Colour theories in interior design and lighting: Neutrals

av homeHow and where to use neutrals in your home interior design. Plus a guide to neutral lampshades, neutral table lamps, and all kinds of neutral lighting…

Neutrals: do you love them, loathe them, or simply feel, well, neutral on the subject? In this post we explore the fascinating role that neutrals play in interior design, both now and in the past. If you think that neutral colour schemes are a relatively new phenomenon, linked with the rise of minimalism, prepare to be surprised… neutral interiors have quite a history. 

We’ve also given some tips for the most effective ways of using neutrals in your home and that, of course, means neutral lighting choices too. 

But let’s start with a simple definition…


What is a neutral?

 What comes to mind when you think of a neutral? White, black and beige, certainly. And then there is grey, ivory, taupe and brown. What neutrals have in common is that they have very little strong colour content and they blend well with other colours. 

Use generous layers of neutrals and they will not dominate your chosen colour scheme. And if you want to create a sense of calm and balance in a particular area, neutrals are your best friends.

Neutrals in interior design: a brief history

greek villa

Greek Villa Kérylos, Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Image credit: Kotomi via creative commons

As we have often discovered in this series, colours have deep historical roots; neutrals are no exception. Their journey spans centuries, reflecting cultural, social and technological shifts across the millennia. 

Archaeological discoveries have revealed that ancient civilisations made extensive use of white, beige and earth tones in their homes and public buildings. In Ancient Egypt, neutrals provided the perfect backdrop for brightly coloured murals and decorations; the Greeks preferred natural stone and plaster finishes. The Romans took elements of both, using the natural tones of marble stone and wood for surfaces, to which they would add richly coloured fabrics and mosaics. 

Europe’s mediaeval period is associated with the muted neutrals of stone and dark wood, with the emphasis on brown, grey and off-white - a result of limited light sources. 

The dawn of the Italian Renaissance brought a renewed interest in classical approaches and influences, an emphasis on harmony and proportion and an explosion of artistic creativity. 

teatro olimpicoInterior, Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza, Italy; Andrea Palladio, 1580. Image: creative commons

Neutrals provided the perfect background for the intense colours used in Renaissance paintings, tapestries and furnishings.

Classicism continued to influence designers into the 18th and 19th centuries. Light and space were the hallmarks of Georgian and Regency interiors, so neutrals such as soft whites, creams and light greys were a popular choice. 

georgian neutralEntrance hall, Georgian period home c1755. Image: creative commons


And while we tend to think of Victorian interiors as dark and richly coloured, neutrals were often the backdrop of choice for formal spaces. Light greys, taupes and soft browns enabled intricate patterns and heavily adorned furnishings to stand out. 

The early years of the 20th century saw the rise of modernism, with architects and designers such as Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand and those involved in the Bauhaus movement emphasising functionality and simplicity, turning their backs on the past and the ornate. Lines were clean, colours were, inevitably, neutral. 

le corbusier

The LC2 armchair *(1928), designed by Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret. Image: creative commons

Scandinavian design, which favoured neutral white and light wood tones, was a major influence on mid-century trends. Beige, taupe and soft greys also became popular and this colour palette, combined with minimalism made for bright, airy, calm interiors. 

Despite the emergence of bright colours and vivid patterns in the 1960s and ‘70s, neutrals still had their place, this time bringing a sense of balance to interiors. In the 1970s, a growing interest in natural and organic materials led to earth tones becoming popular again, just as they had been in those ancient civilizations. The neutral colour wheel had come full circle.

In the final two decades of the 20th century, eclectic styles that reflected widening variations in individual taste were on the march; beige, taupe, and grey dominated the neutral palette, providing a versatile backdrop. But, as the century drew to a close, minimalism remained popular, with white and grey preferred by those who wanted calm, serene, Zen-like spaces

Now, almost 25 years into the 21st century, neutrals are still playing an important role in interior design - check out Japandi style, for example. With open-plan living, natural materials and sustainability high on the interior design agenda, neutrals are the ideal partners.

japandi spacea

Contemporary, Japandi style neutrals in this beautiful Islington apartment by Space A. Photo: Ben Tynegate

Using neutrals in your home

History has shown us that neutrals have played a long and important role in interior design: as a backdrop for rich, bold colours, to highlight architectural features, or to create a sense of calm and sophistication. Neutrals are hard workers; no wonder they are an interior design staple. Here are five different ways to make them work in your home.

myoldpub bathroom

Gorgeous layers of neutral colours in this bathroom by Kate of @myoldpubPhoto: @myoldpub

1) Layering

Use varying shades of one neutral colour to add depth and interest; for example, set darker shades of furniture and accessories against lighter walls. 

2) Patterns and textures 

Adding different patterns, textures and materials creates dimension and can prevent a neutral space from looking (and feeling) flat. 

tobys home kitchen

A combination of whites and natural wood in this kitchen by Toby Perryman-Payne. Photo: @tobyshome

3) Permanent elements

Use neutral colours for larger areas and elements, such as floors, sofas and walls, and add colour with accessories or artwork. This approach enables you to update a room easily and without breaking the budget.

4) A perfect blend

Combining warm neutrals, such as beige, brown or taupe, with their cooler cousins black, grey or white will help to create a balanced and inviting space, with a greater sense of comfort.

5) A natural touch

Natural elements like plants, wood, stone, and metals complement neutral colour schemes and add organic warmth and texture.

tobyshome corner

Toby's kitchen also includes some beautiful natural stone elements. Photo: @tobyshome

Neutrals and lighting

One of the best ways to make the most of a neutral palette is to use different types of lighting in a room, as many of Pooky’s favourite designers have shown us. For example, you can use layered lighting to highlight textures and colours, which can bring a true sense of warmth to a room. 

And if it’s neutral lighting that you’re after, Pooky offers a tremendous choice across all our ranges. We’ve put together a small selection of some of our latest lighting designs, all of which fit the neutral bill.

Neutral floor lamps

Our Kitty floor lamp in natural wood is simply gorgeous. Twisted, helical columns like this are called Solomonic columns—named after his temple. (But we named our Solomonic lamp after the wonderful Kitty, who worked with us for several years.)


Kitty floor lamp in natural wood 


Neutral table lamps

Made from beautifully turned wood, the Vivian table lamp in ebony carries a hint of North Africa. Its sculptural shape is decidedly non-classical but thoroughly pleasing:


Vivian table lamp in ebony

While we’re on the subject of sculpture, we think you’ll love our Aspro table in gesso white, from our ‘lighting as sculpture’ range. Sit back and enjoy its pleasingly abstract design and allow it to do what neutrals do best: soothe and relax....


Aspro table in gesso white

Browse more neutral table lamps here.

Neutral pendant lights

Using neutral colours for pendant lights shifts the focus onto shape - like the gorgeous curves of the Constance shade in stone: perfect in a white kitchen...


Constance shade in stone with stone interior


See more neutral pendant lights here.

Neutral lampshades

wonky wave

Wonky Wave natural woven palm basket pendant shades


Pooky does, of course, have hundreds of fabulous neutral lampshades, which you can browse here.

And do take a look at our guide: Neutral lamp shades - and how to use them in your interior design.

Pooky make beautiful lights for beautiful interiors - find inspiration on our blog and shop our huge range of lights and shades.


See also:

Colour theories in interior design and lighting: black
Colour theories in interior design and lighting: white
Colour theories in interior design and lighting: red
Colour theories in interior design and lighting: blue
Colour theories in interior design and lighting: green
Colour theories in interior design and lighting: yellow
Colour theories in interior design and lighting: orange

Classic interior design styles and how to light them – Zen
Classic interior design styles and how to light them – Scandinavian

Classic interior design styles and how to light them: Japandi


Image top: Arthty Ragupathy @av.home