Overwhelmingly White

Why Is White The Colour Of Choice?

Why is white the wall colour of choice in so much residential interior design? What does this tell us about women assuming reasonably they are the prime-movers in these decisions. Working alone, or together with their interior designer, a sector where over 65% are women[1], white walls dominate. Why?

Navigating a line between two tropes, being the anodyne “perfect” mother and housewife – subservient to a husband and children, and the self-motivated ambitious intellectually involved working woman is difficult and ambiguous. Given the burden of expectations for a woman, playing these parts and being fulfilled is a complex undertaking. While being intellectual and housewifely, ambitious and motherly, are not necessarily in conflict with each other, there is still an existential dilemma many women must consider as they live their busy lives. The question which men might equally ask of themselves in their roles as fathers and which women inevitably do as mothers, is, am I a good mother to my children?

Given that men dominate the workplace through pay discrimination, woman struggle with these questions in ways men do not. More often women are deferred to as the primary caregivers. They are the ones that take maternity leave and sacrifice their careers. The burden of expectations weighs more heavily on women. The dilemma for women is further complicated by the current trend for women to become mothers later in life.

Today’s older parent lived themselves through a time when mothers were more accessible and they contrast this with the realities of their own children’s lives. They wonder of themselves whether being old mothers suggests a certain self-centered disposition. They put off children in pursuit of personal ambition. Invariably, for the older parents who are fully engaged with a career, their children live large parts of their days in the care of others – before and after-school care, or with nannies and caregivers. Is there a contradiction – achieving as a woman but perhaps failing as mothers?

In the 1950s the picture of a model housewife was that of a woman at home alone, living in a spotlessly clean living room, groomed, presenting an air of achievement through domestic bliss. She waits for her children and husband. She steps into her clean and tidy, perfectly appointed kitchen to cook perfect meals. Everything is in place. This was what women aspired to as urged upon them by advertising and the media. The soiled messy falling apart reality is no where to be seen. This is the cultural antecedent.

Do women now still seek to convey or present a similar quality about themselves and their lives? We know or think the our times are different, but does the desire to project success, as wife, mother, working womanl persist such that the home needs to be painted accordingly? Do women want to be seen on the one hand self-motivated, ambitious, intellectually-involved, and on the other perfect?

French author Leila Slimani, writer of Prix Goncourt wining novel ‘The Perfect Nanny’ recently commented to the CBC in interview that during her book tour of the United States she encountered often conversations discussing the concept of the perfect mother, the ‘soccer mum’, in a manner unlike French mothers. To French women the perfect mother was not a personal goal. One sensed that French women do not believe in such concepts. Interestingly, deep coloured interiors are more common and popular in Europe as seen through the media. White does not dominate. Is this a reflection of women’s attitudes towards themselves being different?

Judging by the ubiquity of white walled homes one might wonder whether the projection of an ideal home life underlies the choice. Otherwise, why are so many residential interiors white? Why have so many opted for this colour scheme? Why is there so little colour on the walls of our homes? Is this mere coincidence? Or is there some social-cultural determinant.

Perhaps moreover, why are the style and taste-makers – the magazine editor, the lifestyle blogger, the interior designer, so given to a white aesthetic? What is behind the choice of homes dominated by white or nearly white walls? Is this the updated version of the couch covered in plastic, or the ornamental living room? Are these people trapped by the same desires and pretensions of the 1950s? Are they the contemporary media-men circumscribing the nature of women as perfect mother, perfect wife, perfect home-maker – ‘soccer mum’?

Pick up any interior design related magazine and you will find pages dominated by white walls. Search the internet for interior designers; their sites and portfolios are frequently dominated by white residential interiors. Is this trend a reflection of some primitive spirit or social engineering? Visit your lifestyle blogger and the over-riding aesthetic is white. It is a world awash in white. Maven of the white aesthetic, Martha Stewart, walks around the white homes of her magazine in her sea breeze outfits. Martha presents herself as the perfect mother, the perfect home-maker. The male equivalent, Jonathan Adler, appears frequently as clean living, perpetually dressed for tennis, seated in breezy white rooms with a dash of pop. Is he trying to represent what women want to say about themselves? What is he saying through the aesthetics he promotes?

White presents a world of order. Nowhere is this sensibility represented better than in the styled pages of magazines. Rarely is any attempt made in the pages of interior design and decorating magazines to represent the real everyday home –lived in, messy, dirty, enjoyed. A professional photographer and stylist are more than capable of presenting the ‘real’ home in an agreeably tasteful way but the editorial vision deliberately denies the gritty side of life. What we get are coffee table books stacked perfectly, cushions placed impeccably.

White keeps the dirty polluted reality of our modern world at the doorstep. There are no politics here, no representations of social activism or engagement. The is no global warming, no poverty, nothing offensive or decisive. It is quite literally a white-wash. Nothing here will offend you or make you question your own outlook. There are no controversy. White removes the identity. Void of colour, void of ideas.

Effectively white means to project a lightness, a happiness. No one has issue with wanting to feel happy, but is this not just a facade? What is being said – only white homes are happy homes. Authenticity is the source of happiness and what is authentic is arguably not a spic and span white world. No one really lives like that – do they?

Colours, on the other hand are moody, even be dark. It is unseemly to be seen as moody, most particularly if you are a woman. Colour expresses personality and commitment. Does this aesthetic contradict the qualities society wants of women? Personality and commitment are not desirable – the ideal woman is not meant to appear so confident. We all know the truth is elsewhere but a charade persists. The presumption here is that women are the prime ‘influencers’ in the interior design choices. Interior Designers alone are predominately women.

image montage of white interiors taken from the internet

White Interiors on the Internet

White is asexual, pure, virginal. Nothing here betrays commingling. Is this the psychological expression underlying the choice of white in the home? Take a look at the taste-makers and stylist in Europe and the picture is very different.

It would be hard to say conclusively – this is conjecture – but it is worth considering. Why is white everywhere in the modern home? Most particularly why are the walls so often white when there are so many beautiful paint colours available? There was a time when colour choices did not exist. Perhaps choosing colours is too difficult, perhaps it requires too much confidence. Is white the expression of our uncertain times? Can someone please bring colour into the ideal home, the traditional home? More style at home please.

[1] The American Institute of Architects counted 83,000 members at the end of 2012, yet only 18 percent are women. In contrast, according to Interior Design’s recent Universe Study, of the 87,000 interior designers in the United States, 69 percent are women.Sep 11, 2013

Share and Comment.

The Author: Matthew Buck is the creative energy behind Reflecting Design and Odlum Entrance.

Posted in Interior Design, Opinion Tagged with: