How to Decorate an All-White Room Right

All-white rooms in magazines and books often look perfectly organized and suspiciously spotless. Their bright and airy allure is irresistible, but could any real person live there without it looking stained, shabby and cluttered over time? Designer Tricia Foley not only swears it is possible to live happily and harmoniously with these spare spaces, she’s done it herself for decades. Her newest book, Life | Style: Elegant Simplicity at Home (Rizzoli), is a compelling testament to the gospel of white she preaches.

Foley’s palette is usually not sleek, high-gloss modern, but rather a lived-in mix of painted wood and plaster, simple washable fabrics such as linen and canvas, and vintage, timeworn pottery. In her home in Bellport, a wide range of shades, styles and provenances commingle easily with natural materials such as wood, wicker and sisal, glassware and metal. “Long Island is surrounded by the beach, has beautiful light and is such a perfect place to use white. In a log cabin in Montana, it wouldn’t make sense. But out here, whether in a historic home or modern beach house, all the shades of white are the perfect palette.”

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The designer is an ardent proponent of the lightest of colors because “it’s always a clean backdrop. It represents a fresh start; it’s mood-enhancing.” As she points out, it is actually tremendously forgiving to decorate with as it goes with anything, making it easy to shop, accessorize and set the table. And it simplifies and unifies the home. “White represents serenity and calm in a busy life.”

all-white room

Mixing and matching table settings is a breeze when all the pieces come in coordinating creamy shades.

According to Foley, the secret to avoiding a sterile or bland room is layering plenty of texture. Natural and organic materials such as wood, stone, seagrass rugs and woven baskets add tactile interest and warmth. Textiles ranging from lush sheepskins to a matelassé coverlet to embroidered pillows introduce dimension and depth. “White is really just a base for everything else,” she said. Once personal accessories come into play—books, artwork, photos, flowers, accessories—there is plenty to intrigue the eye.

And white transcends any style. It can be sleek and modern or creamy, antique and cozy. The style and age of a home can, however, influence the tone: “In a cool modern space, you want to keep it fresh and crisp. In a very old house, having a bright white would show all the imperfections. I tend to go with grayer or creamier whites in my own house, though I use different whites in different rooms.” For example, her kitchen is a brighter shade, Picket Fence from Ralph Lauren, while the living room in Journal White is warmer. In bigger rooms and more historic houses, she’s used varying tones on trim, ceilings and baseboards to create depth and recommended choosing semi-gloss or high-gloss for the trim so it stands out.

The most important step in choosing the right shade, as with any color, is to paint a large swatch on the wall to see how it looks at all times of day. Also, the door color, whether a golden pine, dark ebonized oak or a light pickled finish, will reflect onto walls and change their appearance.

Her fabric choices gravitate toward the classics: heavy textured linen, smooth canvas and sheer cotton. “Sheer curtains let in light and add a nice softening touch. But in my house, I generally don’t have curtains on the windows. I like to keep them light and open,” she said. Instead, she uses interior wood shutters and wooden blinds for privacy. Or, in the guestroom, white canvas curtains.

all-white decor

image: marili forastieri (left), william abranowicz (right)

Foley changes her fabrics with the season, adding plush shearling sheepskins and knitted wool blankets in winter and lighter cotton throws and white canvas slipcovers in summer. She also rotates four different sets of bed linens: white linen sheets in summer, deep gray linen for fall, cream flannel in winter and beige linen for spring.

These seasonal shifts point the way to lightening any existing décor, without necessitating a total makeover. Try slipcovering furniture for warmer months. Also consider swapping out heavy wool or dark Oriental rugs for beachy sisal and seagrass or replacing heavy lined draperies with sheer linen curtains. She even advocates leaving windows bare to let the sunshine in. It’s also easy to go all white with crisp bedding, towels and table linens for the summer months. Just putting décor on a diet with fewer accessories can help a room feel more airy and expansive. Bring in white flowers, green plants and perhaps a bowl of white shells from the beach or arrange an all-white collection of pitchers and vases.

Is there anything Foley wouldn’t want white? “Well, I’ve learned not to paint my porch floor too light, it just gets filthy. I don’t want to be scrubbing the floor all the time. I make it a deeper shade of putty each year.” For painted floors, she recommended more dirt-friendly colors because “you can get too carried away painting everything white.” But in her enviably beautiful, light, pared-down décor, anything else is fair game.


Tricia Foley offers her tips for keeping whites clean and bright: For white slipcovers, linens and fabrics: I use a little bleach and hang them out in the sun to try—the sun really helps brighten them. Chair slipcovers can fit in the washing machine; I take sofa slipcovers to the laundromat. Dry just until damp so you can stretch and fit the covers on easily, without too much wrinkling.

I’m a big proponent of Comet. Just a little Comet takes care of most scuffs and stains. I rely on Mr. Clean Magic Erasers for walls and wood surfaces such as cabinets.

For marble countertops, I suggest The Laundress Surface Cleaner, but it’s important to seal counters properly with a matte sealer so they don’t absorb stains easily. Repaint as needed. I have a white wooden table in my kitchen, so I give it a new coat of deck enamel every year.


Stuck on which shade or fabric to choose? Foley listed some of her favorites; for more, see her book, Life | Style: Elegant Simplicity at Home (Rizzoli).

Ralph Lauren
Chalk White Picket Fence White Journal White Starch

Farrow & Ball
Cornforth White Wimborne White

Benjamin Moore
Simply White Snow White Decorator’s White