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Picking the right shade of white isn’t so, uh, black and white

By Elizabeth Mayhew,

I recently made my first really big decorating mistake. Where did I go wrong? Well, I’ll tell you with the hope that I can save you the same trouble — and a lot of money. When it comes to decorating, there is no such thing as a simple white.

My husband and I, with the help of our architect, Gil Schafer, have spent the past year renovating an old dairy factory in Upstate New York. Although the concrete structure had been “converted” into a house in the ’60s, not much had been done to make it livable by today’s standards. We added a small second story to store all of the modern-day mechanics (the structure was built on a basement-less concrete slab, so the only way to build was up) and redid the walls, floors, kitchen and bathrooms. The last of which is where I made my mistake.

As the designer on the project, I am responsible for all decorating decisions, as well as material selections such as wood, marble and tile. So when the contractor told me he needed my specs for the master bathroom right away, I rushed to the Waterworks showroom to make a selection. (Now, I know what you are thinking: “Wow, Waterworks, fancy!” For the kitchen and other bathrooms I chose simple, inexpensive white subway tiles, but I wanted the master bathroom, particularly the shower, to be special, so I stepped up to the proverbial plate — the Waterworks plate.) I chose a beautiful 3-by-6-inch handmade ceramic Field Tile in Dover White, which, in the showroom, looked great next to a sample of my sparkling Calacatta marble, which was chosen to surround the bottom of the shower and for the sink countertops. All seemed fine to me, so I quickly placed the order.

Fast-forward to the other day, when I showed up at the project to find the tiles installed. I took one look at the perfectly grouted walls and got a stomachache. The tiles, which looked so white in the showroom, now had a creamy tone that seemed almost dingy next to the bright white of the marble. They were beautiful, just not white enough for a good match.

Where did I go wrong? I only ever compared the tile and the marble under the glow of fluorescent showroom lighting, which doesn’t show anything accurately.

But luckily, all decorating mistakes are fixable.

Paint is the easiest, least expensive way to transform a room or, in my case, correct a mistake. I had two ideas: The first was to paint the walls of the bathroom with alternating wide horizontal stripes of two different shades of white. The second was to just paint the walls a single shade of white that would visually marry the creamy tint of my tiles with the crisp tone of my marble. I chose the latter, but finding the right shade wasn’t easy. My tried-and-true, go-to white paint, Benjamin Moore’s Decorator White, was too cool, too gray. Linen White was too yellow; White Dove, too creamy. (Do I sound like Goldilocks?) I ended up using Pratt and Lambert’s Seed Pearl, which, as the name suggests, is multidimensional, like a pearl’s surface. So with walls painted and marble and tile installed, it all looks like it was meant to be. Best of all, my almost $3,000 mistake was fixed by a $25 gallon of paint.

READ MORE:

Not all whites are vanilla

Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”

Chat Thursday at 11 a.m. Washington area professional organizer Penny Catterall joins staff writer Jura Koncius for our weekly online Q&A on decorating and household advice. Submit your questions.

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