Are Accent Walls Grossly Overrated?

A few weeks after my husband and I married, we rented our first house together: a hilltop bungalow on the island of Guam with peekaboo views of the ocean (and even more expansive ocean views if we climbed a ladder to the roof). The home was spacious, bright, and perfect for us in every way—except for one aberration. One of the smaller walls in the main living space was painted Home Depot orange, and the homeowners didn’t want us to paint. After much deliberation, we opted to have a colorful 5x7’ wall map matted and mounted it on the orange wall.
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living room with red accent wall

The wall complemented the tones in the map and framed it adequately. The arrangement allowed just enough space underneath the map to place a wide bookshelf containing part of our library. It wasn’t our first choice, but it worked: an accent wall we didn’t choose, rather sloppily painted around the edges, in an eclectic room we came to love as we combined our treasured decor items curated from years of world travel.

I have to imagine that our landlords had fallen into the ubiquitous trend-turned-trap: the Accent Wall Solution. If you’re up in the air about accent walls, you should be. Despite the popular HGTV-inspired advice, accent walls are rarely well done, well-thought-out, or, well, aesthetically pleasing. For those who don’t want to think much about design, harbor a deeply-rooted color phobia, or live with a paralyzing fear of poor design choices, accent walls offer a stopgap solution. An unfulfilling dalliance with color.

bedroom with terrible accent wall

From a practical standpoint, accent walls make sense. For the DIYers who’ve risen en masse thanks to HGTV’s iconic reality shows, painting a single wall is more feasible than moving furniture, pulling everything off the walls, laying drop cloths, buying stock in painter’s tape, and coating an entire room. Although everyone talks about how simple painting is—the easiest way to transform your space!—anyone who’s painted a room or more knows that painting isn’t easy, exactly.

Easier than rebuilding a wall or re-tiling a floor, sure. But painting takes tedious work, the right tools, and dedication to detail. Not to mention the detail those magazine and HGTV designers don’t tell you: just how much your triceps and delts will burn after a few hours of painting on your beloved walls.

So if you can reap the rewards of a new paint job by just painting one wall, why the heck not? All the better to be able to pick up your coffee the next morning without a shoulder spasm.

I’ll tell you why not. Accent walls are (blessedly, beatifically) on their way out.

Here’s what the experts are saying.

“No one should walk into a room with an accent wall and think, ‘Why did they paint just that wall?’ The answer should be clear.” –Sherwin-Williams’s resident color expert in a statement on accent walls.

Sherwin-Williams’ color pro also said that accent walls are a no-go unless the wall in question is already a focal point thanks to architectural features or furniture layout. A huge statement window, a fireplace, open bookshelves, or a bed with a dramatic headboard, for instance.

I have to agree. These focal-point walls already draw your eye like a rare earth magnet. Choosing a unique wall color that coordinates with your color scheme can make that statement wall even more dramatic. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The photo below is a lovely example of an accent wall that  makes an elegant statement.

Bedroom with dark blue accent wall

Unfortunately, most accent walls just don’t pull it off like that. If there’s nothing remarkable about the wall you choose except that you chose to paint it, don’t make the mistake of slapping some vermilion up and hoping it works. Unless your design choices are unusually well thought out with an eye for balance, the rest of your space will feel meh to the core. Worst case? Visitors are tempted to wonder why you forgot to paint the rest of your walls—or conclude that you decided one wall in that color was mistake enough.

Competing focal points pose another problem. If you have a spectacular view out one of your windows, an already-established gallery wall or a piece of large wall art, please. Reconsider. Don’t choose yet another wall to highlight with turquoise, rose gold, or sea glass green. Your eye needs to know where to land when you walk into a room.

Another problem arises when you choose the wrong paint color. I hesitate to say “the wrong” color, because every space has dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of color possibilities that could look smashing if done right. But many homeowners choose a boldly brave color, perhaps a favorite they’ve always loved, that has little in common with their furnishings, textiles, and other colors in the rest of their space.

“I’m absolutely against those random red accent walls that try to incorporate a pop of color in a room,” — interior designer Mariella Cruzado, in an interview with Elle Magazine

And yet that’s what many accent walls purport to do: add a “pop” of color, with only cursory thought about how that color will complement the rest of the room. A matching vase on the coffee table and similarly-hued rug splashed across the floor probably aren’t enough to tie the look together.

I can hear the hand-wringing already.

I need to divide my space visually. 

I would never make those mistakes. 

I have a tiny space that will only support one cerulean wall at a time. 

I need my space to inspire visions of dancing unicorns and hippogriffs in fields of prismatic daisies. 

Good for you. If you love your space, with its one scarlet wall or unicorn poop rainbows vaulting from window to window, your design is bringing you life—and that means it’s accomplishing its primary purpose.

Room with green accent wall

But perhaps before you go to town with focal walls, prismatic wallpaper, or with Pantone’s Color of the Year, also consider: do your walls have to be the focal point of your decor at all? Many white-walled spaces support some of the most beautiful, well-balanced designs I’ve ever seen, and these designs can be as brilliantly full of color as if the walls were painted in living coral. Moreover, these spaces are often even more thoughtfully and artfully designed than their pigment-saturated counterparts, with an eye for adding color with nary a paint roller in sight.

Room with blue and pink accent colors

When it comes to visually dividing your space by application—particularly in those open floor plans that are so in this decade—you have far more practical options than a pop of wall color to make that happen. Rugs, furniture arrangements, and other visual cues can help subdivide a space far more effectively than one bright wall ever could.

So go ahead. Commit. If you’re color phobic, talk to your therapist (or better yet, consult a designer about your trepidation). Because unless you’re 100% on board with an accent wall for its own sake, you’ll likely end up regretting the choice. Let’s allow the accent wall trend some much-needed rest. Choose a color that makes sense for your space, whether it’s a cool grey or a sunshiny yellow, and let your decor and furniture layout create the focal point you want. You’ll be far more likely to land in a cohesive, balanced space you love.








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