It’s not beige, it’s not grey: it’s greige – which is why all our houses look the same | interior

Yyou could say it’s charcoal, silver, concrete, slate. You could call it by the name on the paint chip: Chic Shadow, Polished Pebble, Purbeck Stone. Or you could say it’s greige. Whatever you call it, the prevailing interior design trend of the past decade has been shades of gray.

Elephant’s Breath – described as an “uplifting” mid-grey, with a hint of magenta – has been called a paint color of the decade in the UK, has been in Farrow & Ball’s top 10 shades for the past 12 years and has inspired countless spin-offs.

In the US, Revere Pewter, an “iconic neutral,” has also been a consistent bestseller for Benjamin Moore since the mid-2010s. Sherwin Williams’ top 50 colors range from beige to dark gray, but usually split the difference with a rich spectrum of greige.

In homes and offices, in bedrooms and living areas, gray has emerged as the most neutral shade of paint, and often in real estate. to reveal – a full aesthetic, with wall-to-wall gray surfaces and furnishings.

Can we talk about the stranglehold that this particular strain of gray contemporary has on the American South because it's everywhere. pic.twitter.com/Lwe9MYxW3j

— Brandon (@blgtylr) March 28, 2022

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But these unsaturated spaces contrast with time in many ways. In the past decade of social media, our interiors have been seen as an expression of who we are. Society is not only more individualistic than it was ten years ago, it is also more polarized.

So why are we constantly reaching for these boring mids? The answer is not black and white.

Indeed, says British art historian James Fox, author of The World By Color, there is no such thing as a neutral color: “Only what a particular society agrees to is neutral,” he says. “But if you step outside that society, or look back in history, you realize that everything is ideological in a sense; everything is a stylistic choice.”

“Neutral” is best understood as “dominant,” says Fox (whose own home in Hackney, London, is painted in Dulux’s Pebble Shore, a sandy gray “with a hint of khaki”). From the late s, gray began to supplant bright whites and creams as the favorite palette for interiors to become as ubiquitous in the 2010s as “magnolia” — a buttery white based on yellow — in the 1980s and 1990s.

But the origins of this great gray wave go back through centuries of Western culture to a long-standing prejudice against bright colors, as explored by the artist David Batchelor in his 2000 book Chromophobia.

Elephant’s Breath, by Farrow & Ball. Photo: Farrow & Ball

Goethe’s Theory of Colors, published in 1810, claimed that bright colors were appropriate for children and animals, not sophisticated adults; this view has been shared throughout history by great artists and thinkers, from Aristotle and Plato to Le Corbusier and Cartier Bresson.

Words like ‘horrifying’ and ‘showy’ still have negative connotations. “Color is often portrayed as feminine, or oriental, or primitive, or infantile, rather than mature and philosophical and serious…and it’s clearly linked to issues of race, culture, class, and gender,” Batchelor says.

Yellow, in particular, has fallen out of favor in recent decades, associated with defeat and old age; “the color of bile and urine,” Fox says.

Even cream is now too much for us to digest; it’s considered “white that’s gone” in the interior design world, Fox says. It seems no coincidence that things started to stall in the late 1990s, when Ikea began cracking the US and UK markets with its sleek, hard-wearing take on modernism.

The UK in particular started to look more and more at the Scandinavian style after decades of chintzy prints, then Mediterranean jewel tones and terracotta. The tone was set for gray to take the place of cream as an equally livable color, with a great diversity of shades but a sobriety more suited to the times.

“Refined taste is associated with a desire for the muted, the minimal, the scarce,” says Fox. Over the past 15 years, “we’ve seen a shift from the yellow end of the spectrum to the cooler — from beige to greige,” representing what Fox calls “a desaturation effect” across cultures.

This doesn’t just apply to interiors: Compared to the caramel-washed sitcoms of the 90s, today’s television shows and movies are judged to be a gray sludge. Apple, meanwhile — arguably the defining brand of the last century — has abandoned its candy-colored post-millennium iMacs and iPods in favor of clean lines of chrome, glass, and “space gray.”

BenjaminMoore's Revere Pewter grey, an American bestseller.
BenjaminMoore’s Revere Pewter grey, an American bestseller. Photo: Benjamin Moore

Another defining 21st century brand, Kim Kardashian, epitomized the shift. Shortly after dating Kanye West in 2011, she famously ditched her bright-print wardrobe to become the monochrome muse of the past decade, influencing fashion, beauty, and even interiors.

In 2016, Architectural Digest pointed to Kardashian’s tonal style in support of painting gray walls; her own mansion in LA is almost exclusively ecru. Such coordinated decor may seem labor-intensive, the hallmark of a professional stylist, but shades of gray are relatively forgiving. Fox says this is because they occur naturally in fabrics and textiles, giving them a “protean, amorphous” quality: “They can adapt to all kinds of environments, they do well in light and shade, and it looks like she has been around for a very long time.”

Multifunctional and timeless looking, gray is the perfect backdrop for a fast-fashion generation who are more likely to freshen up their homes with new accessories than a professional makeover.

“That’s what I love about the color greige: it’s such a great foundation,” says Jasmine Young, 30, who shares her Dorset home (complete with Elephant’s Breath walls) with 45,000 followers on Instagram. “If you want to bring color, you can easily change the look with cushion covers or a throw.”

From vintage to modern aesthetics, to dark and light woods, chrome fittings to natural fibers — greige “works literally in all interior styles,” says Young. This way it’s like a real Instagram filter, using color not to express your individuality, but as a consistent background for it.

Fox notes the irony: As our politics and culture have become more extreme, our palette has become more muted — and “just as we’re being driven apart, our homes start to look more alike.” In his trendy borough of London, he says, almost every front door is painted in Farrow & Ball’s Railings, one not quite black, “and most people have Elephant’s Breath on their interior walls”.

But it goes way beyond Hackney, as the 15,500 photos with the hashtag #elephantsbreath show. Indeed – like reclaimed wood, industrial decor and other features of what has been called ‘International Airbnb Style’ – gray walls have become a global signifier of generic ‘good taste’.

It’s this unambitious, anodyne aesthetic — like looking at a perfectly curated Instagram grid — that depresses Batchelor, author of Chromophobia. He’s clearly opposed to neutrals, but he’s unconvinced by arguments that greige has subtle depths: “You can have a color chart that says ‘bland’ and keep everything below that,” he says with disdain.

“It’s all so safe, that’s probably the most discouraging part of it: it threatens nothing and no one, except with a slow, unadventurous death.”

But even Batchelor admits that he prefers to live in a neutral environment where he mixes brick, ceramic tile, and white (“my wife is a chromophobe,” he says). Especially since the mid-2010s, people have striven not to get energy through their homes – but to be calmed down.

“Everything in the outside world is so chaotic. I like to come in somewhere and immediately feel the peace,” Kardashian told AD in February 2020.

Due to the pandemic, this received a premium. Rebecca Wilkins, 29, moved into her first home in Birmingham in February 2020 and painted the cream walls gray. “I just like living in a neutral house. Any color makes me uncomfortable,” she says — even her dog, she adds, is gray.

But the uncertain times were also a factor: “I don’t know if I would have been so focused on being in a restful space if I wasn’t in my house so much.”

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Wilkins sometimes fantasizes about painting one wall pink, “but I just want the house to flow, so probably not”. Instead, she’s content herself with replacing the cool grays of her “neutral interior” — followed by 60,000 people on Instagram — with warm ones.

Fox has also noticed a recent shift towards the yellower end of the spectrum. Dressing rooms’ Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen has even threatened the return of magnolia.

It’s a tentative sign that the gray blanket over the interior is beginning to lift. “People are being a little more bold about color,” said Hannah Yeo, color marketing manager at Benjamin Moore. She opts for a return of red, orange and yellow – and not just accents. “The classic red dining room is making a comeback.”

So are Apple’s colorful computers, and the iMac has recently been relaunched in seven colors. It suggests that after a pandemic, people do not prioritize tranquility in their homes, but rather joy.

Neutrals will always make up the majority of paint manufacturers’ best-selling shades, Yeo says, and she doesn’t expect gray, “an essential color,” to ever disappear altogether. But it can increasingly coexist with brighter shades. This year’s color trends inspire levity, she says: “I think people crave that. We have all gone gray.”

Canadian color consultants The Paint People recently came to the same conclusion, declaring on YouTube “the death of greige: a paint color category that has absolutely dominated interior design for over a decade.”

What it will replace, they predicted — as well as Benjamin Moore’s color of the year for 2022 — is a light, silvery green. Or as they called it: greeneige.

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