Colour Psychology: Using Magnolia in Interiors


Magnolia paint

I’m happy to say it’s that time again! October presents us with our quarterly opportunity to interrogate colour expert and consultant Karen Haller about the psychology behind the use of colour in interior design. Karen has already given us an insight into yellow and grey in the two previous posts that have been part of the Karen’s Quarterly Colour Psychology Questions series. And in this post we will explore the use of magnolia in interiors.

The colour psychology posts have proven to be very popular and both Karen and I have really enjoyed getting your thoughts and feedback on the colours we have featured so far. So please don’t be shy, any comments or questions you may have are very welcome and we try to respond to each and every one of you.

As many of you may know, I recently moved from Bristol back down to my home town of Dartmouth. I’m now renting a lovely large house with my other half, and whilst it is very different to the pokey flats we have lived in previously they all seem to have one thing in common – magnolia. Floor to ceiling magnolia in every single room. It’s the colour of choice for property developers and, it would seem, landlords too.

Now don’t get me wrong, I would much rather a neutral colour scheme than some hiddeous, garish wallpaper that screams of someone else’s personality. But it did get me thinking, why is this colour so popular? What reactions does it provoke and how does it make people feel? And above all, I wanted to know which colours should be pared with magnolia for best effect.

Karen Haller applied colour psychology expert

So once again, I put all my questions to Karen and here’s what she said:

Magnolia has become the colour of choice for landlords who are renting out property, or by people trying to sell their property. Why is this?

KH. There could be several reasons.  They want to use a neutral colour for their property to appeal to the widest number of people to make that quick sale or to rent out. Usually white is choosen to achieve this. But brilliant white is very harsh whereas magnolia is a warm white.

Using magnolia as a default colour certainly takes any hassle out of making a colour decision and developers also know the homeowner will change the colour when they personalise the space. It appears that some landlords have just followed their lead, forgetting the renters have to then live with it.

Over time, it seems using magnolia has taken on a life of its own, becoming the standard neutral colour for landlords and developers. The colour name magnolia now appears to have negative associations.

I wonder if the developer/landlord said they used colours called buttermilk, cream or butter (which are also clear, warm whites),  whether there would be the same negative associations?

Living Room by Sarah Richardson Design

What are the main psychological properties of magnolia?

KH. Magnolia is really a cream. It is warm white, which means it is a yellow-based white.  The psychological properties are actually the same as white. The positive attributes are hygiene, sterility, clarity, purity, cleanliness, simplicity, sophistication and efficiency. The negative properties on the other hand are isolation, sterility, coldness, barriers, unfriendliness and elitism.

Magnolia is often perceived as a colour that lacks in any kind of personality or character. Do you agree?

KH. Every colour has personality and character.  The lighter the colour (less pigment), the more subtle the personality.  So it’s understandable that the subtly of magnolia may be perceived as a lack of personality. At the other end of the cream scale is a bright sunshine yellow (pigment rich), which is full of personality.

Livingroom makeover as seen on Apartment Therapy

Livingroom makeover as seen on Apartment Therapy

What can people like me, who live in a rented magnolia house, do to bring a little more interest into a magnolia room?

KH. If the magnolia colour on the walls dominates the space, look at changing the proportions.  This can be done by bringing in other bright, clear, warm colours, creating a tonally harmonious colour scheme.

Another way to change the proportions is through wall hangings e.g. pictures, artwork, mirrors, large potted plants or furniture like bookshelves.  It’s all about proportion and balance.

What colours would you say work particularly well in conjunction with magnolia and why?

KH. As magnolia is a bright, clear, warm white, colours that will be tonally harmonious are other colours that are also bright, clear and warm and yellow based. This includes warm yellow-based blues and greens.

Family Room House Beautiful photo credit Jeremy Samuelson

Family room image from House beautiful. Design: Lynn Morgan. Photo Credit: Jeremy Samuelson

What are your top tips for using magnolia successfully in residential interiors?

KH. My top tip is to combine it with other bright, clear, warm yellow-based colours. This will create a tonally harmonious colour scheme.  If you were to use colours that weren’t in the same tonal colour family, such as colours that are greyed out, or black, or any blue-based colours, they would look harsh and jar against each other.

If people are really against using magnolia but want a colour that has the same positive attributes, what colour would you suggest they use instead?

KH. The equivalents of magnolia are other whites, such as ivory, oyster white and pure white.

Living room of J. Randall Powers and Bill Caudell’s Houston home. Design: J. Randall Powers. Photo Credit: Joshua McHugh

Do you think that people often resort to magnolia because it is the easy option and they fear having to make other colour choices?

KH. For landlords and developers it takes all the hassle out of making a colour decision. Time is money for them and the quicker decisions can be made the quicker they can advertise the property for rent or sale.

I don’t know of any homeowner who has used magnolia when decorating their own home.  However they do use cream, buttermilk and butter, which is interesting given it’s virtually the same colour. Perhaps it’s all in the name, eliciting a different emotional response…

And so there you have it folks, now we know all there is to know about magnolia. Like I said, please let us know if you have any questions by leaving a comment. Also if any of you have any tips about living with magnolia, please do share your experiences. I am sure there are many more renters out there just like me who would love to know how to decorate or accessorise a magnolia home.

And finally, what colour would you like to see me quiz Karen about in the next colour psychology post? And do you have any questions you would like her to answer? Please just let me know!


For great products for the home head on over to the Design Sheppard Shop where you will find a handpicked list of interior products personally curated by me. Whether you’re looking for a gift for the design lover in your life or a treat for yourself, hopefully you’ll be inspired by my collection.

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25 Responses to Colour Psychology: Using Magnolia in Interiors
  1. marie Reply

    hi i have a small bedroom recently painted magnolia i have beech and white wardrobe and bedside drawers dado rail in white gloss as is the skirting and doors i really want to make the room look warm and cosy but dont know what colours to use please help :-)

  2. Kay Reply

    Hi I need some help choosing colour combinations. I have magnolia walls and a chocolate brown leather sofa. I am changing my curtains as I want to throw some colour into the room. What colour combinations do you think would go the best to make my room really stand out? And should I also have a net in the window? Please help.

  3. Calum Reply

    Great post, I want to say I love magnolia. But I think you right, its the easy option. What is your opinion on painting wall and ceiling magnolia? What about white ceiling with magnolia walls, as many people suggest making the ceiling whiter than the walls?

    • StaceySheppard Reply

      Hi Calum, great that you love magnolia. With regards to painting the wall and ceiling magnolia, I would say that unless the room is really rather large, light and airy, perhaps painting the ceiling magnolia as well might be a bit much. Like you say it is most usual to paint the ceiling in a lighter shade as it creates more of a feeling of space in the room. By painting it white it will be lifted slightly so I would suggest sticking with this normally. However, if you have the room and like you say you love magnolia, why not give it a go?

  4. […] this article why not check out the other posts in the series that take a look at Grey, Yellow, Magno... thedesignsheppard.com/interviews/colour-psychology-using-green-in-interiors
  5. Elisabeth Simon Reply

    Hi there I am searching to change the colour of my wall in my kitchen. I have a magnolia kitchen and red tiles which can not be changed but want a different look with the walls. Would a subtle grey work??? Thanks in advance liz

  6. Syeda Reply

    Hi thanks a lot with all this information I just want to know that my room curtains are purple and one wall aubergine geometric wall paper does magnolia high gloss furniture with a metal bed goes with it .thanks

  7. […] exactly how we want to. After six years of living in rental properties, we are well and truly over m... thedesignsheppard.com/uncategorized/decorating-tips-farrow-ball
  8. bertha bernasko Reply

    hi, I have learnt a lot about the colour magnolia.I need your opinion about which curtains to use in my living room which is small(19ft by length and 8ft by width). The wall is painted magnolia and wallpaper borders (burgundy background with imprinted gold flowers)has been fix in the middle of both lengths of the living room and one breath(where a window is fixed).my sofa has a leopard skinlike colour having brown shades being predominant.I have pillows in the sofa being cream in colour.

  9. [...] pains us to even call magnolia a trend, but the legendary color of the landlords is something we see r... cozyhomez.com/top-5-interior-design-trends-to-throw-away-forever
  10. StaceySheppard Reply

    Karen, Yemi did leave a comment on my old blog and the comment has slipped through the net in the transfer to the new blog, which is why you cannot see it here. Yemi’s comment was:

    Hi Karen,
    I love your expositions on Magnolia. I do have a lot of hassles on issues with colours combination. I would always want something unique but not loud.
    Now, i am seeking your opinion. I have purchased Magnolia to paint my living room. And i have an arc/curve that forms the entrance to the dining room, though facing the living room, would it look nice if i paint that arc/curve with brilliant white or do you have any other suggestion?
    I have gained a lot from your article about other colours one can use to balance Magnolia.
    Expecting your reply.

  11. Karen Haller Reply

    Hi Yemi, thanks for your question.

    Brilliant white is a actually a cold, blue based white. Magnolia is a warm, yellow based white. Put them both together and you will see they will jar and could be quite straining to look at.

    Look at the colours you are using in the adjoining room and pick one to curve. This will in effect link the two rooms together.

    To create a truly harmonious colour scheme look for colours that have a warm, yellow based undertone that are clear (i.e. no black added).

    Enjoy putting together your colour scheme.

    Karen :)

  12. Lydia Reply

    I love Magnolia and I have just painted my whole house with it. I am now looking for a suitable colour for my sofas. My other house is painted gardenia and it is lovely as well.

    • staceysheppard Reply

      Hi Lydia, I must admit that since I did this article with Karen I have actually grown to like Magnolia a lot more. Once you know what to team it with it actually comes alive a little bit! I can confirm that green works really well with magnolia.

  13. [...] and following advice from colour expert and consultant Karen Haller when I interviewed her about using ... staceysheppard.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/lucky-charms-dragon-flies-boxing-hares-by-barneby-gates
  14. Gerard (@WalnutGrey) Reply

    I’m surprised by Karen saying that the psychological properties of magnolia are actually the same as white… the “positive attributes are hygiene, sterility, clarity, purity, cleanliness, simplicity, sophistication and efficiency.” I would never bestow magnolia with any of these, what I consider to be, positive virtues. I associate magnolia with words such as bland, dull, insipid, a real middle of the road colour. I just see it as being a lazy and anonymous colour. In fact to say magnolia has positive attributes is the antithesis of what I imagine many people in design circles would believe to be true.

    • Karen Haller Reply

      Hi Gerard, Thanks for sharing your views. What is happening here is colour association / colour meaning which is different to colour psychology. These are the concious feelings you have associated with this colour. It’s not a colour I would use in my home.

      Every colour still has psychological qualities which hold true regardless of what we feel of about the colour.

      There’s no ‘recipe’ when it comes to a colour name, some paint companies have their magnolia that is quite yellowy whilst others add a higher percentage of white.

      It does seem to be a colour name that really sparks emotive comments, think that’s one of the reasons for Stacey picking it ;)

      • Gerard (@WalnutGrey) Reply

        Hi Karen,

        Thanks for your reply. I can see there is a real distinction between colour psychology and colour association. I find it somewhat difficult to dissociate from my emotional reaction. Perhaps as an interior designer I need to be better at doing this? Having said that I base so much of what I do on my emotional connection to a space, that I do focus more on the association with colour than the psychological properties. Haven’t quite thought about it in this way before… :-)

  15. David Jones Reply

    Magnolia and good old Gardinia given a fancy name and add more white for a subtle tone my clients think they have discovered something new. Who am I to burst their bubble

  16. NordicBliss Reply

    Yeay! You did it! You wrote about magnolia. I have to say I disagree a bit with putting magnolia in the same box as vanilla white. I would have loved vanilla white. Magnolia is ghastly compared to vanilla white. At least the one that we have here. Magnolia is more like a orangey/yellowy tone. After we moved in we convinced the landlord to start painting in a cafe latte/vanilla white tone instead of magnolia. SO the other flats that have been refurbished since have that wall colour. Much better in my opinion :)

    • staceysheppard Reply

      Yes, I did! And having had Karen’s input I now know why I find it so hard living with magnolia. The colour itself doesn’t actually bother me, (my house is a kind of creamy vanilla colour) it’s more the proportions, like Karen said. As the whole house is magnolia and all the curtains are floor length and cream, it’s a bit overpowering. I really couldn’t work out what colours I could introduce that would work well with magnolia either. I think though that I need to get some nice pictures to put up and maybe a nice big mirror. And I think I’ll probably go with a nice greeny colour for some accessories. Glad you are happier with the colour of your place now! Cafe latte sounds lovely, very calming! What colours have you chosen to go with it?

      • NordicBliss Reply

        I think for me with my minimalistic style – black, brown and grey it was very difficult to make that work with magnolia without it all become just bland. I went for a lot of greenery inside. Bought plants and started getting flowers every other week. It made a huge difference. Do you have some green items already or will you “have to” (poor you) go shopping :)

    • Karen Haller Reply

      Thanks for your feedback. It made me realise I didn’t clarify my comment very well when I wrote that the equivalents of magnolia are other whites, such as ivory, oyster white and pure white.

      With each of the four tonal colour group there is a white that tonally relates to that colour pattern. Magnolia belongs in one of them. Ivory, oyster white and pure white in the other three.

      There are of course thousands of white but each will tonally relate to one of the four groups.

      Each paint company seems to have their own version of magnolia, some are more yellow and as you mentioned orange/yellow and others a light cream colour.

      Cafe latte is closer to ivory, a warm white with a hint of black whereas magnolia is also a warm white with no black which makes it increases its brightness.

      It’s great there are so many whites to choose from ensuring there is one to suit everyone’s tastes and personality.

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