By MARY CAROL GARRITY — When you hear the term "neutral decor," do you envision a tan-on-tan-on-tan room? If so, you are in for a fun surprise. A space done in neutrals can be much more creative and exciting than just layers of solids so staid they're almost asleep. The secret is to use a few colors and patterns that play well in the sandbox with everyone else, yet are full of the kind of personality you need to give decor distinctive character.
To me, a neutral is any solid color or pattern that's tone-on-tone or two-colored that looks good with just about everything. I recommend starting with a palette of neutrals you won't grow tired of and can easily update. Here are four of my favorite out-of-the-box neutrals.
It may sound crazy, but I think of prints that replicate the coat patterns of wild animals, with all their power and energy, as neutrals, especially when they are re-created in subtle ways, like black and white or cream and tan.
I am a huge fan of zebra prints done in soft, subtle colors like tan and cream. I've used them in my own home and recommend them over and over to customers because the pattern is visually intriguing but also soft and soothing. One of my favorite ways to use subtle animal prints is on coffee-table ottomans. The pattern is neutral enough that you can pair it with lots of choices from the color wheel and it adds striking texture.
Whether they are subtle or strong, stripes are another unexpected neutral. I am also fond of ticking and use it over and over again in my home. There is something so perfect about this petite stripe. From a distance it looks like a solid, but the closer you get the more it comes alive. It never steals attention from the main attraction you pair it with, yet it's definitely not a snoozer wallflower.
Chevron stripes are electric yet they, too, are a neutral in my book. Surprised? When I redecorated my guest bedroom, I had a pillow made of a dark blue and light blue chevron stripe. When tossed in with the bedding ensemble, it feels like a solid, blending in perfectly with the mix of colors and patterns in a backup role.
Checks and plaids
Plaid and check fabrics deliver the best of both worlds: They are neutrals that give you a wonderful blank canvass to work with, yet they are intriguing enough to infuse the furniture with singular character. Windowpane plaids are sensational because the field is mostly solid but is broken up with a few threads in interesting colors you can bring out in accent pillows.
Like ticking, small hound's-tooth checks look solid from a distance, yet are full of intrigue when you see them close up.
Ratchet up the scale of the check, and the room gets more and more fun.
None of us has any trouble thinking of solids as neutrals. But what about when the solids are super-bright or bold? Do those qualify? If they look great with lots of other colors and patterns, you bet they do! Navy is one of my favorite solid neutrals. I can't seem to get enough of this color, and through the years I've paired it with white, apple green, orange and coral. Now, I'm loving it with red. Teal is another solid that is stealing my heart because it seems to bring out the best in every color and pattern I toss at it, plus it's just so darn fun all by itself.
Look out your window and you will see one of Mother Nature's favorite neutrals: green. That crazy girl mixes every shade of green together willy-nilly to create a palette that is vibrant and refreshing. When Pantone picked emerald as the color of the year, I let out a cheer.
(The column has been adapted from Mary Carol Garrity's blog at http://www.nellhills.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.)