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 decor has emerged as one of the big furnishings stories. It started across the pond, where it was not a coincidental occurrence, 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,” says 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, vice president of merchandising and marketing for CR Laine, a furniture manufacturer based in Hickory, N.C., 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.
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 an asymmetrical sassy stripe.
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. 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 as well. 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.
Indeed, one enormous advantage of a black-and-white palette is its ability to change attitude, with a simple addition of color. And just about any color is smashing. Lipstick red is a favorite go-to combination for pop. 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,” says Fiore. “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.”
When New York designer Sara Story 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.
“Graphic shapes breathe new life, making black and white modern,” says Sara Story. “There are a million ways to reinvent it – you just have to keep it fresh.”