Sometimes a lack of color is exactly what a room needs.
Legendary decorator Elsie de Wolfe once said, “I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint,” which aptly sums up the age-old approach to Maine summerhouse decorating. However, harnessing the full power of the color white is more complex than just slapping white paint on the walls (although that can still do wonders for a run-down room!). When it comes to decor, whole books have been written about the color white, and we could easily fill an issue with the many whitewashed Maine homes we feature each year. This milky hue is a natural color for interiors in Maine, where it is found in seafoam, beach pebbles, birch bark, and of course winter’s blanket of snow. White is a perfectly pure backdrop for almost any style of home, from a historic farmhouse to a cutting-edge cabin, and it marries well with every color you can think of.
Notoriously beloved for making a small room feel more spacious, we felt white was the perfect color to feature in our annual Small Spaces issue. “White can make a room seem more expansive visually,” says designer Tricia Foley, the author of A Summer Place: Living by the Sea (Rizzoli, 2021), but more important, she says, “it cleanses the palate.”
White is also a color for all seasons. “Even in the darkest days of winter, a white room will feel warm and bright. During the summer, a white room will feel light, fresh, and cool,” says Jocelyn Dickson, an architect based in Cape Elizabeth. While white is versatile, making an all-white or primarily white interior sing takes skill. We spoke to Foley, Dickson, and other design experts about how to use white effectively and create visual interest and delight in all-white interiors. Here are their tips.
Make it modern with white.
“I love everything painted white for a true transformation,” says interior designer Linda Banks, the founder of Simply Home in Falmouth. “I find resistance from clients when we propose this, but when they trust us, I have never met a disappointed client after the painting is complete,” says Banks, who notes that one of her favorite uses for white is to update a tired staircase.
True whites feel fresh.
“Lately, I am over the yellow-toned shades of white—think melted vanilla ice cream versus a marshmallow,” says Banks, who once favored Benjamin Moore’s perennially best-selling White Dove. Instead, Banks has switched to the brand’s popular crisp white, Decorator’s White, and an under-the-radar hue known simply as White, which Banks describes as “perfect in every way.” Grant K. Gibson, an interior designer based in Castine, agrees that a true white, especially in a matte emulsion, feels of-the-moment: “I used Sherwin- Williams Extra White for my entire house interior. I love the chalky finish.”
Consider just one white.
Gibson suggests picking one white color and painting the entire house with it. “Some people use a different white for the ceiling, but I paint it the same hue as the walls,” he says. Gibson likes the continuity and how a single color changes slightly from room to room depending on how much natural light a space has.
Creamy whites are ideal for historic homes.
Both Foley and Renée Bissonnette, a project interior designer at Maine’s Knickerbocker Group with offices in Portland and Boothbay, like warm white for historic homes. “So many of our older homes have quaint low ceilings that can feel very close if the rooms are dark in color,” says Bissonnette. “Using an off-white as your white gives you the opportunity to shift your palette to something a bit warmer.”
When in doubt, paint it white.
Furniture takes on a New England charm when painted white, says Foley. “If you find something at a yard sale that has a great shape, give it a coat of white paint,” she says. Plus, she notes, it is easy to maintain because you can always repaint the piece white. Dickson adds that “natural materials painted white will add texture, warmth, and subtle natural imperfections” to an interior.
Try contrasting trim.
If you want to play up the architecture of a white-walled room, Bates suggests painting the woodwork in pale blue, gray, or beige. “When [colored trim is] paired with crisp white walls, the architecture is highlighted by the contrast, and it sings in a happy way,” she says.
Let your collections shine.
There’s a reason so many art galleries are painted white: the color lets artwork take center stage. It’s also a perfect backdrop for character-filled furnishings and treasured collections. “There’s nothing like a pure white wall to show off a mélange of modern artwork paired with colorful upholstery accents,” says Banks.
Wake up a bleached palette with texture.
Visual interest can be created in an all-white room through texture, says Elena Duralde, senior interior designer at Knickerbocker Group. “Focus on infusing the space with a variety of different materials. A soft white linen pillow feels one-of-a-kind when juxtaposed against a chunky woven sofa. A high-gloss cabinet pops off a wall adorned in white grasscloth wallcovering. These textures prevent the space from feeling bland.”
Skip white in your coziest corners.
White can be used in almost any room, but Banks cautions against using it on the walls where you crave comfort. “I wouldn’t select white walls when the goal is to create a cozy space—for example, a home theater, a comfy little den, or an intimate dining room,” she says.
An all-white kitchen is timeless.
Decorators and homeowners alike love painted white kitchen cabinets. If you’re designing a kitchen from scratch, Banks recommends selecting a slightly contrasting white or neutral for the walls, ensuring that the interior architecture of the cabinetry stands out. “If the cabinets will be painted a color, then my go-to is definitely pure white walls,” says Banks.
Don’t skip the sampling.
It can be tempting to just plow ahead with painting a room white because it’s only white after all, right? Wrong. Our experts caution that getting the perfect white is tricky, and your light conditions will determine what looks best. “Consider your exposure to natural light: north, east, south, west,” says Dickson. “Different exposures will make the same paint color look wildly different.” Also, consider the other whites in the room and how those will affect your perception of the wall paint. A white can completely transform when set directly next to another white hue, she cautions.
The Whitest White
Artists have been searching for pure white paints for hundreds of years. The earliest white paints were made from lime, calcite, or gypsum. In the seventeenth century Rembrandt and other artists made whites appear brighter by mixing crushed glass into lead white pigments. (Lead white was used for centuries for its high opacity and brilliance, but in the twentieth century its toxicity was discovered.) In the nineteenth century, an alternative to lead white emerged in zinc white; later, in the 1920s, titanium white made from titanium dioxide became artists’ go-to white paint. More recently a team of scientists at Purdue University in Indiana developed the whitest white paint ever created (it’s even in Guinness World Records!). However, these scientists were not working at the behest of artists or interior designers in seeking the perfect white; rather, they were looking for a way to combat global warming. When painted on a rooftop, the new white paint, dubbed “ultra white,” reflects the sun, creating a cooling power of 10 kilowatts, an astonishing feat that could reduce or eliminate the need for air-conditioning in many places. The Purdue team is working with a commercial paint manufacturer to bring the paint to market, so stay tuned!