The Mystery of Undertones in Interior Design

If you’ve worked with an interior designer, you have likely heard them mention “undertones”. We’re holding up a white subway tile against your white counter and cabinets. We’re saying, “There’s a yellow undertone to the subway tile that doesn’t work with the blue undertones of the counter.” You’re nodding your head as if you understand, but in your mind you’re thinking, “I don’t see a damn difference between the tile and the counter…..what is she talking about?!”

We have an awesome client who mentioned this to us one day; and that it would make a great blog article. She was right, we hope! This is what we are talking about….

Let’s start with what a color is composed of: a mass tone and an undertone. The mass tone is what most clients see: it’s red or green or blue. You look at a color and you can immediately tell us what the mass tone is. The undertone, however, is the color “underneath” the mass tone.

You probably have heard this word while shopping for makeup, in search for the perfect color of foundation. The undertone is the color “underneath” - do you have a cool or warm undertone? Check out the image below showing skin undertones.

(Original Image Source Unknown)

(Original Image Source Unknown)

This is why when we walk into a makeup store it can be so overwhelming to choose a foundation! So many options - they all seem like they are some shade of ivory, beige, or tan. But the reason there are so many options is because of those darn undertones!

The same idea goes for color - undertones can cause a color to appear completely different. Walking into the paint store can be just as daunting. Have you seen how many blues there are, the options are dizzying?!

Take a look: the three colors below may all appear in the red/pink range, but one has a blue undertone and the other has a red undertone.

Image created by Bee’s Knees Interior Design

Image created by Bee’s Knees Interior Design

Undertones are extremely important; especially when it comes to picking the right white. Let’s go back to the kitchen example. When clients ask us to choose a white cabinet color, it’s not a quick task. We can’t simply choose any old white, in isolation. The white cabinet needs to work with all the surrounding solid surfaces! How will it pair with the counters? Does it work with the backsplash, and on and on. Take a look at the examples below. In each one, we’ve paired a “correct” white subway tile and an “incorrect” one. Can you pick out which is which?


In the example above, the white subway tile along the top is a much warmer white. It works well with the warm countertop (Minuet by LG).


In this example (above), the cooler white tile at the bottom works better because the countertop has a “bluer, cooler” undertone.

And finally….


Once again, in the above example, the countertop has a cooler undertone, calling for a brighter, cooler white. The tile to the right is the more suitable option in this instance.

Well……how did you do in our little quiz?? Don’t forget, on top of that we have to make sure the backsplash and counter selections work with the the cabinetry, the flooring, the appliances, the fittings, the fixtures and on and on!

One little trick you can use to determine your undertones; place your object on a white background, that makes it a bit easier to isolate the undertone. Some are able to “see” the undertone right away, for others it is a skill that can be developed.

Don’t worry, if you’ve ever looked at your kitchen and thought, “There’s just something off about my kitchen, but I can’t put my finger on it….” - most likely the answer is in the undertones. Determining undertones can be tricky and extremely confusing for the eye….sometimes it’s hard to get it right. That’s where an Interior Designer can come to your rescue!

The same process goes for any interior design detail: whether we’re mixing fabrics for pillows, trim on drapes, etc. Yet another reason to invest in hiring an Interior Designer, don’t be penny wise and pound foolish!