By Marshall WatsonWhite: The softening purity of falling snow blanketing our fields and byways with a singular sensibility.
White: The clean slate of a new year, an empty canvas, “so many possibilities” as George Seurat would extol.
White: The bland empty room, turned over by the developer.
White: The ultimate challenge to homeowners who hope to imbue their space with warmth, character and style.
As I peered out through frosted windows at the thick persistent drifts of snow washing away the colors and easing the skeletal edges of my garden, I ruminated on what makes “white” as powerful in the home as it is in the garden. My snow-clad garden, overcast with pale, gray skies, was hardly boring to look at. It was a symphony in white, with moments of gray and black. What stood out to me in this monochrome world, were the silhouettes: the craggy quirkiness of the ancient sand cherries, the billowing line of the carefully shaped boxwoods, the massive square wall of razor-cut Leyland cypresses, the graceful threads of the weeping willows and the sweeping curve of an osmanthus hedge as it coils its way down to the bay.
I believe the white room requires great prowess to be pulled off successfully. And taking the cue from the wintering garden, a fascinating silhouette can partner as your best tool. Imagine a white box room, with a boxy white sofa and boxy white side tables. If you feel like you are imagining a dental office waiting room, then try re-imagining it in furnishings with more interesting silhouettes. Picture the side tables are oval with a bottom edge of the apron that mimics Marilyn Monroe’s lips. Then alter the box arms of the sofa to curve down and create a softened arc to the base of the sofa. Contrast the side tables with the stacked zigzag of a plaster Giacometti lamp and place an octagonal mirror above the sofa—and suddenly you have moved the white box to another level by simply adding a few contrasting silhouettes.
The snow-blanketed garden teaches us how effective contrasting texture can become in an all-white decor. The crusty bark of a tree, the feathering nubbiness of the sheared Leyland hedge and the spiny stiffness of holly leaves provide lessons in how textural variety captivates the viewer.
Now back to the white box room, where one’s floor provides the initial texture. If the floor is glossy, then a knotted, cable knit rug in wooly whites could supply an interesting texture. If the floors are hand-scraped and cerused, a shimmering viscose and silk carpet spreads a glamorous touch.
When introducing upholstery in white, consider clothing it in fabrics that show texture like large weave linens or looped chenilles. Remember, opposites attract, so with a chenille you can pair it with a glazed cotton or with the linens, pair it with a channeled jacquard. Pairings can create visual warmth for white rooms.
The all white rooms featured in shelter magazines (emanating from Miami, primarily) share a penchant for gloss lacquers, gloss marble and gloss chrome with deep pile shags thrown in to “warm up” the spaces. Bold art or photography draw the eye through the rooms out to the refreshing panorama of the sea or swaying palm trees. These refrigerated spaces can make sense in the tropical climates, but can they survive successfully in our northern climes with panoramic views of ice and gray gloom? They can, but with the inclusion of the naturals and the neutrals.
For example, “naturals” break down into the use of materials like woods, hemps, grass cloths, and unpolished stones and metals in “living finishes,” such as unlacquered brass. “Neutrals” consist of colors that range from caramel to beige, umber to biscuit, or charcoal to dove gray. Naturals and neutrals can introduce an embraceable warmth to white rooms without stealing the moniker “all white” from the overall design. For instance, white upholstery, white carpets and curtains will not lose their statements when nestled into a chestnut paneled library. Just think of the warmth such a room conjures up!
After returning to the city from the snow-enshrouded garden, I may wish for an early spring, but am so appreciative of the lessons learned. With inspirations in silhouette, texture, naturals and neutrals, I am reminded of the dynamic strengths, warmth and impact of an all-white decorating scheme.