Is grey still relevant? This is how to use it effectively
Warm colour palettes are dominating our interiors, so is cool-toned grey still a thing for wall paint, flooring and accessories? In short, it can be
Farrow & Ball's 'Purbeck Stone' mixes with softer pinks in this Clarence Graves house
According to interiors trend reports from the forecasting experts at WGSN, warm, comforting, natural colour palettes will continue to reign supreme throughout the next couple of years, and we’ve seen that reflected in this year’s huge resurgence of brown. So if we’re rejecting anything clinical and cold in search of a more vibrant or earthy home, then where does that leave once-popular grey?
We commonly associate it with Japanese and Scandinavian decor and often, with minimalism – all of which hold esteem in the design world – and yet things have gone extremely quiet on the grey front. The phone has stopped ringing and some people actively avoid the colour altogether. So, can it still look relevant? If you love the colour then we say yes, but it’s all about moderation and getting the specific tone just right. When there’s a will there’s a way (and a grey).
Is grey paint still a good choice?
Grey paint has fallen out of favour as the go-to wall colour, at least in comparison to how ubiquitous it was even just a few years ago. Historical paint expert Patrick Baty of Papers and Paints says, “Thankfully, the almost-universal use of grey seems to be on the wane. When we first noticed the rise of grey, we produced our range of ‘ Pure Greys ’ in response and while they are still useful colours, they have been overdone of late”. Alex Glover, founder of Austin James fine decorating agrees “We’re having a bit of a hiatus from grey at the moment, so any white paints with a grey undertone are off the menu for us”.
It’s true that grey paint was oversubscribed for a time and the wrong shade can make a room feel gloomy and fridge-like in its icy coolness, but there’s always a place for grey, it’s all about choosing the right tone. Designer Christian Bense recommends that “' Slate' by Paint and Paper Library always looks good. ‘Slate I’ has the crispness of white without the flat coldness, so it’s the ideal choice for ceilings, skirting, architraves and doors. ‘Slate II’ and ‘Slate III’ are perfect everyday shades of grey-leaning white for walls”.
To avoid an energy-sapping grey, you could try a painterly grey wall colour, such as Bauwerk’s limewash paint , or a neutral with a grey undertone, such as Bone, Shell & Quill by Atelier Ellis. It could also be that you find mousey shades of grey-beige, blue-grey or green-grey easier and more dynamic to live with. See Farrow & Ball , Coat paints and Edward Bulmer for some really lovely grey-based paint options that will look anything but dull.
Incorporate grey in textiles, instead of paint
You can’t go wrong with textiles
Paint trends come and go and it’s fair to say that grey isn’t the current colour du jour, but grey upholstery and soft furnishings are safe investments as they’re easier to create layers with and they tend to look good with other colours – even contrasting tones. The key to getting it right is to sidestep silver-grey or drab, flat hues and instead, look to green-grey, greige (greyish-beige) or darker charcoal tones.
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When choosing grey textiles, think about texture. Charcoal can look beautiful as upholstery or curtain fabric in relaxed slubby linen, and many interior designers, such as Vincent Van Duysen and Rose Uniacke , choose dark grey sofas and armchairs to ground their schemes, with an end result that never looks cold. Charcoal or elephant grey velvet gives textural depth and wool works brilliantly too – especially in a chunky knit or luxurious cashmere for cushions or throw blankets. Plush grey shearling is especially good and bonus points if it’s curly Gotland sheepskin. As much texture as possible will always bring richness and life to a colour that can sometimes feel cold.
Step away from the grey carpet
Flooring is where grey hits a nerve for this writer. If you’ve had a therapeutic browsing session on Rightmove recently (we all have our vices) and you’ve scrolled through image galleries of recently renovated flats or houses, there’s a strong chance you’ve encountered ‘The Grey Carpet’. It’s usually a cold and lifeless shade of mid-grey, something reminiscent of a school carpet tile. Or even worse, it’s a glossy silver-grey that leaves mowed-lawn style marks whenever the vacuum brushes the pile in a particular direction. They’re the live-laugh-love print of the carpet world and they’re loved by landlords and developers.
You should always buy what you love, regardless of anyone else’s opinion (they don’t have to live with it), but the problem with grey carpet – especially in steel or silver tones – is it tends to be installed with the belief that it's neutral and it’s not.
Grey is misguidedly chosen as a contemporary alternative to ‘boring’ beige carpet and there’s an assumption that it will go with everything. Alas, grey carpet is surprisingly restrictive – far more so than the same colour in a different material. Warm tones (including natural materials such as sisal, brass, travertine, and wood) will jar awkwardly against the coldness of the colour, and this is when people find themselves backed into a corner, with little option besides complementing grey with …even more grey. The walls are painted white or grey and monochromatic furniture fills the room. Suddenly, what was supposed to be an easy neutral floor has morphed into a greyscale home that feels depressing and uninteresting. If you do nothing else, try to avoid ‘The Grey Carpet’ – it’s too tricky to decorate around.
Polished concrete tiles on the floor of Georgina Cave's house
If carpet is a no-go, which grey flooring works best?
If you’re especially keen on the idea of a grey floor, there are several alternative options to carpet that look great and they’re really quite versatile. For starters, few floors look chicer than smooth, light-reflecting poured concrete. Done well and used within a complementary style of architecture, a shiny concrete floor makes a striking backdrop for modern furniture and beautiful rugs . The hard, shiny surface juxtaposes perfectly against a medley of textiles and rustic materials. Concrete makes an excellent choice for a kitchen worktop, too. You could also experiment with a resin or rubber floor for a similar contemporary effect (what the latter loses in reflectiveness, it gains in slip prevention).
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If you don’t want a block colour or a feeling of heaviness, this is where you can experiment with grey and white chequerboard lino , patterned ceramic tiles that incorporate grey alongside other colours, or perhaps grey rectangular tiles laid out in a herringbone design with lighter contrast grout. For grey-toned wooden floors, you could sand and then stain your existing floors to achieve this, or choose engineered wood for a bathroom or kitchen, since they’re more practical around potential leaks or spillages.
Speaking of kitchens and bathrooms ; grey slate or limestone floor tiles will always transcend trends and they’ll never feel dated. You could also try grey marble, granite or soapstone in a bathroom. It’s the timelessness of natural materials that means they’re always beautiful, tactile and interesting to look at. These types of stone will also look classic and relevant when used for tables, sinks, kitchen surfaces and fireplace surrounds, regardless of how popular grey is (or isn’t) at the time.
What else looks good in grey?
Grey ceramics – especially handmade studio pottery – will always look great scattered down a dining table or grouped neatly on open kitchen shelving . Stoneware (especially in very dark tones) also makes for a perfect oversized lamp base. The colour and material give the lamp a literal and visual weight, so they can often be the object that completes a room or prevents a space from feeling too feminine and light. There’s nothing like a charcoal terracotta lamp to make a decorative scheme feel grounded.
The same ‘grounding’ principle also applies to small accessories such as side tables or even artwork. Where black feels too harsh, colour is too much and a warm tone would blend in with the other pieces in the room, try adding a small zinc side table, a grey wool rug or an abstract painting in various (not 50) shades of grey.
Using accents of grey in this way is a really effective way of balancing and complementing ‘cold’ grey with a warm colour palette of sand, ochre, chocolate and woods such as oak or teak. On paper, you think it shouldn’t work, but it does. Various designers such as Ilse Crawford, Amber Lewis, Ben Thompson and Jake Arnold all effectively introduce subtle elements of grey to add contrast to schemes that otherwise sit on the warm side of the spectrum. And this is the best way to approach grey in a liveable, comfortable way – think of it as a best supporting actor, rather than the leading role.
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