Grey's anatomy

Once upon a time, magnolia ruled in homes. The warm peachy shade was for years apparently the only choice for walls - until out of the shadows came grey.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 6th March 2016, 5:00 pm
An interior taken from Shades of Grey: Decorating with the Most Elegant of Neutrals, by Kate Watson-Smyth, published by Ryland Peters and Small. Photo: PA Photo/Ryland Peters and Small
An interior taken from Shades of Grey: Decorating with the Most Elegant of Neutrals, by Kate Watson-Smyth, published by Ryland Peters and Small. Photo: PA Photo/Ryland Peters and Small

“It’s an interior designer’s murder mystery - did grey kill magnolia?” teases Kate Watson-Smyth, whose new book, Shades Of Grey, focuses on the power of a grey palette and explains in crystal clear fashion, spiced with a liberal dash of humour, how to use it stylishly.

“Nowadays poor old magnolia’s a byword for all that is bland, blah and boring in interiors, even though in its heyday it was lauded as being practical because it didn’t show the dirt, and its soft colour instantly suggested homeliness.

“Unfortunately, new lighting in the Nineties, not grey, was the real culprit, which gradually brought about its demise. The harsher, cooler, clearer light of halogen, LED and fluorescent lamps, which replaced incandescent bulbs, simply made magnolia look terrible and left the field clear for grey, which now rules the roost. Our love of all things Nordic and the popularity of grey in fashion has also played a part in our passion for this palette.”

Fresh, modern and easy to match to other colours, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that elegant, sophisticated grey is currently regarded as the perfect neutral. There’s only one snag - deciding which shade to choose.

As if the names for shades weren’t baffling enough - take these, ‘Elephant’s Breath’ is actually mid-grey, ‘Blackened’ is actually pale blue, bestselling ‘Down Pipe’ is dark grey while ‘Clooney’ (named after George, natch) is a bluey grey - the number on offer can induce paint chart paralysis. Fifty shades? Forget it - Dulux recently expanded its range and now offers a mind-boggling 557 greys.

“Grey’s one of the hardest colours to get right when it comes to decorating your home. Get it wrong and the effect can be cold and energy-sapping, but if it’s right it will look ultra chic and modern, so although it takes a bit of mastering, it’s well worth it,” says Watson-Smyth.

“To find the best shade, you need to consider a few key things, including which direction your room faces, what time of day you’ll be in there, the prevailing weather and, last of all, the actual shade you like!

“Hopefully, by understanding grey, you’ll be spared from buying a zillion expensive sample pots, having walls daubed with confusing splashes of paint, or painting a whole room in the wrong shade and finding it resembles a prison cell! I’ve done it myself in my kitchen and had to repaint it. Just be warned, once you’ve gone grey, you’ll be hooked.”


How you use a room has a bearing on the intensity of grey you should use.

“If you’re in a room mainly in the evening, or always have the lights on, you can afford to opt for a dark shade,” advises Watson-Smyth.

“Rooms in use all day long and beyond, such as a kitchen where you also eat in the evening, require a grey which works with natural or electric light. For daylight hours, dark grey will work particularly well if you have a reasonably light room to start with.

“Dark walls in a kitchen work well with a light floor and cabinets - choose warm greys for north-facing rooms and cool greys for south-facing rooms. Dining rooms, which often suffer from lack of light, can be painted in dark greys which will conjure an intimate, cosy atmosphere but if this room’s also used in the day, opt for a lighter grey.

EXPERT VIEW: “Grey paint is like the chocolate on a biscuit. Just as that will bring out the flavour of the biscuit, so grey brings out the depth of the other colours it sits with,” says Marianne Shillingford, creative director of Dulux.


Grey’s enduring popularity over the last decade is partly down to the cold, clear Northern light we enjoy in this country - put simply, grey just looks good here - but always evaluate how much natural light a room gets and the direction it comes from.

“For a small and dark north-facing room, don’t fight the space by painting it a pale colour,” says Watson-Smyth. “Instead, embrace its cosiness. Pick a strong shade of grey - as near to black as you dare - and use on every wall.

“The warm light of a south-facing room allows you more freedom of choice - pale greys can work as well as dark ones. East and west-facing rooms can be tricky, as the light will change from warm to cold as the sun moves across the sky. The secret is to look for a shade which will warm the cool and tone down the warm. For east-facing rooms, try greys with a blue or green base.”

A shade to consider, she suggests, is Little Greene’s French Grey, a warm pale grey which won’t dominate or darken a space. Absolute matt emulsion, £19.25 for 1L (

EXPERT VIEW: “I started by painting one alcove in my house grey - it’s a good way to experiment with a shade - and then fell in love with the colour and painted the whole house in dark grey. It’s the best interiors move I ever made,” enthuses interior designer Abigail Ahern. To be safe, buy a sample pot and apply a generous amount in various places in a room, to see how the colour alters at different times of the day.


Always consider the effect that your existing furniture, textiles and flooring may have on a paint shade - no grey is ever seen in isolation.

“Grey goes with all the other colours on the wheel, so you could throw in some pink until you feel like a change, and then maybe swap it for orange or yellow. It’s probably more affordable to swap the accessories than the wall colour,” suggests Watson-Smyth.

“Be aware, though, that light will bounce off a bright pink sofa and turn walls slightly violet. Modern LEDs often throw out light with a blueish tinge, which will add to the pink purple effect.

“If you’re concerned a room may look too plain painted all grey, use a textured wallpaper as a base to add interest. Skirting boards and radiators painted the same grey as walls will open up and enhance a space and painting a ceiling a paler shade of the wall colour, rather than white, can also be effective.”

EXPERT VIEW: “Grey has a mercurial personality. It can be masculine or feminine, strong or subtle, depending on how it’s used and the overall design palette,” says American designer Kelly Wearstler. “I love playing shades of grey off metallic, marble or hand-painted silk wall coverings in a room. A monochrome palette of grey and white allows geometric forms, patterns and textures to have a stronger voice.”

Shades Of Grey: Decorating With The Most Elegant Of Neutrals by Kate Watson-Smyth is published by Ryland Peters & Small, priced £19.99. Available to readers for £14.99 (including p&p). Call Macmillan Direct on 01256 302 699 and quote reference: GI8