A timeless classic for decorating

The color white symbolizes peace, calm and sophistication.

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White unifies a kitchen furnished with flea-market finds, including old cabinets and a table set on wheels.

There are those who dream of snow at Christmastime, and those who dream of a kind of white that never melts - the pale beauty of white interiors.

A color that symbolizes peace, calm and sophistication, white has influenced sites ranging from 16th-century Palladian villas to 1930s Hollywood movie sets. The reason is simple.

"It invites in light, tranquillity and space," says British style maven Stephanie Hoppen, author of White on White: Creating Elegant Rooms With Shades of White (Cico, $20).

Not only that, white is impervious to decorating trends.

"It never goes in and out of fashion," says Hoppen, who has designed with white for years. "It is timelessly classic and stylish."

White has another advantage that many people overlook: It's great camouflage.

With a can of white paint, you can make a marriage out of mismatched chairs. You can transform a hand-me-down dresser or add sparkle to an old mirror frame.

Invest in white slipcovers and you'll find yourself even further along the road toward a sophisticated, pulled-together look.

By removing wood tones and competing color from the design equation, white unifies, simplifies and forgives. Somehow, the homely becomes regal.

But just what is white? It's a word that applies to hundreds of hues.

As Atlanta Bartlett and Karena Callen point out in At Home With White (Ryland, Peters and Small, $27.50), the hues that qualify range from "the soft, peachy white of a voluptuous rose and the delicate, almost translucent lemon white of a cabbage white butterfly to the bluish white of freshly fallen snow."

It is almost impossible, they say, "to find a white that isn't tinged with another color."

That effect is just what makes decorating with white so interesting. Some of the best white rooms have 30 shades in a range of tone and textures. There may be cream for the walls, dove white for the trim, pearly gray for a lamp base, parchment for the shade, and on and on.

A little knowledge of science comes in handy at this point. When light bounces off different surfaces, it alters our perception of hue and tone.

That's why fabrics in the exact same shade of white - such as flat cotton, satin damask and fluffy terry cloth - can appear to be different colors, say Bartlett and Callen.

That's also why painting each wall of your rooms a slightly different shade of white can replicate the effect of sunlight.

Start with the wall that catches the most sun and paint it a very clean, very light white. Opposite is the darkest wall; it should be a cool, darker white. For the other two walls, pick in-between shades of white. The effect will be very, very subtle, but it will make your rooms feel as if they have lighting that is rich and alive.

If you use your rooms mostly at night, you'll want to choose your whites with the lights on. Incandescent light adds a yellowish cast, and halogen is fairly clean and neutral.

What about color? Go ahead and add red-checked pillows to your bed, set a pair of turquoise chairs in the living room, and put a slate-gray coffee table in front of a cool blue-gray sofa. White rooms look great with splashes of color. The trick is to keep it simple and controlled and avoid all the confusion that comes from multihued clutter.

As the pictures in White on White and At Home With White show, the more you pare down your white scheme, the more beautiful it is.

That doesn't mean you should forgo accessories. Just choose them carefully. In the cold and frosty winter months, you might want to use creamy white candles, sparkling silver and shimmering crystal. Or follow Hoppen's cue and make sure winter rooms display plenty of cut glass.

"One way that I like to use it in abundance," she says, "is to collect droplets from old chandeliers and mass them in a glass dish."

Whether you set out bowls of white shells or silvery costume jewelry, white will simplify both your decorating and your life. What the black dress is to fashion, white is to decorating. It makes whatever you own look better.

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