Gray has been having a moment — ahem, more of a decade, actually. For the past several years, the cool neutral has reigned as the color king of Pinterest, HGTV, and countless design blogs. Design reports have touted gray as “the perfect neutral because it’s compatible with almost every other color, and it folds easily into every style of decor.” In Sherwin Williams’ 50 most popular paint colors for 2020, at least 20 of them were some variation of gray.
And perhaps most telling, Pantone, widely recognized as an authority on predicting color trends, has chosen Ultimate Gray (17-5104) as its color of the year for 2021.
But some experts believe gray’s days are numbered, soon to be replaced by a return to warmer and brighter colors. Is this hot trend on the brink of a cooldown, or will the stormy shade stick around for the foreseeable future? Whether you’re considering going gray for your next project or wondering if it’s time to swap out your existing gray paint for the next on-trend color, read on for some expert guidance.
Is gray going out of style?
In a recent New York Times article, Joa Studholme, the color curator for English paint company Farrow & Ball, predicts a “huge wave away from gray,” as homeowners seek to create more cheerful spaces amid the pandemic. “There is a tendency to crave warm tones in challenging times,” she told NYT. “It’s all about being warm and earthy and choosing deeply saturated color. It’s about trying something that gives you a great big hug.”
A Fixr report from last year predicted that the gray trend was already cooling off, with only 20% of surveyed experts expecting it to stick around. And Tami Holmes, a top-performing real estate agent in Ohio with more than 16 years of experience, is seeing a trend away from gray and back to shades of brown and beige.
Paint trends over the decades
Just as with any design element, the popularity of certain paints tends to ebb and flow over the years. What came before gray, and what’s coming next?
- In the 1980s, Sherwin Williams saw homeowners going mad for mauve, with some baby blue and gray accents. Pastel shades also became popular.
- In the 1990s, SW saw a rush for beige, rustic golds, terra cotta, putty, sage, and earthy reds.
- In the 2000s, popular colors included latte, beiges, soft blues, and whites.
- It was in the 2010s when, as SW puts it, “the graying of America” began in full force. Gray knocked the long-reigning beige out of its position as the default wall color, complemented by some white, black, and off-black shades. Homeowners embraced gray as a more modern, upscale, and elegant neutral option that paired well with other neutrals as well as bolder shades.
- Heading into the 2020s, many experts believe that while gray will still have a place in many homes, it will play more of a supporting role, as warmer neutrals, bold colors, and earthy tones take center stage.
50 (actually, hundreds of) shades of gray
If you’ve ever tried to select a single shade of gray paint, you know there are a dizzying number of choices. To simplify, you can think of various shades of gray as falling into four main categories:
- Warm grays: Grays with a yellow or brown undertone will have a warmer, more inviting feel. The “greige” paints (a mix of gray and beige) that have been popular over the past few years fall into this category. Some popular warm gray paint colors include SW Keystone Gray, Benjamin Moore Classic Gray, SW Curio Gray, and Behr Silver Drop.
- Cool grays: With a subtle blue undertone, cool grays create a fresh, airy vibe, and are ideal for contemporary spaces. SW Repose Gray, SW Argos, Behr Sterling, and SW Gray Screen are some examples of in-demand cool grays.
- Neutral grays: If you’re looking for a versatile gray for a large room or an entire house, you may want a more neutral shade that complements any other colors. Some of the most popular neutral gray colors include SW Agreeable Gray, Farrow & Ball Ammonite, Gray Owl by Benjamin Moore, and SW Worldly Gray.
- Dark grays: These bolder shades of gray are well-suited to accent walls, furniture pieces, or rooms where you’re looking to make an eye-catching statement. Englewood Cliffs by Benjamin Moore, Plummett by Farrow & Ball, Cheating Heart by Benjamin Moore, and Iron Mountain by Benjamin Moore are a few examples of more dramatic grays.
Gray paint trends across the country
Some experts believe that gray’s heyday may be drawing to a close, or at least shifting a bit. We spoke with some designers in seven different states to get their take:
Melissa Welsh, an interior designer in Northern California, has seen the gray paint trend steadily fading over the last two to three years. “Cool grays are being replaced by warmer shades and soft whites,” she says. These days, most of Welsh’s clients are looking for help choosing the perfect white paint color rather than the perfect gray.
Amy Bell, a professional interior decorator in Cary, North Carolina, has watched paint trends shift over the past 15 years. Although she thinks we’re still in the midst of the “gray everything” trend, she believes it will eventually pass. In terms of wall paint color, she’s been seeing a shift toward whites, such as Alabaster by Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore’s timeless classic, White Dove.
Lindsey Putzier, a midwestern interior designer and Certified True Color Expert in Hudson, Ohio, says gray is fading in popularity as more clients are requesting colorful interiors. “They’re tired of being stuck in a white and gray wasteland for the past year,” she says. “Especially in cloudier states, it’s depressing when the only color you see, both inside and outside, is gray.” Some of her clients are still choosing grays, but they’re leaning more toward warmer grieges and light beiges.
Paige NeJame runs a painting business in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. She’s still seeing gray paint as a neutral but stylish background for interior walls, but the trend is leaning more toward the warmer blends. Out of the 500 interior painting projects her company did in 2020, many clients started choosing greige colors like Sherwin Williams’ Repose Gray, SW Spaulding Gray, and the darker Garret Gray for dining rooms, powder rooms and living rooms.
Peter Sandel, a Manhattan-based interior designer with two decades of experience, believes gray will remain a clean and sophisticated color choice for interior finishes, but that homeowners should thoughtfully choose a gray that goes well with their interior color scheme to avoid looking passé.
“The days of using a retail go-to gray interior wall paint as a safe choice are over,” he says. “Understanding how your space responds to light and mood will further inform the eye for understanding which hue of gray paint works best.” These days, he’s seeing the colder, icier, less blue tones being replaced with warmer, muddier hues of greige and taupe.
Kelli Suozzo, an interior designer based in New Jersey and founder of Bowerbird, is still using gray, but in different ways. “We’re going on almost 10 years since gray exploded on the scene, and while it will always have a place, I think its moment as a ubiquitous go-to is fading,” she says. Instead of the cool, mid-tone grays in high contrast with stark white trim and farmhouse accents, Suozzo is seeing an evolution to warmer, more natural grays layered tonally and elevated with charcoal, as well as — yet again — the greiges and beiges.
Brittany Tharp, an interior designer in New Fairfield, Connecticut, still sees a big demand for gray paint, but is also starting to see a move toward warm whites and beige tones. “In addition to this shift to warmer neutrals, we’re also seeing color come back around with lots of deep blues, teals and greens,” she says. “We are also starting to see a shift toward natural tones and textures, with wood finishes becoming more popular again.”
Thinking outside the walls
While some believe gray may soon get knocked out of its top spot when it comes to wall color paints, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will disappear entirely. The versatile neutral is also popping up in other areas of the home, including cabinets, tile, countertops, furniture, bathroom vanities, curtains, and rugs.
In addition to still seeing some lighter, neutral grays on walls, NeJame is also seeing the shade extend to exteriors, with people opting for greige tones for shutters. In fact, she used Sherwin Williams’ Pavestone, a neutral greige, on the shutters of her own home.
So many grays, so little time…
If you’re a little late to the gray craze but have decided to take the plunge, there are hundreds of shades to sift through. How to narrow it down to just one?
Know your color undertones:
A gray paint swatch that looks one way on a swatch or a computer screen can look entirely different when it’s on a wall in your home. Gray paint colors have either warm or cool undertones, and they can sometimes have a tinge of blue, purple, green, or even pink. For example, Grey Screen by Sherwin Williams has very blue undertones, while Benjamin Moore’s Revere Pewter skews more yellow. It’s important for those hidden hues to work well with the lighting and other design elements in the room.
“Gray provides a great variety while still being neutral, but it can also pull in colors that were not anticipated, and they can clash if not done well,” warns Tharp. “For example, a cabinet color that pulls pink with a backsplash that introduces greens will look off.” To avoid any missteps, be sure to sample the color in your home — in the morning, afternoon, and evening — before committing to it.
Mix and match different grays:
Having trouble narrowing it down to a single gray? Consider letting a few different shades play off each other to create dimension and contrast. That could mean using a lighter color for most of the main walls and then creating some accent walls with a darker shade. Just be sure to use shades from the same color family so the undertones will work well together. For instance, Sherwin Williams’ Agreeable Gray could be paired with Anew Gray, Mega Greige, Warm Stone, Brainstorm Bronze, Status Bronze, and Keystone Gray, which are all in the same color family.
Consider using a color consultant:
If you’ve sampled a few colors and still can’t decide, it might be worth spending $100 or so to have a local color consultant come to your home and give you a professional opinion based on your furnishings and lighting. “Time spent with a color consultant is almost always worth the price, because it prevents you from feeling ‘just OK about a new color before you spend a lot of time or money painting,” says NeJame.
Designers’ choices for best staging colors
For years, gray has been the “it” neutral color when it comes to staging and selling houses. But according to Fixr’s 2021 Paint and Color Trends report, 63% of experts recommended going with whites and creams instead.
“In the middle of a seller’s market with a shortage of homes for sale, these hues create a blank canvas for buyers, which could make a home more appealing to a broader group than using a specific or more tailored palette,” says Cristina Miguelez, a remodeling specialist at Fixr.com.
Decorator Amy Bell in North Carolina has been seeing a shift toward whites for staging, such as Sherwin Williams’ Alabaster and Benjamin Moore’s White Dove. “With their higher LRV (light reflectance value), white paints bounce back a greater percentage of light, making them great choices for staging,” she says. “No one ever hops on the MLS searching for a dark, cavey home.”
But that’s not to say gray isn’t still a good staging color. Designer Jennifer Burt’s top pick when staging her clients’ homes for sale is Agreeable Gray by Sherwin Williams. “The mix of gray and beige is like a chameleon in coordinating with other colors in the room,” she says.
And according to HomeLight’s Top Agent Insights Q1 2020 Report, 79% of top real estate agents report that today’s homebuyers prefer gray over white (11%) or beige (9%).
Header Image Source: (Sidekix Media / Unsplash)