THERE’S A SAYING in the design world that every wall is a blank canvas. But if your walls have been looking just a little too, well, blank lately, take heart, because design showrooms are newly awash in rich colors, unexpected textures, and bold patterns that the average homeowner can appropriate. “I think people are trying to be a little more creative with their space and have a little more fun with it,” says Erin Davis, showroom manager at EcoModern Design in the Boston Design Center. “Playing with the wall surface creates a more dynamic space.” When there’s something unexpected on the walls or even — the latest vogue — on the ceiling, Davis adds, the room achieves a more layered look that draws the eye around.
Here, a few of the freshest ideas.
1. TRY A FASHIONABLE COLOR
For decades now, beiges have been the neutral of choice — they go with anything and, as a backdrop, allow furnishings to shine. And though these shades will still be around, they are no longer the blah light tans that some designers term “contractor’s beige” for their generic ubiquity in new construction. The trend is toward more natural shades like “bone sand” and sepia, according to New Jersey-based Pantone, whose color-matching system is used throughout the design industry.
But even more, beiges are being nudged out of the spotlight by shades of gray and the colors that complement them, from gray-blues to navies to “warmer, tropical, watery blues with a touch of green,” according to the Color Marketing Group in Alexandria, Virginia, which analyzes and predicts fashions in color. “This is not your grandmother’s baby blue,” says Betty Wheeler, an interior designer at Home Decor Group in Peabody. “It’s a stronger, bolder blue working off of a silvery gray or even a deep gray.”
Even black is making a surprise appearance, lending an air of old Hollywood to dining rooms, bedrooms, and hallways, particularly when paired with white woodwork and accessories. “Black is definitely a trend,” says Jackie Jordan, director of color marketing for Sherwin-Williams in Dallas. “People think it will close the room in, but it has the opposite effect.”
Metallics, too, are part of the luxe look. “To me, metallics come off as a classic,” says Davis, “though you obviously don’t want to have everything in the room metallic.”
2. CREATE AN ACCENT WALL
No matter what color family you choose, accent walls are making a strong comeback. “It’s a modern return to what people were doing in the ’70s,” Wheeler points out. “It was taboo for a while, a bad idea. Now it’s a good idea.”
Accent walls work best when the wall is the room’s natural focal point — there’s a fireplace on it, say, or the bed is placed against it. Just make sure your accent color works with rather than against the other colors in the room. “If you have three blue walls and one red one,” says Charles Spada, principal of Charles Spada Interiors of Boston, “it’s hellacious.” On the other hand, he says, a silver or gold foil wall in a contemporary setting — particularly when paired with something like a glazed chocolate throughout — “can really look spiffy.”
Another key is to make sure the room’s furnishings and accessories tie the two colors together. In a child’s room, for example, you might have three pale pink walls and a turquoise one behind the bed. “Just make sure the bedding has colors that coordinate the two,” says Wheeler.
Ceilings often provide the accent for today’s most up-to-date looks. A dark ceiling — a deep eggplant or magenta, perhaps — with neutral walls makes a dramatic statement, while the same hue as the walls but in a lighter shade can work especially well when white crown molding provides a visual separation.
3. EXPERIMENT WITH WALLPAPER
Because the wallpapers of yesteryear were hard to remove and often clashed with the clean lines of postmodernism, they fell out of favor decades ago. But wallpaper has returned in a significant way, minus those gingham checks and tiny flowers. “Prints are larger in general,” says Wheeler, “bigger, bolder, and more graphic.”
Jordan adds: “Large-scale designs are becoming very popular, and people are using them differently than you’d typically think of using wallpaper. They’re doing more feature walls, especially with the bigger designs. Or, rather than doing an entire wall, they may just do two strips in the center, with maybe a chest of drawers or credenza in front of it.” Even in powder rooms, Jordan says, where many people fear a large pattern might overwhelm, the new wallpapers can create an “interesting, dynamic” effect and add a sense of drama.
This renewed attention has brought a flood of cool papers to the market in more modest price ranges — some as low as $30 a roll. HGTV Home, made by Sherwin-Williams (sherwin-williams.com), is one of the more affordable brands, as is Easy-Walls from Warner Wallcoverings (warnerwalls.com), which promises its product can be removed in full sheets after years in place. Trove (troveline.com) and Ferm Living (ferm-living.com) are among the edgier high-end brands, while Schumacher (fschumacher.com) and Graham & Brown (grahambrown.com) fall somewhere in between. You can even order custom wallpaper at websites like Design Your Wall (designyourwall.com).
Murals, too, are enjoying a renaissance, partly because digital technology makes for sharper images and more vibrant colors than in years past, and partly because of the customization that’s newly available. Just upload an image to a website and place your order. A 12-by-8-foot custom mural at Murals Your Way (muralsyourway.com), a particularly user-friendly site, is $672, while a ready-made design featuring a tropical island from Design Your Wall comes in at as little as $56. For real drama, check out Majesty Maps & Prints (majestymaps.com), which reproduces detailed giclee-print antique maps — 1713 Paris or 1890 London, for example. An 8-by-8-foot mural averages $980.
Tom Quinn, director of product development and marketing at Warner Wallcoverings in Bowie, Maryland, contends that most people hang their own wallpaper. That’s why his company developed Easy-Walls — “to encourage customers and remove the fear of installing and taking down wallpaper.” But unless you’re a particularly patient and handy person, says Spada, you might want to enlist help. “It isn’t anything I think a layperson should attempt,” he maintains. Professional hanger John Santolucito of Waltham has been on the job for 32 years, so the $25 to $50 he charges per roll of paper — that covers 25 to 35 square feet of wall space — can be worth the price in aggravation spared, particularly if you’re only doing a small room or accent wall.
4. CONSIDER A TEMPORARY TREATMENT
Of course, not everyone wants to commit to wallpaper, even if it is beautiful. That’s where temporary wallpaper comes in; when you tire of it, you can pull it off with only a damp-sponge wipe-up of the wall beneath. “Its most popular use is in children’s rooms,” says Wheeler, “where you can take off the choo-choo train when they get older. But it’s good for teenagers, renters — anybody who can’t do something permanent to the wall.” Sherwin-Williams, Design Your Wall, Tempaper (tempaperdesigns.com), and Designer Wallcoverings and Fabrics (designerwallcoverings.com) offer the most options in this category.
Decals are a good deal more highbrow than they were in their last incarnation in the 1970s, and they’re not just for kids’ rooms anymore. They’re most often seen on focal walls — perhaps a few sophisticated black-and-white poppies growing out of your breakfast nook, a row of floor-to-ceiling birch trees silhouetted behind the couch, or a plane coming in to land over the bed. Or they’re used to add a bit of whimsy, with trompe l’oeil vases seeming to sit atop a dresser or a bird cage hanging from a rafter. Dali (dalidecals.com) offers a range of options starting as low as $10, from quotes like “Be Awesome” to one-dimensional headboards, while Blik (whatisblik.com) is among the hippest manufacturers, with everything from Keith Haring to graffiti-inspired designs, most for under $100.
5. PLAY WITH STENCILS
Stenciling, too, has come of age and can offer more versatility than wallpaper. “The time when ivies and chickens on the kitchen wall were everywhere, that’s dead,” says Wheeler. “But there are very good, intricate, stylish stencils available now.”
You can, for example, create faux ceiling medallions around your chandeliers; paint delicate, shadowed cherry blossoms over your bed with birds gliding off the branches; and dot bold peonies on a focal wall. “Stencils can be applied very subtly as a backdrop,” says Wheeler, “using white on white, sheen and matte, or glaze instead of paint. Or you can use them as a feature with a bright color and a bolder presentation.”
Britain’s Stencil Library (stencil-library.com) presents more than 3,500 options, from Celtic to Ottoman to Japanese designs as well as a “Bad Attitude” category that contains barbed wire, boot prints, and tire tracks. Cutting Edge Stencils (cuttingedgestencils.com) and Royal Design Studio (royaldesignstudio.com) both offer detailed borders, individual stencils, and sheets of repeating designs to create a wallpaper-like effect. And because they’re not just for walls, stencils provide the option of coordinating other decor to your background; you can apply them to curtains or pillows and to floors, dressers, tabletops, and armoires. Just don’t go overboard. “Always do things with different scale and intensity,” Wheeler says. “Everything can’t take center stage.”
6. MAKE WALLS TOUCHABLE
“Different textures is really the thing,” says Spada, pointing out that vinyl, faux alligator, patent leathers, and shagreen (sharkskin) can be “quite sensational as wallcoverings.” He adds: “A lot of them come paper-backed, so they can be applied like wallpaper. There are a number of ways to use them — in a powder room or master bathroom, or in a dark hallway to give it some life.”
A traditional texture is grass cloth, which, like many of the other wallcovering trends, was popular in the ’70s. But, Wheeler says, today’s versions have more variety and a “more refined look,” such as grass cloth with fine metallic threads woven in.
Paintable wallpaper offers a textured pattern while allowing you to stick with one color. This can be essential in situations where a busy background might clash with patterned furniture.
Other options? Spada suggests thick rag paper that looks homemade and has an irregular appearance, as well as embroidered silk paper that’s “extraordinarily beautiful and very high-end.” Newsworthy, a wallpaper created with woven newspapers, offers a subtly colorful, textural look; it’s available to the trade only from Weitzner for $135 a yard. So-called puff ink also adds a third dimension to wallpaper; when this ink is used to create a wood pattern, Quinn says, “it actually feels like wood.”
Three-dimensional panels, made of paper, faux leather, or medium-density fiberboard, appear to leap off the wall and can give the appearance of basket weaving or tufting, for example. They can be expensive — $300 to $500 for a 4-by-8-foot panel — but a set of 12 19-inch-square panels goes for a more reasonable $163.99 at walmart.com. Still, says Davis, “they’re an investment. Be sure before spending the money that it’s something you want.”
Like papers, fabrics on walls can add texture while ranging from neutral to assertive. “You can upholster a wall in almost anything,” says Spada, who uses the services of Soft Walls Associates, a South End wall upholsterer with a proprietary technique that needs no trim cords. “It’s a different look from wallpaper,” says Soft Walls owner Bruno Jouenne. “It has some volume, it’s soft, and it makes the room quieter.” Jouenne can install virtually any fabric, from linen to velvet, with a quarter inch of padding underneath.
7. GET BACK TO NATURE
On the market now are a large variety of natural materials that go way beyond grass cloth. At EcoModern Design, for example, one wall is covered in cork and another in bamboo. “One of the things we’re seeing people do a lot more of is taking things that aren’t necessarily meant as wallcoverings and using them as wallcoverings,” says Davis. “So cork, for example, is generally used as a flooring product, but there’s no reason you can’t install it on a wall or ceiling.”
Design magazines and websites like Apartment Therapy and Design Sponge have been showing rustic-looking reclaimed-wood walls for several years, but now you no longer have to go out and find your own lumber to achieve the look. Urban Wallcovering (urbanwallcovering.com) offers veneers in nearly four dozen woods, from Andes rosewood to zebrawood. Stikwood (stikwood.com) has made it even simpler, with peel-and-stick reclaimed barrel oak, black cherry, and caramelized bamboo, among others. Trove adds some elegance to wood walls with veneers in 18-inch squares printed with floral designs.
Coconut shells, in patterns ranging from rustic tile-like looks to a dark brown polished basket weave, are one of the more surprising natural materials making an appearance; they’re $85 for 11.5 square feet, to the trade only, at Cocomosaic (cocomosaic.com), and $15 to $20 a square foot at Kirei (kireiusa.com). Also big on impact is mother of pearl, made from farm-raised, sustainable shellfish and available in mosaic, chevron, and marquetry patterns from Maya Romanoff (mayaromanoff.com) for about $100 per 18-square-inch tile.
Again, though, remember to use restraint. As with any of these fabulous new wall treatments, “if you do too much of it, you’re just overwhelming people and they stop noticing it,” says Davis. “It’s not something you’d do everywhere, because that doesn’t make it special anymore.” And making it special, after all, is the whole point of dressing up your blank canvas.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.