Scandinavian Chic: How to Achieve the Perfect Monochrome Home

Hilary Robertson explores the power of black, white and gray in her latest book

PHOTO: Pia Ulin

Creative director Hilary Robertson has authored two books in as many years on interiors, a subject she clearly has a passion, if not a gift for. In her latest, Monochrome (Ryland, Peters & Small), Ms. Robertson makes a convincing case that just three colors—white, black and gray—in all their infinite shades and variations, can make for the most captivating interiors. Though a sparse user of color jolts herself, Ms. Robertson wondered what it might be like to rid her own rooms, done up in soothing grays, of serendipitous shots of, say, turquoise and pink. So she set out to find the very best examples of monochromatic homes around the world and found that such visual rigor is, in the end, liberating. Spinning the color wheel may be exciting, but stopping it is far more relaxing. As Ms. Robertson recalled from the years she lived in Scandinavia, “You can’t get away from Gustavian gray in Sweden. And why would you want to?”

The London-born styPHOTO: Courtesy Hillary Robersonlist has always felt more of an affinity with the very particular feel of Scandinavia’s homes than anywhere else in the world. “They are the equivalent of the no-makeup makeup look; the architecture and the light do most of the work,” she told the Observer. Even though the texture and quality of furnishings are important, “These are not attention-seeking interiors. They don’t shout. They’re not theme-y,” she added.

A move to New York in 2005 with husband Alasdair and son Gus may have physically distanced the Brooklyn-based Brit from the meccas of monochromists, but getting her fix is no farther than the nearest laptop. Surfing the web gives her access to images from all over the world. “I spend a lot of time looking at Scandinavian design blogs to keep my finger on the pulse. Emmas.blogg.se and stilinspiration are among my favorites.”


“My parents were Scandinavianists, as I like to call those who love the aesthetic, so it was white walls all the way and lots of Danish furniture.”


Growing up in a monochromatic home helped draw Ms. Robertson to the abbreviated palette of monochrome and planted the seeds for a love of the style. “My parents were Scandinavianists, as I like to call those who love the aesthetic, so it was white walls all the way and lots of Danish furniture. As for me, I like everything, which is why I like being a stylist. I can try on different personalities in the different rooms that I design. I do prefer a tertiary color palette but bright hues are fun to play with sometimes. I think quiet color schemes are more restful, though.”

Not known as the noisiest country in the world, perhaps this is one of the reasons why Scandinavians so frequently choose the simple palette. Ms. Robertson believes there are a number of factors governing the overall aesthetic of the design there.PHOTO: Pia Ulin

“Scandinavians find white an optimal color because the sky is often gray.” She explained. “White surfaces reflect the light, which is sought after in a country where the sun often hides behind the clouds. White also serves as a neutral backdrop for the beautifully designed furniture and objects synonymous with Scandinavia. Most importantly, it takes the focus away from the interior itself and turns the focus onto the life being lived in the house.

Interestingly, black—or deep navy or gray—rooms have become more and more common in decorating magazines and on blogs recently. The Observer wondered if there are any caveats? Black walls look amazing in a book or a magazine but are difficult to live with. Ms. Robertson has seen this played out in her work as an interiors stylist.


“White surfaces reflect the light, which is sought after in a country where the sun often hides behind the clouds.”


“It depends on how the individual functions. Some people need the energy of light and can’t deal with a black kitchen or living room but might happily sleep in darkness. It’s just common sense. I met a couple who had decorated their entire apartment in dark shades but they couldn’t live with it. It looked amazing but they were depressed. Lucky for them, they are serial renovators and they have since moved—into an all-white space.”

A monochromatic color palette appears to be a simple decorating solution but that is not always the case, warned Ms. Robertson. “It is as difficult or easy as you make it, as there are hundreds of shades of white, gray and black. If you are drawn to subtleties you can drive yourself just as mad with a limited palette as with a multicolor scheme.”

PHOTO: Pia Ulin

PHOTO: Pia Ulin

Does this kind of home make furniture choices easier?

PHOTO: Pia Ulin“To really make it work, one has to vary texture as well as the scale of objects. The lighting has to be right and there must be contrast.” Ms. Robertson added a few final tips regarding seemingly simple white walls, during our chat. “There are a squillion white wall colors out there. White can go drab, it can highlight flaws, it can feel too antiseptic. The only way to truly know how the white you choose will look is to paint large squares of it on paper and stick them on the wall with tape. Look at the squares to see how the light over the course of the day impacts it. Remember, if you go for all white walls you have to be a committed editor and very disciplined when it comes to hiding all the colorful stuff that arrives in a home, i.e. sports equipment, toys, electronics. Needless to say, minimalists do well with a limited palette!”