I Mad for monochrome
Modernise your home with black and white
Scandinavians live by it, contemporary architects frame their minimalist creations with it, and glamour-loving luxury interior designers swear by it, too. Monochrome is the (non) colour palette that probably achieves the most consensus across the board when it comes to interiors. Its advocates say it’s classic and restful, but that doesn’t mean it has to be safe; in fact, it takes quite a bit of creativity to make an interesting scheme when colour is absent.
“It’s timeless and sophisticated, and really quite striking. You can’t go wrong with it, can you?” says Tamzin Greenhill, an interior designer.
She chose this look for the hallway of her Victorian home in Hampstead, which puts a modern spin on the classic tiled floor with handmade geometric tiles from Emery & Cie, a Belgian company, plus chic black and white photography. “I’m not strictly a black and white person, but I didn’t want a hallway that was super-bright and colourful that I might get bored of. When I walk through the door, this just feels calming,” says Greenhill.
Jenny Weiss, of Hill House Interiors, says that monochrome is often the go-to palette for the high-end schemes she works on, especially for the “envelope” of a home – architectural elements such as floors, staircases and doors. “It means the bones of the place looks great even before you’ve put anything in it,” Weiss says.
“That basic scheme, done right, could last you 20 years or more, and you can add punches of colour with artwork or accessories, which, when you get a bit fed up of them, you can change.” She points out that monochrome doesn’t have to mean brilliant white paired with deepest black: while this might create maximum impact, it can be rather harsh on the eyes. Look a bit closer at most schemes, and you’ll probably find soft grey, ivory and taupe rather than white, and the deep brown of a stained timber rather than true black. “In this country, it’s important for black and white not to look too cold,” says Weiss.
However, there is a place for strong contrast. Weiss is a fan of zebra and other animal prints, putting a leopardspot runner up a staircase in one recent project.
There’s a vogue for dark architraves and skirting boards (rather than the default white), which can elegantly frame the view from room to room. Black, Crittall-style steel and glass walls and doors are also back, and look best when paired with white walls to emphasise their crisp, industrial look.
Graphic patterns such as stripes and chevrons can be useful as attentiongrabbers, drawing the eye to a particular feature. This is what Roselind Wilson did in an awardwinning kitchen-diner, where a built-in banquette at the far end of the room was upholstered in fat stripes.
“The room is about nine metres [30ft] long, but the minute you walk in, your eye is pulled right to the end of it, and then up to the cornicing on the four-metre [13ft] high ceilings. It all helps emphasise the dimensions,” says the interior designer.
Wilson’s kitchen design is a lesson in how to make monochrome more interesting than just black, white and grey, using a number of materials and depths of sheen so that the pace never slackens. “There’s a fireplace in black polished marble, but the black laminate worktops are by contrast quite flat. Then there are tall units in a graphite-stained oak, which has much more of an earthiness and depth; and finally, a white polished marble worktop adds even more interest,” she says. “Texture is one of my favourite things – I love layering them up, without making it overbearing. The tactile quality of finishes and materials is really exciting to me.”
Katharine Pooley agrees that a monochrome interior only works if there’s textural interest. The designer’s suggestions for a restful bedroom scheme include “adding accessories such as cashmere throws and silk cushions, or even fabric walling, which makes the space more cosy”.
She also suggests incorporating furniture and accessories in metal
finishes such as bronze and copper: the eye won’t read them as a colour as such, but they will still add sense of warmth and create a point of difference with the black and white.
Monochrome is associated with many different periods and styles, from luxurious art deco to the more rough-and-ready stylings of industrial loft living.
It’s an almost ubiquitous feature of Scandinavian interiors, where it signifies a certain humility – a home that doesn’t need to show off, because it’s there to be comfortably lived in.
In a bid to explore new directions, product designers are looking to far-flung places for new influences – Burkina Faso’s earth houses, painted all over in uneven geometric patterns; Berber rugs, with their dark brown lines criss-crossing on cream wool; and the woven basketry of countries such as Rwanda and Senegal. The emphasis has shifted to objects with a handmade, imperfect look, to give a scheme a sense of authenticity.
Online retailer Maisons du Monde is a one-stop shop for the eclectic monochrome look, styling contemporary, industrial-inspired furniture with graphic black and white textiles. The approach by Anne-Laure Couplet, its brand director, is to pair black and white with natural materials such as rattan and wood to add warmth.
Of course, the sheer joy of monochrome is that you can mix it with whatever colours are of the moment. A few years ago it was yellow and grey, creating a soft, Scandiinspired look; right now, look to coral, dusky pink, indigo, teal or emerald for your colour fix.
Marks & Spencer is going big on bold black and white over the coming months. Its Manhattan collection, launching in September, was “inspired by the opulence of New York hotels, with soft velvets and green marble mixed with bold monochrome furniture,” says James Patmore, its designer.
It is styled to turn up the glamour, with teal velvet sofas, brass, glass and marble. Accent chairs in black and white stripes or graffiti-scribble patterns stand out against the moody background.
Monochrome isn’t for everywhere, or everyone. “I wouldn’t want my whole house to be black and white,” Greenhill admits. “I think it would make anyone crazy.”
But it works brilliantly in areas such as hallways and bathrooms, where you want the space to feel crisp and clean. A monochrome bathroom is a default for many, but it needn’t be boring, especially if you use tactile surfaces such as marble and explore interesting sculptural shapes for baths and basins.
“A black and white scheme may offer a freedom to experiment with form and texture,” says Paola Tanini, the co-founder of Italian bathroom company Devon&Devon, which has created some glorious monochrome spaces. “It will always be pure and elegant, and the contrast of dark and light can’t fail to make an impact. In a world searching for the next new thing, the combination of black and white always delivers.”
‘It’s timeless, sophisticated, and striking. You can’t go wrong with it’
Shades of grey: Marks & Spencer’s Manhattan range, above and main, features bold black and white furniture and launches in September
Classic: a restful bedroom designed in monochrome by Katharine Pooley, above; texture makes up for a lack of colour in a kitchen designed by Hill House Interiors, below