Grey-haters complain that the colour is ubiquitous, and, to some degree, they're right, say the writer. Picture: Benjamin Moore
Grey-haters complain that the colour is ubiquitous, and, to some degree, they're right, say the writer. Picture: Benjamin Moore

After years of being the 'it' neutral, grey may be on its way out

By The Washington Post Time of article published May 4, 2021

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Elizabeth Mayhew

There are a lot of things people are sick of these days: bad news, limited gatherings, Zoom calls, incessant cleaning and disinfecting, and, judging from the comments I see on social media, the colour grey. Whether it's a pale shade or a deep charcoal, grey seems to have overstayed its welcome.

I get that many of you are sick of the colour, in all of its variations, especially given the gloomy year we've had.

Grey-haters (or greyters, as I like to call them) complain that the colour is ubiquitous, and, to some degree, they're right. Walk into just about any design store, and you'll see swaths of grey upholstery, bedding and accessories.

How do I know my way up and down the grey paint chips so well? I painted almost every room of my house a shade of grey almost 10 years ago, and I wrote about it. Grey has been my go-to neutral because of its versatility; like a pair of grey pants, it goes with everything.

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But greyters call the colour depressing, dull and too safe. Gillian Gillies, a Toronto-based, Scottish-born interior designer who has never embraced grey, says she hopes the pandemic has ended the colour's run as the "in" neutral.

"We need hope, joy and the promise of brighter things, and I don't think grey can offer us that." She says her clients, who at one time were clamouring for grey, are suddenly requesting highly pigmented, saturated colours, such as aubergine, saffron yellow and all shades of green.

Colson Horton, a stylist and founder of ADR Creative in Nashville, recently left a mostly grey-hued house for a quintessential 1970s ranch house that even has a "Brady Bunch"-style sunken living room. She has gutted the home, tearing down walls and adding dentil molding and paneling. And she has painted the rooms various shades of white, blue and green.

"My old house had very tall ceilings and was very open, so grey suited the space, because it didn't overwhelm everything," Horton says. "It was a neutral palette that worked for the height and the scale of the rooms."

Elizabeth Mayhew’s TV room is painted Benjamin Moore’s whale Gray. Picture: Elizabeth Mayhew

Her new house, though, backs up to a state park, so it was important to her to carry the colours of the house's natural surroundings to the inside, hence the focus on greens and blues. Other colours Horton is using in her house echo those that Gillies is gravitating toward: mustard yellow, ochre, chartreuse, mulberry and rust. "I felt like I needed some vibrancy," Horton says. "Grey felt too even of a playing field, and I wanted more energy. Grey doesn't move me in a way that I need right now."

Jared Hughes, an Atlanta-based designer, is not averse to grey - as long as it's a warm grey that veers closer to a brown or black. What he doesn't like are greys that go too purple or pink. His other decorating peeve is when entire rooms are layered only in shades of grey. "Those rooms have such a Restoration Hardware circa [five to seven] years ago look. Totally one-note," Hughes says. "I think in general, grey became overused, and not in the right ways - too mainstream - and it needs a break." For an alternative, he suggests Farrow & Ball's Stone White, a cool neutral with green undertones.

I, too, am feeling restless about some of my grey rooms. My living room (painted with Grey Owl) is about to be done over in a textured Robin's Egg Blue wallpaper. The room has a large skylight, windows and French doors that show off lots of sky, and I have decided that rather than have the room mirror a grey, cloudy day, I want it to reflect a brighter, blue day. But other parts of my house - the guest room, guest bathroom, hallways and stairwell - will keep their Grey Owl paint, because it continues to be a solid neutral that unites the spaces, and it has allowed me to successfully mix in other colours and layer art and pattern.

Elizabeth Mayhew's guest bedroom, painted with Benjamin Moore's Gray Owl. Picture: Elizabeth Mayhew

I am also keeping the Benjamin Moore Whale Grey in my TV room. It's the perfect cosy colour for movie-watching, and it complements the mustard yellow and saffron accents I've layered into the room. (I guess I'm also gravitating toward those colours.) And I don't think I will ever change the woodwork and trim of my bathroom, painted in Benjamin Moore's Coventry Grey. It is still one of my favourite colours, with just the right blue undertone.

The thing is, I will always count grey as a viable neutral. I find that it works better with my aesthetic than its counterpart, beige. And although I love white, grey tones are just that much more of a colour commitment and statement. Maybe, like Hughes says, there has been too much grey, and a natural correction is taking place. But regardless of your feelings about the colour, I think everyone needs to stop judging other people for using it. The same colour of grey that reads as depressing for some feels cosy and inviting to others.

Your home should be a reflection of what you like, regardless of what's hot on Instagram or design blogs. Full stop. And remember: Decorating is a process. It's about evolving and finding what makes you and your loved ones happy. Colour is one effective way to get to that happiness. If you are drawn to grey - or any colour, for that matter - go ahead and embrace it. Or if grey is no longer bringing you joy, then maybe it's time for you to let it go. But only you can make that call.

* Elizabeth Mayhew, a "Today" show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of "Flip! for Decorating."

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