These days, it seems, we can’t get enough white. Fresh yet timeless, pure yet powerful, it shines bright in many of today’s most spectacular interiors—including those created by design firm Studio McGee.
Team members, self-described white devotees, strategically use white to turn clients’ so-so spaces into brilliant places. Principal designer Shae McGee offers tips to help you do the same in your home.
By Val Rasmussen
Many people consider white unimaginative—a decorative default of sorts. They’re wrong, according to Shae and Syd McGee, owners of Studio McGee, a design firm in Salt Lake City. Team McGee enthusiastically chooses white when creating its light and bright interiors, proving that white can be as fabulous as it is fresh and—surprise—it’s also family-friendly.
What began at the kitchen table of the McGees’ first home, Studio McGee now houses 19 employees in a sun-filled 1900-square-foot office in Holladay. “Two years ago, we were living in a brown, generic tract home in Orange County,” Shae recalls. “Neighbors fawned over how I redecorated my home, and I starting getting requests to help decorate.” Referrals avalanched as word spread about her light and airy décors. Next, Shae and husband Syd—who met at BYU—decided to focus full-time on design and move back to their home state.
With a growing clientele and strong online following—more than 200,000 Instagram followers—the boutique boasts serious cred when it comes to using white to create dynamic interiors. While the style looks simple, it requires a savvy game plan to create. Lead designer Shae McGee shares some of her most useful strategies.
1. Infuse Nature
Shae is naturally drawn to traditional styles and time spent in California fortified her love of coastal design and the color blue. “And for Utah homes, I love to blend in natural elements like leather, hides or branches,” Shae explains. “Items that are not square or round.” Nature-born texture also thrives in her designs, featured on everything from hair-on-hide rugs to petrified wood tables and raw iron fixtures.
2. Warm with Wood
Shae knows wood can warm a white room. For her, the simple addition of wood cross-back chairs flanking a traditional table, for example, adds heft and a little heat to an otherwise stark, cool scene. “Currently, my favorite wood is bleached oak,” says Shae, who has started using lighter woods in flooring, accent tables, dressers and bathroom vanities.
3. Contrast with Color
White houses deserve a little drama, and adding bold color often does the trick. “White walls warm when another color is added,” Shae says. A high-contrast rug, a vibrant pillow or a vividly colored sofa are simple ways to amp the attitude. And walls painted a saturate color? They’re pure magic when featured in a white interior. “I love a dark room. We love working with navy, but the next hot color for us is a saturated teal.” She predicts a blue-green, like Benjamin Moore’s Pacific Sea Teal, to be her next hot paint color.
4. Create Small Surprises
White shouldn’t dominate every square inch of a home, Shae explains. “In every single one of our projects, whether it’s a powder room, an office or guest bedroom, we add a surprise space. It’s important to not be so one-note,” Shae says of her “surprise room” philosophy. Vibrantly patterned wall papers, dark tile, rich-toned woods and boldly colored accents are part of her toolbox. “We never do white throughout an entire house. Yes, I love it, but will never use it in every single room.”
5. Stage a Floor Show
An all-white room can be light as a feather, but an eye-catching rug can ground it. “I’m all over the place right now with rugs,” says Shae. “I love washed-out Persians, faded vintage rugs or a simple strip of cowhide.” In a white room with neutral furnishings, rugs—like pillows—can be easily swapped out to showcase seasons and trends as they come and go.
6. Play with Pattern
Patterns including oversized buffalo plaids, pastel ikats and indigo stripes energize many of McGee’s white-based rooms. “I usually don’t use a lot of pattern on upholstery unless it’s an accent chair, but I love pattern in pillows,” Shae explains. “We keep our upholstery neutral—maybe we’ll use a subtle herringbone—and then we mix and match pattern in the pillows or in the rug.” Graphic motifs in pillows, rugs and art punctuate a room with on-trend accents at a minimal cost.
7. Minimize Clutter
People attracted to white are naturally drawn to clutter-free living. Nowhere is that a bigger challenge than in the mudroom. “When I lived in California, all you had was flip flops to store,” says Shae, “but Utah seasons require a place to brush off snow or kick off muddy shoes, hooks to hang coats and baskets to store gloves, hats, umbrellas.” As the first place a homeowner walks into everyday, it’s imperative this space be as functional as it is fabulous. Smart design makes the room work right and look bright.
8. Mix it Up
“One reason I love white walls is because we like to mix and match furniture styles,” says McGee, who comfortably pairs mid-century modern accent chairs and hefty chesterfield sofas in one space, then Parisian bar stools and modern gold pendants in another. “You can be in a traditional or modern home with white walls, and it creates a clean palette to mix styles and layers. It freshens things up and it’s timeless.”