How to Decorate with Primary Colors for a Bold, Retro-Inspired Look

By definition, primary colors are the most basic hues. When mixed, these elemental colors form all other shades of the color wheel, but no other colors can be mixed to create red, yellow or blue. Primaries represent the most intense and pure forms of color, and this vibrant combination is starting to establish itself as one of this year’s top color trends.

The playful palette received a shout-out in Sherwin-Williams’ color trend forecast for 2022, and primary colors featured prominently in Pantone’s forecast for upcoming spring and summer. This resurgence of primary colors, which were used extensively throughout the postmodern movement of the 1980s, reflects a general fondness for retro styles we’ve seen in interior design, fashion, and pop culture.

Due to their intensity, decorating with primary colors can be tricky. To learn the strategies for pulling off this bold combination, we tapped a few designers for their go-to strategies. Use these tips to decorate in style with a primary color palette.

1. Use subtle variations of primary colors

In their original form, primary colors can be a little discordant. For a subtle take on this trend, Texas interior designer Kim Armstrong suggests using primary color variations in a looser interpretation. For example, replace turquoise with true blue or use metallic gold finishes in place of yellow. Experiment with different shades to put your own spin on this classic color palette.

2. Select a primary color as the focus

The right balance is essential for a successful primary color scheme. Instead of using each of the three colors equally throughout the space, designate one as the star and consider the other supporting players, suggests Chicago interior designer Mark Lavender. Apply yellow as a wall color, for example, then bring blue and red through furniture, throw pillows, wall paintings and other decorative accessories. Or select a red piece and accent it with small pops of yellow and blue.

3. Tone down primary colors with neutrals

Balance the brightness of primary colors with soft neutrals. “I like to pair them with calmer, more subdued color tones, like whites, grays, and browns,” says Eddie Maestri of Dallas-based interior design and architecture firm Maestri Studio. Start with a base of white walls to bring out the primary color accents, or soften their vibrancy with soothing grays and warm wood tones.

4. Increase sophistication with lots of texture

Primary colors bring energy and brightness to interiors, but they often lack the sophistication of other palettes. To add richness and depth, Armstrong suggests decorating with lots of texture. For pillows, throws and upholstery, select tactile fabrics such as plush velvet, buttery leather or nubby linen. Rich wood finishes and natural materials like stone or rattan can also introduce a more elegant feel.

5. Bring bold and energetic patterns

Combine the energy of a primary color palette with equally bold and playful patterns. Maestri likes to use simple geometric patterns for a subtle nod to postmodernism. Armstrong, on the other hand, suggests incorporating floral designs. Because these colors appear naturally in gardens and meadows, introducing primaries through floral prints “feels very natural and unforced,” she says.

All in all, the best way to decorate with primary colors is whatever appeals to you. “Be fearless,” says Lavender. “Color is your friend and creates happy spaces.”

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