Why This “Boring” Neutral Is Taking Over Interiors — And How To Make It Shine

Brown is the new gray.

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There’s a lot of chatter right now about how brown decor is trending. But according to Lance Thomas of Thomas Guy Interiors, that’s not quite correct. “I wouldn't call brown a trend, but rather, a renaissance,” he tells TZR in an email. Mel Bean of Mel Bean Interiors agrees. “We are having a moody color moment in interiors, and chocolate browns are making a resurgence!” The thing is — comeback or otherwise — the color is seeing a serious increase in demand. Yet while Thomas goes so far as to pronounce that “brown is the new gray,” this design movement begs the question: Is it possible to make brown decor feel exciting, rather than dull?

According to every designer TZR spoke to for this story: Absolutely. “I think people are realizing that gray isn't the only neutral that can be used to ground a space,” says Thomas. “Brown, as a neutral, can provide comfort and a humble confidence to a room.” In fact, while the designer describes the hue as safe, he says it can be that without also being boring. “It can be sexy without being lewd. Brown is gray with a soul,” he says. Plus, no matter how it’s used — from the walnut stain of a dining table to the copper-brown tones of drapery — Thomas says that it gives the rest of the space legitimacy. “The color literally works with everything. It's multifaceted.”

Mel Bean Interiors / Photo by Laurey Glenn

Thomas isn’t alone in his beliefs. Leslie Murphy, owner and creative director of Murphy Maude Interiors, tells TZR that she thinks neutrals — browns in particular — are far from boring. Part of that is because, unlike gray, browns can connect people further to nature. They “give off a comforting and warm tone, evoking calm and restfulness, while still being upscale and elegant,” she says. “I also find that browns pop much more against a dramatic, moody paint color and keep the design feeling very clean and contemporary.”

That’s not to say that you can choose any old brown decor, throw it in a room, and be done with it, however. To achieve success with this color in your home, you’ll need a few tricks of the trade to make it shine. So ahead, we’ve rounded up a few of the best.

Layer Tones & Textures

One of the key ways to ensure a brown room doesn’t end up looking drab? Layer, layer, layer. “One of my favorite applications is to play up the color with various tones and textures to make a space visually interesting and layered through wallpaper, thoughtful accessories, or upholstery,” says Murphy.

Bean echoes this, explaining that adding in smaller accents is great for dipping your toes into the color family. "Some easy ways to integrate chocolate tones without a major commitment are through layering accessories, such as pillows, throw blankets, and other accessories into your existing interior,” she says. “A textural brown throw combined with patterned pillows with dominant browns could be the perfect tie-in to your existing color palette!” Or, you can even bring in brown though wood elements that carry the rich hue throughout the room.

Use The Right Brown

There are endless tones of brown out there, but one in particular that designers seem to gravitate toward. Because, as Bean says, it’s the one that will make everyone look their best. “I was once told that you should make sure a brown is the color of something you'd eat,” she says. “Think dark chocolate! This particular brown combines beautifully with so many colors.” Mary Patton of Houston-based Mary Patton Design also shares this advice, especially when it comes to paint. “Avoid any browns that read builder-grade blah; if you are using brown it needs to be dark,” she shares.

Pair Your Browns Carefully

As most of the designers TZR spoke to note, brown is a neutral. So, as Patton shares, you can mix most colors with it. Karen B. Wolf of Karen B. Wolf Interiors does say, though, that there are a few that look best with brown, including blues, greens, creams, and yes, even grays. “One of the most common questions I am asked is if brown works with gray. They are both neutrals; cool and warm and of course work together.” That said, Mindy O’Connor, principal of Melinda Kelson O’Connor Architecture & Interiors shares some advice if you do decide to go in that direction. “Cooler tones like gray and blue can be complemented beautifully and warmed up by contrasting woods.”

And if you’re working with a room that’s painted entirely brown? Patton suggests using cream furniture with natural wood accents to liven it up. Should you wish to add a pop of color, just stick to one and keep everything else a light neutral.

Make Brown The Hero

It may be scary to commit heavily to the color brown in your decor, but Thomas says just go for it. “Make brown the hero,” he shares. “Try going monochromatic, much like the all-white Insta rooms we are used to seeing... except brown. Think coppers, caramels, walnuts, and stone.”

Bean agrees. “I love a cozy room wrapped entirely in chocolate brown, through painted walls or a gorgeous wall covering, such as a grasscloth!” she says. “One of my own personal favorite rooms over the years had the perfect chocolate brown walls and plenty of natural light, and felt dreamy no matter the weather outside.”

Use Brown In Enclosed Spaces

Yes, you’re probably thinking that covering an enclosed space or one with minimal square footage in brown would make it seem smaller. But as Thomas explains, that’s not actually the case. “Do not be afraid of dark colors making a room feel small,” he says. “There is a big difference between a space feeling small and one feeling intimate. Dark and dramatic colors exude an attitude — one that is anything but small.”

Thus, you should feel empowered to add it to these types of rooms, says Bean, like a bedroom or home office. Just make sure they have good light, but otherwise, embrace a chocolate wall color in small or enclosed spaces. Farrow & Ball's Salon Drab is a “rich and neutral chocolate paint color” that she recommends.

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