After seeing light, fresh interiors everywhere in stores, on HGTV, and in your friends’ houses, you’re ready to freshen up your home, especially if it’s still in what we call the “Brown Phase” of the past few decades.  You’ll be moving out of the Dark Ages – literally!  But you’re unsure how to begin.  Cream or beige seems safe enough, but you also see different accent colors everywhere – blue chairs, white-and-orange rugs, yellow ceramic lamps.  Do you need to use those colors too??  Will your home be boring otherwise?  Decorating with cream and gray seems like it should be straightforward  – why then is it so intimidating?  If you’re hesitating or unsure where to start, there’s a simple reason for this:

Although (or maybe because) it was so limiting, the Brown Phase was easy.

You probably had tan walls and area rugs, sofa and chairs in tan fabric or dark brown leather, and a wooden coffee table.  Other than “earth tones” (tan or brown and their metallic relative, bronze), the only colors you were allowed were orange, burgundy, gold, and a warm, sage green:

brown traditional living room example


Your home’s hard surfaces were natural materials like stained cabinets, granite counters, and travertine tile  –  all variations of brown or (even worse) orange.

brown walls and stained bookshelves


While this color scheme was certainly safe, it made interiors dark and didn’t suit the color preferences of many of us.

Remember the old 80’s trend of “getting your colors done” for wardrobe choices?  Only redheads look good in warm tones!  Most of us don’t look good in browns, and yet we surrounded ourselves with this color at home.   But the saving grace of an earth-toned color palette was that it is very easy to put together, even for novices.  All you had to do was trust your builder with the choice of a tan for the walls, and everything else (from the granite counters to the leather sofa) just fell into place!

Now, how do you even begin decorating with cream or gray when almost everything you own is brown??

First of all, let me assure you that it’s very hard to go wrong with a white/cream/gray color scheme.

For those of you who just need a little validation, let me officially provide it here!  Just as you could assemble a whole house in various tans and browns and they would more or less go together, a room in creams and grays would do just fine.  The only real complication is using a stark, cool white, which doesn’t always play well with its creamier cousins.  But if you make sure your whites tend toward softer, warmer varieties (cream, beige, off-whites), you’ll do just fine.  Trust me on this!

Second of all, don’t think that just because you love “traditional” that you can’t decorate with cream and gray.

Here are some examples, in addition to the one at the top of this post:

cream living room with vaulted ceiling

great example of decorating with cream

traditional living room with pale blue gray walls


Here are some lovely examples from ML Interior Designs:

And thirdly, you may already be halfway there, if you have lighter, fresher furnishings or flooring.

Here are some examples of “brown phase” rooms that really just need a fresh coat of paint to completely transform them!

brown living room example


brown living room that just needs cream or gray paint

     brown living room that just needs white paint


And you don’t need to add accent colors or “pops” of color, unless that’s your thing.  (Although it’s easier to add color than you think – more on that later.)  Stick to decorating with cream, off-white and gray and you’ll have a pleasing monochromatic, elegant look.  This is the underpinnings of the “modern farmhouse” look, by the way.  You see it popularized on HGTV’s Fixer Upper, and is the next generation of “Texas Tuscan” or “Hill Country”.  But you don’t have to go in the Modern Farmhouse direction if you’d rather stay traditional!  I’ll list some simple how-to’s and beginning steps to take next.  Hint:  start with painting your walls!  I don’t just say that because we’re painters, but because walls are your biggest surface area.   The updated interiors above are great examples.  (Soon as I can, I’m going to compile a list of favorite color options to post.)  For now, suffice to say that as long as you stick to soft whites, beiges, and grays, you really can’t make a mistake!

But what about “undertones”?

The concept of undertones has finally entered into the national consciousness, thanks to brilliant interior designers and color experts like Maria Killam, whose workshop on color consulting that I attended changed how I see the world and design with color and paint.  Yes, undertones can be a factor.  It depends on your design goals.  I’ll explain why here in a subsequent post.  Meanwhile, most of us can find decorating with cream, gray or off-white just as easy as the tan-and-brown phase used to be.

Hope that helps – feel free to ask any questions below!  🙂