Neutrals can pack a punch with the right accessories

Sarah Kerr explains how to use neutrals throughout your home.

Designer Collection Nove coffee tableLike most New Zealanders, I’m a huge neutrals fan. We tend to lean towards colour that relates back to the environment. Earthy shades such as sand, chocolate, charcoal and grey, along with muted blues and greens, are what Kiwis feel most comfortable with. Personally, I prefer neutrals to whites as they have more warmth and personality.

On the big screen of colour, neutrals are not bit players – they’re major stars. Texture and natural materials are their supporting cast. Although neutrals have been on the circuit for some time, they’re mercurial so keep our interest. These days, neutrals are warming up and the cast of characters features more amber, golden and caramel tones – think South Island tussock grass.

Terracotta is huge in Australia, you need only look to the Outback to see why. I think we’ll pretty much bypass that orange/ochre expression here. It’s far better to be inspired by our coastal palette. I was. The walls in my living room are painted a soft sandy tone, my sofas are in earthy linens and, perhaps because I’m an impetuous redhead, I’ve included a splash of sassiness with deep red accessories. That’s the key. With neutrals as a background bet, you’re playing it safe. So don’t forget to add a dash of difference.

linen cushionsThe psychology of neutrals

  • People who are attracted to earthy shades tend to be honest and down to earth. They like a structured, supportive lifestyle. Browns (try Resene ‘Arrowtown’, Dulux ‘Blackball’, Taubmans ‘Mudcake’) bring a sense of retreat to a home, so are a good colour choice to enhance a feeling of security.
  • Those who love neutrals are often stylish and sophisticated, yet in tune with their natural surroundings.
  • Grey is the colour of self-sufficiency. It sends out the message “leave me alone”. Too much grey in your home can drain your energy. A warm dove grey (Taubmans ‘Ashwood’) is preferable.

Kitchens and dining areas

Using neutrals in the kitchen makes sense. If you want to future-proof your home against fashion faux pas and for re-sale purposes, you have no choice. Neutrals it is! The critical factor in using this approach is to ensure adequate contrast. That way the colours make a crisp, not wishy-washy, statement.

Cabinetry and benchtops will be the biggest blocks of colour, so make considered choices. To make an open-plan kitchen and living area feel larger, ensure the benchtop and cabinetry are both light neutrals. Darker benchtops stop the eye, as they are heavier in the space. If you select a dark benchtop, offset it with light-toned cabinetry. Walls in Dulux ‘Haast’ or Resene ‘Half Tea’ are a quintessential winner.

Natural stone is only available in earth-dictated colours, whereas man-made composites of granite, marble and resin provide a plethora of smart neutral options. Combinations of grey and brown, oyster and taupe are stylish and understated. Laminates, too, are breaking new ground by incorporating botanical imagery such as leaf designs and bark patterns.

When choosing a floor-covering in the kitchen and dining area, ask yourself whether you want a sense of flow in an open-plan space or to define separate areas. Consistent flooring enhances the feeling of spaciousness, while a change in flooring separates one space from another. If you like neutral colours, cork tiles are a good soft-underfoot option for the kitchen. Cork is a renewable resource and the cork tiles are available in some attractive neutrals, and large or small cork tiles.

For a modern look, timber floors or tiles should be distinctively dark or clearly light in tone. However, if you have an old kauri cottage never fear, you can get away with yellow-toned timber floors.

With a neutral background you are playing it safe to include a splash of your personality with a bright red lamp or other small, colored accessories

Living rooms

neutral interiorsIf you’re a contemporary style queen, neutrals are your best friend. I prefer designing in neutrals with a brown or grey undertone (Dulux ‘Pupu Springs’), rather than those with a hint of pink in their make-up such as the mushroom shades (like Dulux ‘Glints Gully’). But this is a personal choice. Warm neutrals with elements of red, brown or yellow in them are best when light levels are restricted (try Resene ‘Pearl Lusta’). Cooler shades with traces of blue or grey (Dulux ‘Foveaux’) can confidently be used where the sun shines in, as they stop the room looking bleached out. If you have a warm neutral on the walls, also paint the ceiling a warm white (like Dulux ‘Sandfly Point’).

Sofas are a big investment. A typical suite devours 10 metres of fabric and will often be part of your home for 10 or 15 years. When it comes to UV damage neutrals rule, as fading is less obvious. You may worry that neutrals will get dirtier than, say, a darker colour. Recent popular options for lounge suites, such as man-made suede, are now passing the torch to textured, hardwearing fabrics that are family-friendly. These weaves have high wool content and just enough polyester to be easy-care. For soft furnishings or an accent chair, look for fabric that is similar in tone to the sofa, but has been combined with a statement shade. Linens with a raised flock pattern and striped velvets are hot. (A word on carpets: no one ever buys blues or greens!)

When buying carpet, you’ll need to choose between cut-pile or loop-pile. While cut-pile won’t date (especially in a neutral colour), its disadvantage is the ‘waterfall’ look that’s unavoidable when you vacuum. Today’s loop-pile carpets are so heavily textured, they are almost patterned. This look has gone beyond sisal; there are mixed loops, tartans and designs that look like little boxes. The advantage of these is that they blend two or more neutrals and are more forgiving of stains. The downside is that pets tend to hook loop-pile carpet with their claws and loop-pile is also not as cost-effective as cut-pile because you need to buy more to match the ‘pattern’. When buying carpet, ask your supplier for a sample to evaluate at home.


Neutrals deliver an elegant statement in the bedroom. Think ebony and ivory and team pale linen with charcoal bedside tables. Softness and sensuality is achieved by layering neutrals in the soft furnishings. Mink-coloured faux fur throws against a wheaten spread look luxurious. Linen drapes are delicious, but real linen can rot if the room is too sunny and if they are not lined properly. Polyester-linen mixes fall beautifully and wear well, too.

The bedroom is a great place to play with some classic neutral-mix combinations. Make some lovely big Euro cushions then cover them in an expressive fabric. First choose your neutral, then team with either turquoise and chocolate, acid-citrus lemons and limes, fiery fuchsia or magenta, grey blues, or hot pinks.

For a masculine bedroom, striking black and neutrals have strength and presence. Prints with large-scale graphics work well in contemporary schemes. Remember that neutrals are readily affected by other colours – if there’s a large leafy tree outside the bedroom window, your pale neutral could take on a greenish tinge.

Neutrals are affected by what is around them. A big leafy tree outside the window could give your natural elements a green hue.


To ramp up the pamper factor, turn to nature. White may be a bathroom classic, but for a softer appeal – and the invitation to linger longer – neutrals work best. White may look clean at first, but neutrals stay looking cleaner longer. Real stone tiles, or tiles that simply look like stone, evoke luxuriousness while a strip of mosaics behind the basin or bath adds a tactile quality. Great neutrals for bathrooms include latté and taupe shades (such as Dulux ‘Candle Bark’ as well as soft blues Dulux ‘Pre School’) and greens (Dulux ‘Lambs’ Ears’).

Contrast sand with chocolate. And look out for the innovative high-performance polyester resin panels where finds from nature – flax, grass, leaves, thatch – have been sandwiched between two sheets. They have an elegant, translucent quality and, because they are water-resistant, can be used as cavity sliders around a shower, as wall treatments and room dividers.

Neutrals are made for recreating a resort atmosphere – think sunken stone baths, or organic vanity bowls. One design rule of thumb is to never mix warm and cool neutrals. Cool neutrals include greys (like Taubmans ‘Dauphin Gray’) crisp whites (Resene ‘Black White)’ and taupes (Resene ‘Half Napa’) Warmer neutrals are cream (Resene ‘Parchment’) and sandy (Dulux ‘Marton’) tones. Give neutrals impact by combining several textures in one room, such as rough-woven linen, rattan, shag-pile rugs, velvets, natural stones and animal skins.

Select a bright or deep-toned colour to combine with your neutral background and carry this theme through the room in towels, accessories and artwork.

Give neutrals impact in your bathroom by layering several shades and textures in one room, Try rough-woven linen, ratan, shag-pile rugs, velvets, natural stones and animal skins. Steal our idea with this bathmat, hand-soap dispenser and toothbrush holder, among others.