Yvonne - neutrals

Nailing the look: neutrals

We chat to three local style front-runners about working the neutral palette like a pro.

Be it white, cream, beige, greige or a tonal fusion from taupe to camel, the neutral aesthetic is undoubtedly a perennial favourite. It’s a look that’s easy to work with – simply layer in your colours if you’re that way inclined – and one that never, ever dates. It’s calming – a bonus in today’s climate – and can be worked into the full spectrum of styles, from casual to ultra-modern and sophisticated to boho. But, say the experts, there are a few traps. One thing they all agree on with neutrals is to act with restraint.

All loyal supporters in the neutrals camp, these three creatives share a few tips and guide you through the look. 

Yvonne O’Brien – The Private House Company

Yvonne O’Brien is one of South Africa’s foremost interior designers and the owner behind The Private House Company, her Joburg-based store. She’s an expert in the neutral colour field and her interiors bare a classic-contemporary look, keenly layered with texture, tone and natural light and always a nod to Africa. 

The latter is her calling card and one that has awarded her many a lodge contract, but it’s always done with restraint rather than in an overt thematic way.  “I love the peaceful quietness that this look creates. It also gives me a good foundation onto which I can accessorize, which is my favourite part,” she says.

During her time in the seat she has noticed how flat this palette can look if you don’t get the balance just right. To remedy this, Yvonne recommends plenty of texture, natural and organic elements, pieces of interest, artworks and greenery (that last one she cites as a necessity). “A  mirror also always goes a long way to lift a neutral room,” she adds.

Your favourite paint colours in this spectrum?

We’ve recently been using a lot of shades from the Paintsmiths colour chart; they have a beautiful array of neutrals. More often than not though, we gravitate back to white.

Your go-to textures and textiles in this palette? 

Always: linen, rattan, sisal or jute, natural aged wood and beautiful green plants to bring life.


Olga Barrow – Coast & Country

You might recall Olga from our popular Pre-loved roundup; she’s passionate about European and South African antiques, but injects this historic influence with a crisp, contemporary feel achieved by a stripped back, white to off-white environment. Less is more, she feels; that means (you guessed it) no clutter. Her Cape Town shop, Coast & Country, is an excellent example of this combo. “I never find neutrals boring; the use of different textures and shades provides interest. Also, neutrals work in most environments, from a beach house to a chic city pad. I never get tired of a cream scheme,” Olga says.

Her advice is to begin with a clean, neutral background and ensure you leave enough negative space around your furniture or décor items to give them breathing room. Bare white walls can be beautiful on their own, she believes. “Remember, not every wall and corner needs to be occupied. Just look at our Coast & Country showroom, which is a perfect example of how I like items to stand on their own with the contrasting shades of white and dark timber furniture,” she adds

Olga warns, however, that you should steer away from the colder neutrals with too much grey or blue in them. “Neutrals also work better in rooms with enough natural light,” she says.

What brings the magic? 

Texture, form and light. Mix different timbers and bring in natural materials.

Favourite paint colours in this spectrum? 

Plascon Tackroom White – either in 100% strength or 50%. It’s the perfect off-white, not too grey, pink or yellow.

Your go-to textures for this scheme? 

Natural grass rugs in sisal, jute or coir. Depending on the weave and colour, they work in contemporary or traditional rooms, they never date and usually wear well. Our thick woven grass mats in our Coast & Country Collection are particularly beautiful in a neutral room and they get made up to any size. Oh, and whitewashed linen fabric for slipcovers is timeless and always beautiful.


Eduan and Melissa Roos – Pajamas + Jam/Kraak

This Capetonian couple is a powerhouse duo in the events arena. Not only is their own home oozing with a sense of casual cool (their mantra being: forget perfection), but their popular Strand café, Pajamas + Jam Eatery, permeates the same warmth and laid-back style. Naturally, Eduan is Creative Director of Kraak, the supremely gifted team responsible for some of the Cape’s most memorably design sensitive experiences and events.

Their approach, both at home and work, is “to have a clear point of view” and stick to it. This means no colour, but a plethora of texture in its place. Think crumpled linen, aged marble, time-worn wood and all things natural and honest. “We’re bombarded with energies, influences, people and colour in our daily lives, so we decided to create a calm aesthetic for our home. I always feel that colour shouts when you stand back and look at the big picture… and would rather you appreciate the linen curtains or local art on our walls,” explains Eduan.

While the backdrop is predominantly crisp white, their furniture consists mostly of vintage finds including many wooden pieces with warm to dark tones, a sofa with a loose draped cover and eclectic finds that bring personality, all of this within the requisite colour range. Partnering vintage pieces with contemporary elements will ensure you avoid any sense of sterility, they say.  

What brings the magic? 

Not striving for perfection, but rather authenticity and calm. And foliage! We forage on a Sunday and style our finds in a minimalistic way. It doesn’t have to be a bunch of roses to be on the table, a beautiful ceramic vessel with a branch in it is more than enough, we say.

Your favourite paint colours in this spectrum? 

Nothing fancy, we just use White Wall and All from Plascon.

Your go-to textures or textiles for this scheme? 

Always linen. Be it a new tea towel, fitted sheet or shirt, we’ll always go for linen. Our friends mock us, but it’s the authenticity and imperfection of the fabric. Though imperfect, it’s still luxurious. 

We also use a lot of ceramic vases and bowls. A bowl can be a candle holder or a vessel to keep your cotton buds or car keys in too.


Words and Production: Mila Crewe-Brown
Images: Dehan Engelbrecht (for Eduan and Melissa Roos) and Supplied