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Neutral Interior Design: 9 Must-Follow Rules for Subdued Spaces

Let me just put it out there: neutral interior design is a lot harder to pull off than people think.

Because neutral spaces look so easy-breezy and have a calm and effortless vibe about them, you assume they’re a cinch to create. Sadly, that’s not true (or every designer would be out of a job).

It’s quite often the reverse actually; you’d be surprised how much effort goes into making a room look like no effort has been exerted at all.

I was discussing this very topic recently with my dear friend and fellow designer Jessi Eve Deakin. She’s an absolute pro at that effortless, neutral interior design scheme. It’s what her brand and business is all about and she’s been doing it wonderfully ever since we graduated from design school together seven years ago.

So I got to thinking…why not pick Jessi Eve’s brain on just what it takes to make all your neutral interior design ideas come to life. A set of rules, if you will. So below that’s just what I did. You’ll also get to see a whole stack of Jessi Eve’s fabulous design work from her client homes too, which is the icing on the (very delicious design) cake.

Photography above via Paper and Pate.

rattan sideboard in bohemian style room with boho art neutral interior design

1. Avoid the White on White on White

Calm, soothing rooms don’t just happen. Nailing neutral interior design involves more strategy than an episode of Survivor. The common mistake people make in trying to pull off a neutral room, I’ve found, is bringing in white furniture and decor into an all-white room. 

This approach actually makes your space feel more asylum than it does alluring. Cold and sterile is the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve, but so often it’s exactly how the room ends up feeling.

“A literal white-on-white space is actually very tricky to master due to the infinite shades of white,” Jessi Eve advises. “One shade of white can suddenly look blue, grey, yellow, green or pink against another shade of white. Before you know it, you’ve got a washed-out chaos of clashing hues which makes for a very lacklustre result.”

The moral of the story: light and bright doesn’t necessarily mean WHITE. 

“A successful light interior is an amalgamation of many various well-considered elements that work together to evoke that feeling of airiness whilst still remaining homely and warm”.

So, step away from all that white melamine furniture and opt for some other tones instead. 

Photography above via The Design Villa.

bohemian courtyard decorating with vertical garden and outdoor rug

2. Instead, Explore Many Subdued Tones

By all means have some white in your home. Hell, have a tonne of it. But you have to be open to other neutrals too. Jessi Eve explains that working in other subdued tones is the key to establishing depth in your room. 

“I like to firstly determine whether the neutral palette is predominantly cool or warm. This is basically the difference between beige tones (warm) and grey tones (cool). I personally love a blend of the two (‘greige’) as the right shade can read as either cool or warm depending on which other tones are placed alongside it,” Jessi Eve says.

“Once you’re clear on the base-tone of your palette, you can then start to introduce decor elements to suit. You might add a medley of natural-toned cushions to your beige sofa or a light grey throw to complement your charcoal bed head. It’s certainly not “against the rules” to mix warm and cool tones but it does require a good eye to ensure tonal balance and cohesion”. 

Photography above via The Design Villa.

boho bedroom four poster bed with muslin

3. Texture: It’s a More is More Situation

Neutral interior design spaces need texture like I need my glass of Savvy B at the end of the workday. Without texture, your room is flat and uninviting. Again, kinda like me without my glass of Savvy B at the end of the workday.

Jessi Eve is a pro when it comes to texture in neutral rooms and explains below why this is an element you need to pay the most attention to.

“Textures create movement within an otherwise flat space. They create visual and tactile interest without adding chaos (which pattern and colour can often be guilty of if not carefully considered). 

My favourite textures are as natural in form as possible. Things like linen, raw timbers, rattan, cane, seagrass, jute, earthenware and wool are all beautiful ways to not only add texture but also warmth and contrast”.

Jessi Eve goes on to explain that you can also add texture through special wall paint and wallpaper applications, or v-groove panelling to add interest to plain white walls. 

Photography above via Paper and Pate.

neutral interior design dining room rattan storage cabinet white dining chair

4. A Medley of Timbers is a Must

This is one I see done wrong so often. People tend to bring in a stack of white timbers into a room and then as time goes on, they just keep adding more white timber. That, my dears, is just not enough to bring your neutral room to life.

“When I’m creating neutral spaces, I like to use a mix of timbers to create visual depth and interest, but the key is to ensure they are in the same tonal family,” Jessi Eve points out. “This will mean you have a beautiful balance of variety as well as cohesion. 

So, if oak is your preferred timber and you have a key furniture item in oak, you can add in other complementary timbers such as elm and teak which will bring their own unique characteristics in terms of texture, pattern and tone – without clashing or competing with the oak. 

It’s also important to consider the tone of other timber elements in the space such as flooring”.

See it in Action: The dining room above that Jessi Eve has styled showcases so many different timber colours. So soothing, so easy-breezy, but so varied and detailed.

Photography above by The Women’s Pic.

neutral interior design white living room with round black and white table with brass base

5. Metallics are your Secret Weapon

One way to introduce a range of tones into your neutral palette is to use different textures such as metal. It’s not something a lot of people realise is so important but it does dramatically enhance a neutral room and give it a load of detail and textural interest.

All too often people think neutral spaces are just timbers and soft furnishings playing together. But here’s the news just in: metallics are indeed rather marvellous at breaking up potential monotony.

“For example, you can add brass (warm) or stainless steel (cool) elements like a tray and lamp or a seagrass basket (warm) or concrete planter (cool) into a neutral palette which will instantly add depth, interest and variety,” Jessi Eve says. “The key is to have three or four connecting “feature” elements within the space and keep the rest simple”.

Here’s the Proof: Get a load of that shelf styling above from Jessi Eve’s project. There are so many metallic moments in the decor displayed. And can we talk about the brass base of that coffee table? Stunning.

Photography above via Paper and Pate.

This approach to design is very in keeping with my recently forecasted Boho Luxe Interior Trend.

neutral living room with light tan leather sofa boho style round black coffee table

6. Surprise: Black is Not off the Table

Neutral rooms don’t have to be an all white, all light affair. In fact, I would suggest it’s practically criminal not to include some black or dark browns in your scheme.

This won’t make the space feel heavy, I assure you. It’s all about balance and ensuring you’re using a 90% white, 10% black kind of ratio. Get that right and you have yourself a stunning space.

“When done well, black in an otherwise all-white interior can add the perfect pop of contrast to ground the space and give the eye somewhere to land,” Jessi Eve tells me. “I like using black in patterns throughout the space. For example, in a Moroccan-style rug or a mud cloth cushion, as a solid tone in a terracotta vase, candle or artwork frame.

She adds that you can achieve the same impact by simply using darker-toned timber or deeper hues such as charcoal, navy and olive green which can read as almost black when deep enough in shade.

Photography above via Christie Moore.

boho living room with white moroccan diamond rug and sheer curtains

7. Twist! You Must Include Colour

A neutral room, as I hope you’re now discovering, is more than white. It’s also more than white and oak tones. And it’s definitely allowed to include black. But you know what else it needs to have: colour!

Now, for you colour-phobics, I can fully appreciate that the thought of colour in your neutral room is enough to give you heart palpitations. But hear us out. It’s all about the tone of colour you use, and we highly recommend a few dusty hues.

“Even in a typically neutral space, I will usually always introduce some colour. Even if it’s just in the coffee table books and a cushion or two,” Jessi Eve admits. “I love a subtle hint of hue and I personally prefer to keep them in the soft, muted, pastel range, so as not to be too jarring against the beautiful light and bright space but this is totally personal preference”.

So, let’s workshop our fear of colour and get into some mild tones, shall we?!

Photography above via The Design Villa.

bohemian office with bamboo ceiling and cactus

8. Drama is Still Called For

Just because your room is calming and neutral doesn’t mean it is without a focal point. You still want to walk into the zone and feel impacted in a positive way. So do think outside the box and include a few unexpected elements that will wow the eye. 

“The calm palette will help keep the crazy in-check,” Jessi Eve explains. “Maybe you have wanted to have a go at creating your own wall art, add a feature tile to your fireplace, splash out on a custom barn-door, make your own patterned cushion covers – whatever it might be! 

By keeping the palette and materials within your scheme neutral, you can at least rest knowing that (at the very least) the colours you have chosen will work within the space. The rest is up to you and your limitless creativity to bring in your own personal, unique touch”.

A Dreamy Neutral Office: Notice in the image above that there’s still a sense of interest and drama in the space? It’s all thanks to that ceiling application. What a genius idea!

Photography above via The Design Villa.

bohemian dining room white marble table round black mirror australian natives on tray

9. Don’t be too Rigid with your Theme

I always like to have the homes I design feel rich and layered instead of overly themed. Often though, when people are putting together neutral interior design in their spaces, the decor gets stuck in one distinct look.

I ask you to fight against this by calling upon a number of design styles. It can be tough to do, and you of course want to come back to an over-arching theme. But do go out of your comfort zone a little. Jessi Eve advises that doing this stops your home from feeling cookie-cutter. And I couldn’t agree more.

“The best place to start would be to identify the key styles you are drawn to and then pull out the common threads between them and use these as the foundations of your scheme,” she explains. “Most styles have elements that overlap with other styles anyway. Don’t be afraid to mix and match as long as each element relates back to your key look and feel”.

Photography above via The Design Villa.

Are you a fan of neutral interior design but have been struggling to make your ideas work at home? I hope you found this post useful. Drop me a comment below and let me know how you execute a subdued scheme. I’d love to hear from you.

Click here to visit Jessi Eve’s website and see more of her amazing design work.


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Chris Carroll

Outside of writing this blog, Chris is an interior designer, presenter and author. He’s also spent time on TV, on Channel 10’s Changing Rooms, as well presenting segments on Channel 7’s Sunrise and The Morning Show. If you’d like to book a design consult with Chris, you can find out more here

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12 Responses

  1. I’m excited to introduce a subtle hint of pastel hue into my neutral with black room – just the inspo I need

  2. Bloody Brilliant!! I loved it all! I love a neutral space for the fact that it remains versatile (for those of us who love to change things up regularly) and creates a room that is calming and easy to be in. I have been feeling a bit lost with my neutral living/ktichen/dining area lately, but this has given me inspiration and helped me feel I am on the right track too. Thanks legends!

  3. I love the calm feeling of a neutral space but I’m always worried about it looking boring. NOT ANYMORE! I’m excited to try out the styling rules you’ve written about in this post. Especially the last one about not being too rigid with a theme. I like quite a few different styles but have been stuck in limbo because I thought I needed to pick one style.

  4. Love this article Chris, so many great points and tips plus beautiful imagery. Thanks for sharing and I hope all is well with you.

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I’m interior designer Chris Carroll, and at TLC Interiors we’re all about helping you create an amazing home without breaking the bank. It’s affordable designer style at its best, and we make the whole process easy and fun for clients & readers alike!

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