Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream)

Tricia and I have been noticing a trend with trim colours lately in our e-Design consultations.

And that is if you have an earthier palette in your house either because you prefer cream over white or you have a Tuscan palette from that trend, AND you are craving a fresher look and feel, it’s hard to do without painting all your trim out white.

Because the traditional way of creating contrast between the trim and walls means if you keep your creamy trim, your walls still need to be darker so that your trim doesn’t end up looking dirty.

Easier and definitely less expensive to just paint the walls the same colour as the trim.

So I asked Tricia to write a post explaining how it all works! Here it is:

 

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Painting the trim white has become so conventional that if you ask your painter to do anything else, he might look at you funny and launch into a diatribe about why it is a bad idea.

He wants to slap gloss white outta-the-can on all that wood work like he always does because that is his process.

And painting is his area of expertise, so he feels like he should advise you on the right way of doing things. Bless his steady hand and heart.

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
David Hicks La Fiorentina Wallpaper: Decorpad

And there is ample reason for this norm. It works. It makes rooms look crisp and finished and shows off the depth and tone of the pretty wall colour. It’s a no brainer, and probably, if you want to keep life simple, you might not even want to read on 😉

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
From Hunted Interior

With paint colour trends getting ever paler and with the white range pretty much reigning supreme these days, we do tend to run into some extremities of the rule.

Sometimes we don’t want to see the “depth and tone” of our paint colours so much as the fresh bright whiteness of them.

One situation that comes up quite often is when putting together the perfect all white kitchen. If you have a crisp off white on your cabinets like BM Simply White, is it necessary to get contrast from your walls? Do you need to paint them Creamier? Grayer? Whiter?

Possibly. White cabinets and a soft greige on the walls is a gorgeous and classic look and there are lots of good reasons to choose a greige over a white for your walls (below).

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
White Kitchen with BM Classic Gray Walls by Studio McGee

Much depends on the layout and details of the kitchen, but in many cases, a simple shift in sheen between the cabinets and walls is all that is needed. Very pale colours and whites excel at showing off sculptural and architectural detail, so it is often enough.

This strategy can also eliminate the common issue in kitchens of drawing attention to oddly shaped little bits of wall surrounding windows and cabinetry. You can keep it simple and create contrast and interest in other materials such as hardware, flooring and finishes instead.

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
From Home Bunch

 

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
From Blog Pure Home

This kitchen above has enough (possibly a bit much?) going on with the black windows and hardware, a contrasting wall colour would just be more, but not better.

Simplifying exerts a powerful tug on many of us these days. Modernism and our whole idea of progress had a general thrust toward simplification of form which many of us still associate with anything modern or contemporary. Painting out fussy details in woodwork and trim creates a more relaxed, serene, and less distracting backdrop for well edited decorating.

 

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
From Architectural Digest

And it’s not merely a contemporary or minimalist thing, many decorating styles benefit from reducing distracting and unnecessary detail.

Gorgeous old woodwork looks elegant when it is all painted out in the same white or pale colour. (Actually, this works well with dark colours too, but that is a different post).

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
From the Design Files

 

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
The Apartment of Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent From Architectural Digest

Classicists like design royalty Albert Hadley used this strategy often. Trim and woodwork is dealt with deliberately in his rooms to create symmetry and balance. If he wanted doors and windows to fall away, he would have them painted out the same colour as the walls like in his own dining room below.

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
Albert Hadley’s Dining Room

It lets the artwork and furniture be the focal point. A contrasting trim colour on those flanking doors would distract from the drama here.

And who wants to draw attention to awkward architectural detail and too many bizarre and unbalanced angles, out of proportion windows and oddly placed doors?

The main thing to know is that handling contrast well is one of the hallmarks of successful design. Where you create contrast is where the eye goes.

Contrast can be created in many ways with texture, and even mood but what I’m considering mainly here is contrast in value. Light and dark.

Using contrast well and deliberately creates interest, balance and well designated focal points. Using it badly, haphazardly or automatically (like when reaching for the gloss white for the trim, haha) it often amounts to clutter and visual “noise”.

And too much noise, visual or otherwise, is something many of us would generally like to avoid.

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
From HGTV

This room above is pretty enough, but I think it could be better if the bottom half of the wall was painted all white like proper wainscoting, or if one seamless colour was everywhere for a more current look.

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
via Decorpad

One of the most common instances of superfluous trim contrast that bugs me (indulge me here 😉 is when a skinny little chair rail halfway up a wall is painted gloss white presumptuously drawing attention to itself, when really, it has little to offer except vacuous distraction.

Beautiful board and batten or wainscoting is a different story of course.

Balance is at the heart of the issue.

If you are creating a room with a pale neutral on the wall and lots of crisp white trim, you need to repeat that crisp white in your décor.

If it is the only white in your room, it is going to stick out as stark, and wrong. Possibly only acceptable because we are so “used to” seeing white trim. Unless this room below was decorated with layered creams and whites, it would look better all in cream.

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
Via Garden Web

So here’s the trick: your trim colour, which is also often your cabinet colour, sets your “foundation palette”, and should in general be the whitest white you are going to work with in your décor.

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
A Manhattan Brownstone by Jeffrey Bilhuber and Peter Pennoyer from Architectural Digest

For example, I had fairly deep cream floor tile installed in my house ten years ago and I have some aging (let’s call it patina?) creamy pale beige vintage furniture.

My foundation palette is cream because I don’t want any crisp clean ivories or whites showing up my vintage pieces and tile in brightness. Once I got tired of the green grays and beiges that I needed to contrast with it, I found that the answer was simply to paint the walls the very same colour. I LOVE it. It is soft, bright and serene. And my sofa looks as fresh as it possibly can without painting the walls some dramatic deep colour.

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
Albert Hadley

The same idea applies for updating homes from the earthier Tuscan trend. Often, the trim everywhere is cream to work with the deeper, warmer wall colours we were working with then. And the best way to update a Tuscan wood stained kitchen is to paint the cabinets cream or even a creamy beige.

Sometimes, (as long as it works with your decor) the freshest, brightest look you can create is to take this same creamy colour up on to the walls and throughout for a clean and bright backdrop to refresh your rooms. You can liberate yourself from the necessity of creating contrast with your creamy trim that dictates deeper neutrals than you want to use, yay!

Trend Alert: Paint Your Walls and Trim White (or Cream) | Maria Killam
Designs for Living

In other words, your whitest white, even if it is a cream bordering on beige will look whiter without a whiter white to show it up. If you are in the range of cream, even a deep cream, you can keep that as your brightest white to work with. Or you can go with a soft contrast creamy off white, but going too white on your trim could make your creamy colour look more yellow and possibly dirtier than it is.

So while generally, you would want contrasting trim, there are lots of exceptions, and with the ever paler walls we are all craving these days, we come up against them more often. Getting the contrast right is more important and nuanced than grabbing the whitest white you can buy.

White doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it neutral. It needs to be treated like a colour, chosen deliberately and repeated often.

Thanks Tricia, this is a fabulous post!

Related posts:

When White Walls are the ONLY Solution

Related posts:

The Best Trim Colours NOT Cloud White

The Best Exterior Trim Colours NOT Cloud White

How to Choose Ceiling Colours: Do’s and Don’ts

 

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  1. What a great post! So helpful in thinking about a top to bottom assessment of your home.
    Wish I could be with you all there in Seal Beach today. It looks wonderful. I will keep on dreaming!

  2. Interesting post. But, for those of us who live in more modest homes, is our trim color supposed to relate to the white of our vinyl windows or can it be a bit more off-white and still look right? Thank you for your insight!

    • One of my questions as well. I never really noticed that my windows were white white and my trim was off white until I started reading Maria’s blog so I think it is ok if it is already that way. Blinds, curtains cover most of it anyway.

    • Your ceiling should be one shade of white lighter than the white on your trim/walls, whites for ceilings is covered extensively in my White is Complicated eBook 🙂

  3. Tricia, lovely examples! Wonderful ideas to update all those Floridian homes with “Tuscan era” tile that may be too expensive to rip out. What do you suggest doing in the bathrooms of these same homes that have white fixtures but “Tuscan-like” tile? Same creamy trim?
    Sue

    • It depends which white is more prominent. Sometimes it might look better to relate the trim to the white fixtures in the bathroom. But if your tile is creamy in general your trim should match your tile.
      Thanks for your comment!
      Maria

  4. A really interesting article! It makes me think about things that never occurred to me before. Great job, Tricia.
    Seeing all the photos of rooms with great, elaborate millwork makes me want to rip out all of my skimpy trim & replace it. But it would be cheaper to paint it the same color as my walls so it doesn’t get noticed.

    • That’s what I did in our dining room. I dislike the existing picture frame and chair rail molding but couldn’t afford to replace the drywall. I just painted it all the same color and sheen as the wall. It disappears now; just adds a little texture and dimension. So happy with it!

  5. Great post! Those of us with skimpy builder basic trim can just match walls to trim. I ordered and loved your ebooks but can’t find them on my computer. Can they be downloaded again? My cabinets are 6 years old and off white and I was thinking of painting them white so this post was very helpful. They can stay off white and instead of painting every wall a shade of gray I’ll just match the trim on the walls. I have asked for a consultation for my bday and xmas, let’s hope they have heard my not so subtle hints!! xo

    • Hi Brooke, email [email protected] and she’ll send them to you again ASAP.

      White on white won’t automatically work for every house, it’s what everyone wants right now but make sure you have lots of white in your decor to pull it off.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • Thank you and Lisa for sending the books again! I have read each twice and learned so much more from them. The white, off-white and cream paint color charts are a big help.
        Brooke

  6. I loved a few of these that had high contrast dark accents. But I once staged a home owned by a surgeon who had painted everything white. It was a gorgeous loft, but impossible to sell because people would walk in and walk right out again. It felt cold. I think if you’re going white, a blend of white shades softens and warms a space.

  7. There is so much I love about this post, that I don’t even know where to begin.

    One of your best, Maria! Thanks.

  8. Excellent advice. I have an old Tuscan kitchen (tobacco cabinets, earth tone tiles) . Its ok with Navajo White trim. I was going to paint the cabinets white to match the appliances but think the NW would be much better – but will it will stark white appliances

  9. Great read, Tricia! White IS complicated, that’s why you will be picking out my kitchen and dining room colors next! Maria, thanks for taking the time to respond to comments while you are in sunny CA. Personal interaction is what sets you apart from the rest, and it is much appreciated. 🙂

  10. Great post. I have one question though, do you also paint risers and spindles and skirtboard the same color as the trim and mould. Or can different white or off white be used? Thanks

  11. Thanks so much for this great post! We bought a house a year ago that has those “skinny chair rails” in all the main living/dining areas of the house. I thought it looked so weird to have it painted bright white splitting up the walls, so I asked my husband to please remove it. We are DIYers and he said that it would be a heck of a job to patch the drywall well, so we’ve left it. I’m used to it now so it doesn’t bother me anymore, but thanks to this great article I finally understand why it was bugging me and now I know what to do about it!! Thank you Maria and Tricia, y’all are wonderful!!

    • Oh good, I thought it was my “morning after a late night” state that caused my comprehension issues! I think the info is good, but some editing is needed for coherency.

  12. Thoughtfully written, and extremely helpful as we proceed with my kitchen redesign and living room refresh packages. My home has always been one construction grade color. Reading the “why” behind your ideas, I am assured that our paint choices will be the right one’s for the overall design, and money will be well spent repainting. Thank you Tricia.

  13. Enjoyed this post. Maria what white did you choose for your own kitchen cabs, doors, moulding, and ceilings?

    I’m paralyzed regarding the decision. All walls, trim and doors were painted Navajo White when bought our new home in the late 80’s. Just stuck with it because when installed wood plantation shutters I chose the same color because I didn’t want contrast.

    Well now time to remodel our kitchen for the 3rd time and will not be talked out of white, but stumped by what white, because I know I’ll want all doors and trim to match, including the shutters if I can find someone who can refinish those expertly.
    I know it won’t be Navajo! Too dark.

    • Hi Susan, good question I would say yes, trim and woodwork should be at least satin for durability and walls can be as low sheen as flat, but usually a colour goes lighter and chalkier in a flatter finish, so maybe eggshell and satin would be the way to go to minimize the difference in sheen.

  14. We did have a gorgeous venue in Seal Beach!

    Since I have read & listened to pretty much everything that Maria has put out there, and I’ve used her large boards for several years for color consults, I hesitated on whether or not to invest in the live class. I’m so glad I did! Not only did I learn much and clarify many questions, I could also see clearly where I’m lacking in knowledge and now know how to proceed to get to where I want to go. Thanks, Maria!

  15. Very well explained! Darryl Carter often does this too using only the sheens of paint to provide subtle “contrast.” In fact, we just painted our cabinets Simply White and now the walls are the same color. It opens up our once dreary room and keeps the focal point on certain pieces I’ve chosen to highlight…I love it and plan to replace the greige in the living room down the road to the same trim color 🙂

  16. Do the cabinets have to match the trim? I have white trim, but would really like my cabinets to be a warmer white. But, the painter says I need to use the trim color for the cabinets, otherwise they will end up looking cream.