Black and white is a decorating classic

Universal UclickSeptember 6, 2013 

  • Pattern power

    Designer showhouses often are a treasure trove for creative decorating ideas. Not surprisingly, a black-and-white palette often is part of the mix, as it is a perennial favorite.

    And just as in fashion, strong pattern is pivotal in some of the most memorable interiors. Checkerboard on the walls and floor, for example, may not be for the faint of heart. But it made for a smashing bathroom at the Kips Bay Showhouse in New York this past spring.

    In an adjacent room, designer Sara Story also covered the walls and floor in pattern, but in a different level of intensities. She chose one of her own wallpaper designs, bamboo – a riff of a traditional Asian motif. “Bamboo is a symbol of strength and that aura infuses the space. It is graphic without being rigidly geometric, striking without being too serious, fun without being self-conscious, and it serves as a great backdrop for artwork.”

    On the floor are carpet tiles “intentionally rigid geometric, which grounds the room.” Pale lilac sofas further play with the geometry while adding a color burst. And the ceiling, painted to match with a reflective sheen, “works to mirror the patterns back into the room and is a minimalist way to add texture.”

    Elaine Martsoukas/Universal Uclick

With black and white, there’s no middle ground. It’s high-contrast. Crisp. Classic.

In home design, the teaming is a perennial favorite – one as beloved as it is in apparel, especially by purists. It has its place in traditional decor, with styles from Art Deco to Country French (think toile prints) to Neoclassical. And, of course, it’s about as modern as it gets. It runs the gamut from sleek black-tie Hollywood glam to romantic country casual, where the fabrics may be washed linens and soft plaids and the finishes matte and distressed.

But this year, black and white has emerged as one of the big furnishings stories. It started at the big Paris show, Maison et Objet. It continued on this year’s fashion runways. From Dolce & Gabbana oversized horizontal stripes to Jason Wu black on white luxe embroideries to Marc Jacobs animal prints – zebra, snow leopard and giraffe – as well as cheeky op art prints and Louis Vuitton’s playful checkerboard.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all that black and white is its current moxie – from color blocking (bold swaths side by side a la Mondrian) to distinctive patterns (houndstooth, chevron, stripes, op art and geometric designs are packing the most punch).

“The energizing power of black and white is not confined to apparel,” said Ron Fiore, creative director for Bernhardt Furniture. “Black-and-white combinations are easy to live with, grounding, and mix with any palette. Stripes are familiar, and to mix a floral pattern with black-and-white stripe is kind of cool.”

What’s especially cool is the unexpected – teaming up a traditional silhouette and frame with a very modern cover. Holly Blalock of CR Laine, a Hickory, N.C.-based furniture manufacturer, did that with a couple of recently introduced chairs. The frame for the Bradstreet chair was inspired by an 18th-century chair with a series of turnings on the front arms and feet.

“There’s something almost odd about it,” Blalock said. “It turns from thick to thin. It doesn’t follow columnar scale. And the ball at the end of the arm is even more exaggerated. I liked that quirkiness.”

And although even the finish of the chair is distressed, Blalock chose a totally modern zigzag pattern for upholstery.

For another traditional armchair, the Aledo, Blalock pieced together linen in black and white to create a sassy, asymmetrical stripe.

“We have always interpreted this chair more traditionally – with hand-blocked prints and matelasses,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to start from scratch and reinvent. When the linens are sewn together, they create this overscale graphic stripe, which completely comes alive.”

A sort of color blocking in furniture in the last year or so has teamed light and dark finishes in single pieces. For example, an ebony dresser is set with contrasting ivory drawers, for example. Also popular are inlays, typically of bone or mother of pearl. Many of these have a range of global sources as well as styles, some with Moorish inspiration.

Inlays add textural dimension as well, because they’re essentially like mosaic strips or tesserae that create a pattern. And mother of pearl lends sheen. One versatile cube (table as well as stool) recently introduced by Bernhardt is the zebra, which is composed of white bone inlay with black poured resin. Its op-art pattern snakes around the corners and adds a compelling graphic focal point, almost like visual upholstery. The piece will add an exclamation to a quiet corner.

An enormous advantage of a black-and-white palette is its ability to change attitude, with a simple addition of color. Lipstick red is a favorite go-to combination. So are yellow and mustard. Cobalt blue or turquoise. Purple, magenta or hot pink. Orange or coral. Lime green or emerald.

“Once when I was in New York, I saw a woman in a Kelly green trench coat with a zebra bag,” Fiore said. “It’s an image I’ve never forgotten. When a black-and-white room gets hit with a piece of color, that brings it out even more. The color could be in throw pillows or a slipcover, a funny little ottoman, a couple of vases, a big dish or a book.”

So just as in fashion, a single black-and-white piece goes with just about everything – it just depends on how concentrated the graphic is to pull it off.

“Black and white is a classic combination which can both ground a room and add a pop of intrigue and excitement,” said New York-based international designer Sara Story. “It is timeless and modern at the same time.”

When she introduced a wallcovering collection called Story late last year, she included a black-and-white palette for each of the five patterns, all contemporary interpretations of Asian motifs.

“It’s a way to make it fresh, hip and new. You don’t see too many black-and-white wallpapers, and I wanted the line to stand out.”

If you want to furnish a full room in black and white, you can create an envelope with walls painted simply in either hue, perhaps with contrasting moldings. Choose white or off-white slipcovers for a soft look, and furniture in ebony frames. In this kind of setting, amped-up patterns can be especially effective.

Or stick to all-white furnishings with patterned walls – muted or high octane. A black-and-white floral or a wide stripe, perhaps horizontally placed, can be dramatic. Ground it with a graphic black-and-white rug in a different pattern. Then pop in a few black accents: a vase or a lamp.

Designer showhouses often spark clever ideas, and with black-and-white themes there often are surprising applications. Earlier in the year, one showhouse in Greensboro, for example, featured a bedroom with white walls and bedding on a natural linen upholstered bed. The bed was framed in black, with a canopy and curtains in a stripe of varying widths. That same fabric was repeated in the window treatment. But what really punctuated the scheme was a treatment on the ceiling, where the designer had a pair of double borders painted around the room.

Another room in the same showhouse did black borders as well, but these were actually applied moldings painted black.

For a real modern edge, that’s the kind of edginess that transforms a space.

“Graphic shapes breathe new life, making black and white modern,” Sara Story said. “There are a million ways to reinvent it – you just have to keep it fresh.”

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