Shades of Grey Kate Watson-Smyth

Light and Shade – The Secrets of Decorating with Grey

If you’ve been tempted to embrace the trend for grey interiors, then you may already realise that there is a lot more to grey than meets the eye. A colour that can be ethereal or industrial, and which changes easily with light and in combination with other colours, decorating with grey can be a joy – but getting it right first time can be a headache. A new book released this month, Shades of Grey by Kate Watson-Smyth, aims to inspire and also inform about grey, looking at the multiple ways you can use this neutral in a room scheme. Interiors journalist and creator of the successful blog Mad About The House, Kate knows a thing or two about decorating, and her new book grew out of her own experiments with using grey in her own home. Shades of Grey is a fascinating look at this elusive and changeable colour, and includes not just advice on how to use it in your own home, but also explores the history and psychology of grey. We caught up with her to find out more, and to ask about her own grey journey.

“When you get grey right it is like the best meal you have ever had

– perfectly spiced and with balanced flavours”


Can you tell me about your own relationship with grey?

“I first wrote about grey being popular back in 2009 but I was about to move house so I didn’t actually get to put any on the walls for a couple of years after that. To start with we did everything white – Wimborne White by Farrow & Ball for the walls, floors, skirtings and ceilings. Only the bookshelves in the library were grey – Down Pipe. Then a few months later we decided that the library shelves looked so good we would do the open shelves in the kitchen. Then it was the sitting room walls. They look amazing and I love that room every time that I am in it, both in day and under electric light.”

Shades of Grey Kate Watson Smyth

“Now there is a Down Pipe wall in the spare room with a pink fireplace and a dark grey rug with pink edging. Moving up to the loft we have gone for Railings – a borderline soft black, dark grey depending on the light. We have just painted the bi-fold doors at the back of the kitchen in Railings and the cupboards are about to go the same way, with tan leather handles. Never let it be said I don’t practice what I preach!”

Shades of Grey Kate Watson Smyth

Why do you think grey has become so popular for interiors?

“One of the first reasons is the change in electric light. In the 70s and 80s we painted everything magnolia as the base neutral and it worked really well with the soft warm light of an incandescent bulb. Then the lighting changed and magnolia looks dreadful under the cool blue light of an LED. Grey looks much better. Then we became more design savvy and started looking towards Scandinavia for our influences and we saw how brilliantly they use those grey colours in their watery northern hemisphere light. That is, of course, why Farrow & Ball works so well here as all the colours are greyed out, perfect for our rain-washed climate and soft light. The final element that is that once you paint a wall in grey you realise how it goes with everything; how it makes all your possessions look better and, in the case of dark grey, pop against the background.”

Shades of Grey Kate Watson Smyth

You’re written a whole book on grey – is there something tricky about this colour to get right?

“Oh yes! I wrote a blog post on this subject about four years ago and it’s still the most popular post on the site. I get asked this question every single day. The problem is that it can be too cold, too blue, too pink, too beige, too dark. It can change according to the direction of the room – north or south – the time of year – cool morning light or warm evening sun. It can fight with other shades of grey or be their best friend. It can do all of those things and none of them. But when you get it right it is like the best meal you have ever had – perfectly spiced and with balanced flavours. Once you have found the right shade of grey it can stay for ever, even if you change your furniture, your rugs or your cat (my cat Enid is grey) and it will still work. It is great with pastels, dark shades and other neutrals, even neons.”

Shades of Grey Kate Watson-Smyth

After all this research can you offer any advice for how to pick the right grey for a room?

“If the room is north-facing then try to avoid a cool blue-based grey or it might be cold. If that happens you can warm it up with lots of wood and warm colours. If it’s south-facing then a grey with a red ochre base can look beige so you might want to pick from the cooler end of the spectrum. Dark grey is always easier because it works in all light and won’t always make the room dark. The pale greys are tricky – you will need tester pots as every room is different. Do think about when you use the room and what for. If you use it mainly in the evening then dark and dramatic might be the way forward. A kitchen that you spend all day in may need to be paler but you can do dark accents on the shelves or woodwork.”

Shades of Grey Kate Watson Smyth

Tell us a bit about your own experiments with grey – did it take you a long time to get right in your own home?

“I made only one mistake. After I had painted the kitchen shelves in Down Pipe I wanted to do the walls in pale grey. My kitchen is north-facing and I chose Cornforth White. Now it wasn’t that it was cold but dear God it was drab. It leeched the drama out of the Down Pipe and just made everyone feel meh. We went back to Wimborne White which really reacts well against the Down Pipe. and the room was instantly better, fresher and livelier. I have included a chapter in the book on the psychology of grey and it makes for interesting reading. Otherwise I still love it for interiors, I want more of it. It’s a brilliant colour.”

Shades of Grey Kate Watson Smyth

Do you have a specific shade of grey that is a favourite of yours?

“It has to be Down Pipe. It works in all directions, all times of day and it just makes everything look great. It’s dark but not too dark and is warm and strong.”

Shades of Grey by Kate Watson-Smyth is published by Ryland Peters & Small. All images from Shades of Grey

Ros Anderson


Ros Anderson is an interiors journalist and blogger who has worked for The Guardian, Elle Decoration, Ideal Home and many more. In 2009 she co-founded cult interiors blog My Friend's House with Jill Macnair, as a place to write about design in a more honest, spontaneous and humorous way.

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