What's With All The Beige?

Last week, while channel-hopping one wet afternoon, I came across a repeat of one of those home decor programmes. You know the sort – a team of experts go into someone's home and make it over for them, children are delighted by the fairytale castle, or cowboy den that's been created for them, while mums despair that their once-restful sitting room has been transformed into a games room for dad and his mates. It's a well-worn format but it's changed over the years. In fact it's changed rather a lot. Because now it seems, everywhere you look, rather than imaginative, friendly colours, homes are being transformed into seas of white. White walls, white sofas, white cushions and white carpets. It's enough to give anyone snow blindness and I'm wondering when all this happened?

I reckon, like many of the more omnipresent trends of the moment, it all stems from those fonts of all things trendy – celebrities. In particular, footballers and their wags. Think about it. Every time you see a footballer 'at home' he's surrounded by white. And how many of those 'in-depth' lifestyle features with a wag show her posing in front of a huge white piano or sitting on a massive white sofa, punctuated only with the odd coloured cushion or ornamental dog? And the up-and-coming, or at least the wannabee up-and-coming types all follow suit. And before we know it, we're surrounded by a mass of snow-white furnishings.  It's almost as if the 1970s obsession with magnolia is back, but with a cleaner look.

Perhaps it's because there are just so many 'shades' of white available. Paint companies, like Dulux and Crown, offer dozens of types of white. Granted they are all slightly different but, whether you opt for 'old english white', 'milk white', 'washday', 'gallery white', or 'aged white', you are still painting your walls, doors and skirting boards, well, white. But checking out some of the newest colour charts, you quickly learn that white isn't necessarily white. Dulux's 'blueberry white' is undeniably blue and not white at all. The same company's 'blossom white' is actually a very pale pink. And a few years ago, when I attempted to add a little warmth to the walls of my sitting room, I discovered that 'daffodil white' was, in fact, an unequivocal yellow.

To be fair to the paint companies, they are very keen to have us use more colour in our homes. According to Pantone's website – where you can find information on current and future colour trends in fashion and interiors, the colours we will be painting our homes range from 'comforting pastel pinks, ethereal blues and soft egret white wrap us in carefree baby blanket colors, harmoniously blending with the more mature taupe, gray and grape tones'. And, according to Dulux THE colour we should all be painting our homes right now is 'forest falls' a vibrant, shade of leaf green. And that, in general, trends are moving towards rich, but softened reds and delicate pinks for 'understated luxury' or 'embracing, inviting' oranges in soft paprikas. Or perhaps, they suggest, you could try mustard yellows, cool jades or smokey teals and muted violets. All very flowery language you might argue. But, to a colour enthusiast like me, this all sounds almost edible. You see, in my home we have splashes of colour. And I know that not everyone is convinced until they see colour in action. A decorator asked to paint a ceiling and one wall in 'auburn falls' – a rich, russety orange-red –  refused to do the entire job until a six-inch test patch had been done. Well, the job's done and it's given the lounge, and its black sofa and chairs a decidedly 1950s lounge air and it's gorgeous!  So much so that the same decorator was much less resistant when asked to paint the dining room ceiling and chimney breast a vibrant antique gold to make an often cool room seem cosy even on the frostiest days. 

Of course, strong colour is not for everyone. It doesn't suit everyone's taste or lifestyle but it shouldn't be something of which to be frightened. But some people, and some rooms, need a more muted mood. And that's perhaps why these days beige reigns supreme. And beigy, neutral tones can by stylish, chic and simple.  Again, if you ask the paint companies, it's all much more exciting than it might at first seem. 'Mellow mocha', 'gentle fawn', 'egyptian cotton', 'thatched cottage', 'parsonage cream' and even 'wooden spoon' are all forms of beige.  And they are very popular. And understandably so. Much like the 'magnolia' our parents and grandparents used so not to compete with all that busy wallpaper back in the 1970s, beige tones go with just about everything. But it seems sometimes that entire colour schemes are beige. One particular, high-end, and very expensive, home furnishings designer seems to produce cushions, throws and rugs in various shaded of beige. And nothing else.

Having been a child in the 1970s, when everyone grew up in a blanket of magnolia, it surprises me that my contemporaries are willing not just to return to that neutral era, but to extend it to every room and every item within it. And it all seems just so hotel-ish. And all too reminiscent of  the huge chains, the big city hotels, the airport stopovers not the chic and luxurious boutiquey ones. Where every corridor, every bar and every bedroom looks the same. And where everything is beige. Okay, it's understated and unlikely to offend the tastes of any guests. Which is fine when you need to present a low-key corporate image, but to live in? Unless you're about to sell your house, and want it to be as bland as possible so as not to 'offend' the personal tastes of any prospective buyer, why would you need to decorate your house to the tastes of all the people who don't live there? Are people really decorating their own homes to suit someone else's expectations?

I can understand the urge to give certain rooms a bit of a theme. A 1950s diner style in the kitchen? Good idea. A spa makeover for the bathroom? Perfect. But a bedroom like a hotel room? The very place that, after spending seven nights there, leaves you longing to return to your own bedroom, your home comforts? Seriously?

But even someone who loves colour can appreciate that beige or white with their suits-all neutrality is a practical option. Particularly when it comes to kitchen appliances or bathroom suites. Trust me, when you've suffered an Ermentrude the Magic Roundabout cow pink or 1970s avocado bathroom suite, you learn to appreciate a plain white loo with new eyes. And having attended a school where an attempt at interior design gave one corridor – painted in various shades of yellow – the appearance of a very long banana I understand the danger of wanton colour usage.  And sometimes the colour we paint our homes can give off a very clear message. As a child I lived a few doors from a couple who painted their ceilings jet black. As friendly as they were, it gave few people a shock to learn that they boasted a rather illegal, and narcotic, income stream …

But one neutral tone that almost everyone eschews is grey. The very word seems drab, sad and lonely. And yet it seems we are painting our homes that very colour right now. Why else would the major paint suppliers offer so many tones of it? Oh, they rarely call it by name instead using glamorous, fabulous names like 'starlit night', 'stoneware' or even 'little black dress'. The prize for spin, however, goes to Crown who offer a deep grey tone they call 'white dark'. Whatever next?

And yes, they do still make magnolia