What I learned from living with all-white walls for a whole year

What I learned from living with all-white walls for a whole year

Where did the time go? A year ago yesterday, we moved into our current new-to-us, really old home, a house we didn’t originally intend to seriously consider buying, but that we all really love.

(Me: Is it annoying that I keep telling you how much I love our house? Will: Nope, because I never want to move again.)

The house was built in 1912, but the interior was completely redone the year before we bought it. We hear it was a gut job. (They even moved a staircase!) And every wall in the house—with the exception of an attached porch off my office (beige)—was painted white. Specifically, Benjamin Moore’s Simply White.

A quick note about these photos: I love you muchly, but I am not a home blogger, and this is not a house tour. I hope these pictures give you an idea of our space and how it impacts our white wall satisfaction level.  

Clean slate on moving day

We’d tried white walls in the past, and weren’t happy with the look. In our old homes—built in 1939 and 1960—they didn’t look pleasingly simple, they looked unfinished. My previous white spaces looked blah, no matter how much texture or pattern I worked into the room.

I thought white walls weren’t for me.

But then we saw this house. It’s a 1912 Craftsman, with lots of light, ten-foot ceilings, and interesting architectural details. We decided pretty quickly to leave the white walls for the time being. Moving is exhausting, and not painting is easy.

Our living room six weeks after we moved in. Don’t worry, the tv hasn’t been over the mantel for a long time.

But also, we liked the look—and when else were we going to get the chance to live in an all-white home for a while with so little work? We viewed it as our opportunity to experience the house with a neutral-ish backdrop so we could decide how we wanted to move forward. My friend Myquillyn calls this “quieting the house.”

What the pros say:

I was surprised to discover that professional designers don’t like all-white walls. House Beautiful calls it “a paint color mistake you should never make,” and they’re in good company. Designers say it’s rare that a single color—no matter what it is—truly suits every room in the house. People are drawn to all white because it’s simple and easy, but that doesn’t mean it looks good.

Looking into the library from the living room. Read more about our library here

But wait. What about all those gorgeous white rooms on Instagram and design blogs? Well. It turns out that designers also say that white photographs really well—so much so that it often looks much better in photos than in real life. The Wall Street Journal even calls white walls “Instagram gold,” because they look terrific in photographs and easily combine to make a unified grid. (Psst—it’s also easy to artificially amp up the lighting for photos, and most of those design mag white wall photos I love get serious lighting help.)

Flat paint is best for looks. More on that in a minute.

The salvaged wooden island warms up our all-white kitchen. I take a lot of book stack photos here because the light is amazing.

What I know now about considering the all-white look:

• Our instincts were good: when choosing paint colors, the bones of the house are important. White walls highlight the architecture, so you need to like it.

• Natural light is a must. Bright white rooms are lovely, but dim white rooms look institutional. (Rule of thumb: if you need to turn on lights during the day, there’s not enough natural light for white walls.)

• What I didn’t realize: what’s outside the house affects how the walls look inside the house. Of course a big tree in front of the window blocks light, but they also cast a green glow into the room. Ditto for our exposed green rafters, and the trees whose leaves turn orange and red in the fall.

It’s easy to add pops of color to a neutral backdrop.

• Texture is important or your place looks sterile. This comes from the house itself, like in that very top photo with the painted wooden wall boards, or the fireplace and mantel. And textiles, and also furniture and floors. (Ours are hardwood throughout, with area rugs, except for the sunroom, which has wooden floors painted a medium gray. I wish I knew what the actual color was.)

One year in, here’s what I’ve learned about living with white walls:

• It’s easy. So easy. We have four kids and a dog, but we can touch up paint on the whole house in ten minutes because we just need one can of paint, or two if the trim needs help.

• Except when it’s not. Our walls are flat white, which can’t be cleaned. The trim is eggshell, which is easier (but not easy) to wipe off.

• More easy: having a uniform scheme (if we can call this a “scheme”) saved me from having to make piles of decisions at a time when I couldn’t afford decision fatigue. Plus everything seamlessly flows.

White walls are great for photographs, especially this textured brick. It looks yellow-ish here: we snapped this right after we moved in and didn’t yet know how to shoot the white walls. Shirt from Readerly

• It photographs really well. I take 60% of my blog photos in one of our white rooms (with great light), often in front of a painted white brick wall (the only wall in the house that’s semi-gloss) like the one above. (I’m guessing I take another 30% in the library, which has good light, but not amazing light.)

• I was afraid all-white would feel boring, but it feels (mostly) serene. I did have to consciously add personality with accents, which stumped me for a while, but we got there. (Throwing a party gave me the nudge I needed.)

Our living room: white walls, neutral bones, lots of texture.

• Everything goes with white walls, right? Nope. Our white walls read as “cool” in our space. When we moved, I was so excited about bringing our adored taupe sectional into our new space. The warm tones we carried over from our previous house clashed with the cool tones in our new place. I was flabbergasted. (That sectional is in the basement, replaced with grey and brown leather sofas I love with our cool white walls.)

• Houseplants look amazing against white walls.

• The lighting matters so much. My favorite white rooms are the ones with light on two (or three) sides. It’s hard to get great light in a room with light on one wall only. My urge to paint over the white correlates perfectly with the amount of light a room gets.

The fireplace, decked out for Christmas. Even without the stockings, the stone, brick and wood provide texture and visual interest.

Where we go from here:

I haven’t done anything to our home for a while, and while we’re definitely settled in, the house isn’t remotely “finished.” Not that a house is ever finished—but after a six months reprieve from thinking about our space, I’m ready to dive back in and finish some halfway-done spaces and hang a lot more art and photos, and I’ll definitely be considering paint options. After a year with white walls, I have a good feel for where white is perfect, and where pretty neutrals could better serve the space.

We’re about to de-white at least one room: my daughter and I are planning a mini makeover for her room, she wants to paint. I agree. Her room gets gorgeous light—for about two hours a day. The rest of the time the white looks blah, so we’re choosing a nice neutral that better suits her space.

And for what it’s worth, the pros say we’ll see more dark, moody colors in the years to come. When it comes to my home, I’m not trendy—but I do like to look.

I would love to hear about your experience with white walls. Have you ever lived with all-white, or de-whited your own living space? I would love to hear about it in comments. 

P.S. The furniture you live on, and the furniture you live around. And I’m not waiting for the next house anymore.

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30 comments

  1. Angela Mills says:

    We moved last June and painted our bedrooms and office, but the rest of our house is white. The previous owners painted the ceilings a different shade of white and there’s about 6” of that shade at the top of each wall. That drives me crazy. I agree the white walls are great for photos, but it doesn’t feel warm enough for me with the furniture we currently have and the lack of sunlight we get. I think it looks great in your house, especially with all those windows. I have been in love with your library since you first posted it!

    Our last home had a very light, yellow based color that I loved, but all of our photos had a yellowish cast to them. I am still trying to decide what color to go with when we do get around to painting. I love to search color schemes on Pinterest!

  2. Karrie says:

    Our walls are yellow pine with clear finish. Not my fave, but I have appreciated that I don’t have to “decide” what to paint the walls!
    One of my favorite rooms ever was painted Sea Star by Benjamin Moore.

  3. Shell says:

    Interesting post Anne!
    I agree completely with the outside impacting the inside. Last year I was really tempted to paint my greige/taupe walls cloud white to match the trim. I had these lovely white silk curtains and I was convinced it would look so light and airy. Fast forward to this winter. After over two months of white snow and white skies I couldn’t stand white anymore. I took the white curtains down and put up the old green ones and am very happy I didn’t paint the walls. I’m pretty sure once the green of spring and summer are back I will be dreaming of white again ; ). For now I’m happy to have some warmth and colour on my walls. If I lived somewhere that didn’t have 4-6 months of snow on the ground I might be tempted to paint more rooms white.

  4. All-white can be very zen and focus the attention on other aspects of the décor. We have very good light, with east and west windows in our “great room” (open-plan living/dining/kitchen). When we bought the place, we covered the pink and mint green walls (seriously) with white, but after a few years we went for a barely there ecru, that’s just the glow of sunrise on white. The furniture is mostly white, and you can’t tell the difference unless you hold a sofa cushion against the wall. There’s just a little warmth to it. Sometimes the ultra-clean, very white look tugs at my heartstrings, but I’m not in the mood to paint.

  5. Beth says:

    I just have to comment on this fun post, Anne, since I have always had white-ish walls in every one of my eight grown-up homes. Every single room. I used to think I wanted something other than white walls, but it was really important to my hubby so we have always kept it simple. I’ve had so many friends encourage me to paint the walls a fun color — especially when our kiddos were little. Might sound boring to some but I just looked at it as one more decision I didn’t have to make. (We did wallpaper once which was fun but never, ever again. That’s another story!) You are so right about white not going with everything – and about how the outdoors and natural light make a difference. We used to live in an uber contemporary house on the side of a mountain. Shaped like a triangle with lots of glass. White worked best there. I warmed up the spaces with textures, earthy tones, pops of color. Easy to decorate with that simple palate. All very soothing and, as you said, serene. Our current home is painted a warmer white, but it’s still white in every single room. I love it. Peaceful.

  6. Kim says:

    We had white walls in a previous house with beautiful, unpainted cherry woodwork. And brown carpeting. It was lovely in the summer and autumn when the trees were lush and leaf shadows danced over the walls. However, we live in a cold climate and six months of brown and white indoors and brown and white outdoors could not be mitigated by any number of color pops. It just about drove me mad. When we moved, I painted everything in pale shades of grey-green and grey-blue and grey-lavender and I am a much happier person (though I still love cherry woodwork!)

  7. Janean says:

    This post came at just the right time, as I’m selecting paint colors for our entire first floor. Currently, we have a few different shades of a buttery yellow in every room 😝. If I never see yellow again, 👍🏻. It just casts a dingy hue over everything. I considered white, so I was glad to read the pros and cons of all white. Our bedroom is painted a dark chocolate brown. It works great for a bedroom and it’s a very large room with vaulted ceilings, so it can handle the color without feeling claustrophobic. It’s very soothing to my light averse tendencies. However, I did learn that dark colors show dust easily. I think we’re going with Benjamin Moore Revere Pewter, a classic gray, or ‘greige’, with warm undertones. It’s their most popular color and beloved by decorators because it can go cool or warm depending on the light or surrounding objects. It works equally well with white trim and dark woods. We have a fairly open floor plan, so I think I’m going to stick with that one color for continuity and ease of touch ups as you mentioned. I also plan to paint our kitchen tile, which is a dated multicolor pattern, a high gloss bright white to convert it to a subway tile look without re-tiling. The only spot I plan to add a little color is the laundry room and perhaps the powder room, where I’m going with a light blue/aqua. I’m thinking Benjamin Moore Ocean Air, Wedgewood Gray, Palladian Blue or Sherman Williams Sea Salt. Taking suggestions! The laundry room is small and has no natural night and the powder room has a tiny window. Happy painting!

  8. Grace says:

    My husband and I bought our first house in the summer, so it was our first opportunity to actually have control over the paint colour in our home. Each of the rooms of the house we bought was painted a different colour and we actually came in and painted the whole thing white. It’s a pretty tiny house, and the “white” actually has a green undertone – almost like an extremely light mint. It completely refreshed the house and made everything (like the unfortunate flooring) look better. I love it! And I love seeing how the colour changes depending on the room or the way the light is shining.

  9. Diana says:

    Love this! We are a White House. We use a soft Country White so it isn’t glaring and I prefer a semi-gloss. It isn’t dull and wipes easy. I can pick up color with curtains and decor. I think the creamier shade works well with cool or warm colors and any season. I find it calming. Love white!

  10. Birgitta Qvarnström Frykner says:

    I do like white walls. After moving to my latest house i fell in love with a creame colour for my kitchen cabinets, then my husband fell in love with s.c. italian tiles with ochre and green and burnt ochre. He also chose a wallpaper garland with the same colours. And now i am so frustrated, i am used to change curtains the year around in the rooms after holidays and seasons. For ex before christmas the 1 of december, we change all curtains around the house. Christmas red and “warmer” cloths like velvet. Then after christmas i want to change back again. But i LOVE blue in the kitchen an the other clours there make it impossible to use that colour. This seems that i change curtains a lot but i dont. In our bedroom, twice like in the guest/ tele room. The living room. But to have white walls is preferable so you can chose whatever colours in furniture, curtains, carpets you want. You are always able to find a warm or call colour, bright or matt. White is a whole range. In the UK they use Magnolia in everything that is always a practical colour. If you are tired of your white, wallpaper just one wall. That will always be enough for a change

  11. Melanie says:

    You may say you’re not a home blogger, but I love seeing pictures of peoples homes!

    I lived with roommates in rentals well into my adulthood, so when I bought my home this past year, I wanted anything but “rental white!” (But I think a nice quality white paint looks great in some homes). Most of my rooms are a very light shade of gray that pulls slightly warm. I painted three of my four bedroom walls navy blue – which I love – but only because I have other light, airy rooms to spend time in.

    I feel like I need a summer house and the winter house. In winter I want something cozy and warm, but when summer rolls around that coziness just feels cluttered and oppressive (and summer’s light, breeziness feels cold and empty in the winter). I can do some changing for the seasons with accessories and textiles, but I’m not about to repaint and buy new styles of furniture with every change of the season!

  12. Ellie says:

    That shot of your couch and all those pillows looks SO cozy and comfy.
    I realized that the rug you have in your library is the same one I have in my living room – I love it so much!

  13. Suzanne says:

    Thank you Anne for giving us a peek into your lovely historic home! I love the all-white with pops of color. It is so clean and bright. Ironically, just yesterday I published a post on my blog all about our Fixer Upper and how the kitchen and dining room are my “happy place”. There are lots of photos of before and after. Sharing your world helps the rest of us! https://www.adventuresofemptynesters.com/the-empty-nest-the-newly-renovated-kitchen-and-dining-room/

  14. Susan Clark says:

    Moved to DE in Aug 2016 to a newly built home. Walls were left painters white…waitiing the year out for settling cracks to be repaired – then we were going to paint. In the meantime, we decided to move to Charlottesville- another new home and another year of white walls!!!!

  15. Such a helpful post! I covet the look of white walls in all the Instagram shots I see but our 1940 Cape Cod doesn’t have big windows and we have big trees and close neighbors so it’s all making sense now that the lack of natural light makes white a hard color to work with in our house. Thanks for saving me a lot of time chasing something that’s not the right fit! So glad you’ve settled in a space that feels like home 🙂

  16. Guest says:

    After spending my formative and collegiate years in homes without being able to paint, I was determined once on my own to never have plain or white walls again. That being said, just shy of 20 years in to that, I greatly appreciate lighter and more neutral walls.

    I’m glad I read your post because your pictures had just about convinced me to go white but we do not have strong natural light so I’m thinking that’s a no go. One of the reasons we don’t have great natural light is one of the things I like about the house ironically – the front nor back face east or west. Our last house had an east facing front and west facing back and it was blazing hot in the evenings which drove me bananas.

    Great post and thank you for sharing your home and what you’ve learned!

  17. Thank you so much! I finally understand what I did wrong. We bought our first house last may and it had a variety of problem paint colors (my son’s new room was Pepto Bismol Pink) so I announced we were painting the entire interior on move in and that it would be all white except for one wall in the master and one wall in the family room. I was SO excited after our last home had some beige walls that made the house look dim to me. But when it was finished it didn’t quite work. Months later I’m still dissatisfied. After reading your post today I think I finally get it – we just don’t have enough light for what we did! It has been an interesting learning experience (all first homes are I’m sure) and now I’m taking time to get to know the space and us. One of these days I will have the chance to make some new paint choices here and I won’t be painting the entire space white!

  18. Mary in TN says:

    When you are ready to try colors, paint two coats on a very large piece of cardboard. You can move it around the room at different times of the day and see how it looks.

  19. Kathleen says:

    I have slowly been re-painting the interior of our home in white. Our house does not get a lot of great natural light – we have a lot of pine trees on three sides of our house. But we also have a ton of woodwork – wood paneling on the vaulted ceiling of our main living area and more oak built-ins than you could ever want, plus natural wood trim and a gigantic two-sided brick fireplace that sits in between our dining area and living room. I’ve heard people say that you can never have enough storage but I’m here to say you definitely can! (And we have three small kids so I’m coming at this from the perspective of a family of five and all the trappings of small children.) With all the built-ins, plus windows, doorways, hallways, etc. we have very few fully, uninterrupted wall spaces and I’m finding I like the white to provide some consistency between rooms. Our bedroom is more of a very light gray but I painted our guest room/home office from yellow to white and it was transformational for me. It is north-facing and was instantly so much brighter. So I do think there are always exceptions to every rule and, of course, we all have to just be honest about what we like to live with. Your house looks beautiful and I love all those big windows!

  20. Lezley says:

    I painted my entire home white when I moved in years ago. I wanted something easy that was not magnolia. Magnolia is used in almost every rental property in the UK, drove me bonkers!

    I have added colour with curtains, furniture, accessories and art. If I get bored it is easier to change acessories etc than repaint. I love it. The white is calming, peaceful. It also provides a great backdrop to the great views of parkland from every room in the flat/apartment.

  21. Janet says:

    We’ve lived in our house almost 15 years and it was all white when we moved in. We painted and repainted till I found colors that worked, my husband just goes with the flow.
    We’ve painted every room but one. Unfortunately it’s time to repaint some of the rooms. Want the same colors, just need painting. As for that one unpainted room, maybe someday.

  22. Lauren says:

    The thing about white is that it always feels clean to me. And it forces me to stay clean which is also a good thing. Depending on whether you have north or south facing windows it’s important to choose a warmer/cooler white to complement the room otherwise the color will never seem quite right.
    All that being said, I do also love color in the right places. Our master bedroom is a very deep green with almost dark gray undertones and since we have natural, American cherry floors, a cathedral ceiling and a wall with a triple gang of windows it really feels like being up in a treehouse. It is incredibly serene.
    My “library” is also painted a darker brown, it’s called Ticonderoga Taupe by Benjamin Moore, and the book cases are white and there is a large bay window that lets in plenty of natural light. The feeling is cozy without being cramped.
    The largest room in the house has very strange brick on a tall fireplace. It has a beige-pink color (have you figured out that I live in an early ’90s house yet?) and it was such a start contrast with the white walls. I painted them a very soft taupe and now the brick blends in very nicely and the walls are very neutral and light.
    My entry hall and staircase are what I thought was going to be a soft, sunny yellow…but I hate it. That’s going back to white very soon! But which white????

  23. Anna says:

    I’m Swedish but living in Copenhagen, Denmark. I think probably 90% of all the walls in Scandinavia are white! Couldn’t imagine living without the light it gives during the winter months. Having said that, our old apartment we did have one wall with William Morris’ blue arbutus in our bedroom and Joseph franks epic red Eldblomma ( check it out!) in our living room alongside white walls, it looked fantastic with 13ft to the ceiling! Your house looks lovely Anne!

  24. Ashley says:

    Aaah! I didn’t the top half of my family room Navajo White (BM I think) and I love it. I wasn’t ready to deal with the neutral wallpaper on the bottom but when I do I’ll do the whole room that color. I want to do my kitchen and living room (where we spend most of our time) in the same color but it sounds like my 60s rambler isn’t a good candidate (lights always on in the kitchen, LR is north-facing with one window). Sigh. I just dream of all white!

  25. Crystal says:

    White walls are one of the things saving me this winter! Everything in our back room — curtains, walls, countertops — matched our terrible 70’s wood cabinets, and just absorbed light.

    I painted the cabinets navy (Benjamin Moore Stunning) and the walls white, and I can’t believe the difference. Having moved from a southern state to a midwestern one, I really felt the shorter winter days partway through the season, but not this year!

    I also love being able to use some of my favorite deep and bright colors while keeping the overall feeling peaceful. It’s light, airy, fresh, and calm, and I can’t wait to paint the rest of the house. (Full disclosure: I’m a light-loving introvert.)

    I greatly prefer matte walls, and I’ve been impressed with Regal Select’s washable matte — on the wall between the stove and microwave, grease and tomato stains wipe right off, whereas they stuck stubbornly to the previous beige eggshell paint.

  26. Amy says:

    I thought I didn’t like all-white walls. We rented for years before buying a house, and one of my joys of buying a house was the ability to paint… until we got through about room #3, lol. Anyway, we’re currently renting again, and we have off-white walls throughout, and I DO like them.

  27. Lindsay says:

    This post was timed great for me! We moved into a 100 year old refurbished farmhouse and it has almost all flat white walls. After a year (and with 4 kids, 9 and under) let’s just say the walls are looking BAD! Crayon does not come off flat paint and my daughter’s masterpiece is a highlight going up our staircase. Eeks! I was thinking of paint the staircase Revere Pewter. The kitchen and living room get greatvkight and may still stay white but definitely not flat white! Thanks for sharing your experience with white. And I love how you added pops of color to your rooms!

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