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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Black-and-White Interiors Bring Certainty to Uncertain Times

Updated: May 18, 2020

If everything isn’t black and white, I say, ‘Why the hell not?’

– John Wayne, American actor

As we all figuratively gather together (because we can’t actually get together), and huddle under grey, COVID-cloud-covered skies, I am craving, above all, certainty.

More questions than answers pepper my days: When will this end? Will the world ever be safe? Will hospitals have enough beds? Does any store have toilet paper? I long for definitive answers.

So when an email landed in my inbox last week featuring a dozen images of crisp, black-and-white home interiors and accessories, my response was relief. This unambiguous, unequivocating, uncompromising pairing of definitively opposite colors is exactly what I need right now.

While trends come and go, the chic pairing of black and white, the opposite ends of the color spectrum, is always in style, and maybe today more than ever.

In the world of color, black and white mean all or nothing – literally. In light white combines all color (think how a prism fractures white light), and black is the absence of color (think deep space). In pigment, black is all color (think about all the crayons melting together) and white is no color (the blank canvas).

So move over gray and beige, and make way for a color combination that takes a stand, that has a backbone, that isn’t wishy washy, that brings … certainty!

Now, before you accuse me of getting too carried away, I looked up “Creative license,” and it says right here in my AP Stylebook, “Crises and other tough times make hyperbolic outbursts permissible in even the finest journalism.”

My renewed appreciation for this time-tested pairing led me to call up a few designers to ask: What is it about black and white that’s just so reassuring?

“People choose black and white because its clean, clear and bold,” said Joanne LaFauci, an interior designer who works for Ethan Allen. “Because it uses two ends of the spectrum, it creates drama through contrast. Just as in fashion, in interiors the combination feels sure and sophisticated.”

“When I think about black and white, I think about Old Paris, Chanel fashion and a classic entry in a Georgian home,” said Beverly Hills interior designer Christopher Grubb. “While other color combinations come and go, black and white is timeless. Today, we feel pulled toward it because it’s something to lean on.”

“Every designer has done a black-and-white room,” New York interior designer Gideon Mendelson added. “It’s part of our designer DNA. Different designers – Ralph Lauren, Dorothy Draper, Billy Baldwin -- have each brought it to the forefront of design in different ways. Black and white rooms feel dramatic, confident, graphic, modern and nostalgic all at once.”

Although I’m not quite ready to redecorate a room in my house in the colors of a chess board, I asked our experts what we should consider in case we feel so compelled:

  • Why choose black and white? “For the fact that it’s not grey or beige,” Grubb said. “The combination works, and it’s always worked. This is for the person who has always played it safe and now wants some drama.” “Black-and-white interiors suit all styles,” said LaFauci. “Regardless of whether the interior is art deco, very modern, French, or country, the color scheme works.” In addition, the combination gets along well with others, so can serve as a pleasing backdrop for seasonal color changes.

  • Where to use it? The combination works in almost any room, said Grubb, who especially likes black and white kitchens. “Picture white cabinets with black soapstone counters and a black island, or black cabinets topped with white marble and graphite faucets,” he said. “I could also see it in a media room, with black chairs, zebra-print carpet and white walls.” Mendelson favors black and white for more formal rooms, like living or dining rooms “where people bring color in with their clothing or with food.” He also likes the combination in a powder room. “Black and white bathrooms feel nostalgic to me, like old Hollywood”

  • Secrets to success. While limiting your decor to black and white simplifies color selection, beware. It also amplifies errors if you get the proportions wrong. To strike the right balance, don’t use the colors in equal amounts. “One has to overtake a little,” said LaFauci. “Somewhere around 60/40 seems like a good mix.” This is also the time to play with shine and contrast, Mendelson said. “Introduce black lacquer or high-gloss black paint on furniture, moldings or picture frames. Also avoid tone-on-tone arrangements. Don’t put a black sofa against a black wall.

  • Sketch it out. Before you start, compose the room on paper, Mendelson said. Think about the planes of the room. If you have a black ebony wood floor then paint baseboards white, and layer on a wallcovering that is white with black pattern. Sketching out the room in dark pencil lets you play with the combinations until it looks right.

  • Have courage. “This is a good time in our history to commit to this classic color scheme,” said Grubb. “It shows we have nerve and it’s something we know for certain.”

CAPTION 1: Classic Country -- The black-and-white color scheme gives this bedroom an upscale country look, said Ethan Allen designer Joanne LaFauci. “The patterned quilt and metal bed say country and rustic, but the crisp colors give it a modern edge.” Photo courtesy of Ethan Allen.

CAPTION 2: A Study in Contrasts -- “Black-and-white bathrooms always feel nostalgic to me,” says New York designer Gideon Mendelson. Photo courtesy of Tempaper.

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