is partly down to the cold, clear northern light we enjoy in this country – put simply, grey just looks good here – but always evaluate how much natural light a room gets as well as the direction it comes from.

“For a small and dark north-facing room, don’t fight the space by painting it a pale colour,” says Watson-Smyth. “Instead, embrace its cosiness. Pick a strong shade of grey – as near to black as you dare – and use on every wall.

South-facing rooms allow a bit more freedom of choice as pale greys tend to work as well as dark ones in warm light. The east and west-facing rooms are the tricky ones, because the light will change from warm to cold throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.

“The secret is to look for a shade which will warm the cool and tone down the warm. For east-facing rooms, try greys with a blue or green base,” recommends Watson-Smyth.

Grey matters

Always consider the effect that your existing furniture, textiles and flooring may have on a paint shade – no grey is ever seen in isolation.

“Grey goes with all the other colours on the wheel, so you could throw in some pink until you feel like a change, and then maybe swap it for orange or yellow. It’s probably more affordable to swap the accessories than the wall colour,” suggests Watson-Smyth.

“Be aware, though, that light will bounce off a bright pink sofa and turn walls slightly violet. Modern LEDs often throw out light with a blueish tinge, which will add to the pink-purple effect.

“If you think a room may look too plain painted all grey, try using textured wallpaper as a base to add interest. Skirting boards and radiators painted the same grey as walls also open up and enhance a space, as does painting a ceiling a paler shade of the wall colour, rather than white.”