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:



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

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




leave aREPLY

  1. My cabinets are bright white and walls green, appliances are white and roller shades are white. The ceiling which connects to another room was painted the same bright white but there is a noticeable line as the rest of the house is an off white. Shouldn’t the ceiling be the same color in adjoining rooms even if it is off white and cabinets and trim are bright white?

  2. Hi,
    I am painting walls with wainscoting and chair rail. I plan to paint all the same color. My question is, should the wainscoting and chair rail be a different sheen than the eggshell wall? This is a commercial project for a condo building lobby.
    Thanks so much,

  3. Great article about a subtle, challenging topic in design. I found it illuminating and instructive, with good photo examples. Thank you.

  4. Maria, Great post. My kitchen cabinets are a cream color. A designer from ppg came to my house and matched the color macaroon cream to put on trim in kitchen. she suggested I use this trim throughout the house. Part of me knows that this will look great…but part of me wants a whiter trim:(. I know that the whiter trim will make my kitchen look dingy and drab and I don’t really want to have to repaint cabinets. Do you agree that color matching cabinets and using that color on trim throughout will look most cohesive???

    • Hi Kate, since the trend now is white and light I would choose an off-white that coordinates with your cream kitchen cabinets so that you can go with a lighter colour on the walls throughout your house. Before the white trend, I said cabinets and trim should match however now that the trend is pale and fresh on the walls, your creamy trim will look dirty so go with an off-white that coordinates. Hope that helps, Maria