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What you need to know when decorating a north-facing room

Just because your north-facing space has limited sunlight does not mean you can't decorate it well

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By House & Garden | March 13, 2024 | Interiors

All too often, north-facing rooms get a bad reputation for being dark, gloomy spaces but that’s not the case at all. Just because you don't have brightening, direct sunlight doesn't mean you must settle for a cold interior – it’s all about either leaning into their darker side or working with warm tones to bolster the mood. As north-facing rooms don't get any direct sunlight, the light is a softer, all-over one, which has typically been favoured by artists as the gentler natural light is devoid of stark shadows and bright sun that change throughout the day.

In country houses, north-facing rooms often have lovely views onto the sunny side of trees in the garden. Rita Konig waxed lyrical about the view from her Co. Durham farmhouse after moving in: “The lovely thing about the kitchen that I was not anticipating is the view. As it’s a north-facing room, I didn’t hope for much, but the light over the uneven field that cloaks the ruins of a medieval village is just lovely.” As for how Rita tackled the decoration of the room, she kept the walls light in a warm pink neutral and put the kitchen units down the wall furthest from the windows. These are a dark green and feature open shelving with glassware and porcelain on display – a clever move as the light bounces off and around the room. By keeping it all open, it maximises the airy feel of the room and every bit of light that comes in.

What are the best colours for north facing rooms?

“Our biggest tip with a north facing room is to embrace it,” says Nicole Salvesen of Salvesen Graham, and “use warmer cosier colours. Obviously don't choose cooler colours like greys, cold blues and whites.” Ruth Mottershead, Creative Director of Little Greene advises that “north-facing windows bring a cooler light to the room and the choice here should be those colours with a warmer feel. You can inject warmth using harmonious light neutrals with a warm base tone such as ‘Stock’ with ‘Stock Deep’ or ‘Travertine’; however, I would recommend considering deeper tones too. Embrace the characteristics of the room, creating an intimate, warm and cocooning feel with stronger tones such as ‘Chocolate Colour’, ‘Baked Cherry’ or ‘Middle Buff’”.

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“North-facing rooms tend to bring out the green in all colours,” explains Joa Studholme, Farrow and Ball's Colour Curator, “so if you want to avoid this then look to warm based neutrals like ‘Jitney’, ‘Oxford Stone’ or ‘Stony Ground’. Alternatively embrace the cooler north light by using stronger tones like ‘Sulking Room Pink’, ‘Brassica’ or ‘Bancha’ – deeply saturated colours are perfect for use in north facing rooms.” Interior designer Anna Haines recommends Farrow & Ball's ‘Oval Room Blue'. “I have used it in several projects to great effect. It has a lovely depth of colour and yet feels very comfortable and lived in. We used it in a north-facing family room and it felt wonderfully optimistic given the diminished natural light.”

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Duncan Campbell and Charlotte Rey of Top 100 interior design studio Campbell-Rey agree, saying “we always think with darker rooms that face north, rather than trying to lighten them with bright colours, we love to embrace the natural richness that you can create in space like these. This might mean a fabric walling treatment in a jewel tone, fully lining the walls with bookshelves, or even a floor-to-ceiling mural to create a space that feels intimate and cosy at any time of the day or night.”

How to decorate a north-facing room

Lighting is a huge consideration in a north-facing room, for obvious reasons, as Nicole concurs: “really good lighting is key – think about light at all levels: ceiling, wall and lamp height as this will make it always feel more balanced. You are trying to create more of a natural light to distract from the fact the north-facing room might be darker and require the lights to be turned on more regularly.” Avoid harsh overhead lighting – it rarely looks good in any room, particularly one that needs more light.

Instead fit your lamps with LED bulbs that emit softer, yellower light, as Salvesen Graham recommend. That’s why north-facing rooms make excellent snugs, decked out with walls of bookshelves, cosy armchairs and rugs to bring an extra bit of warmth. A north-facing room can make an excellent library or place to display your more valuable artworks, as old books and paintings are less exposed to sunlight, and thus less likely to fade. Nicole continues, “use as much fabric as possible (upholstery and curtains rather than blinds) and make a warm jewel-like room that you want to hunker down in.”

Image Sourced: Instagram/@houseandgardensa
Image Sourced: Instagram/@houseandgardensa

If your north-facing room is in a city and looks onto the street, you’re going to want to employ a window dressing that provides privacy but doesn’t block the light. Cafe curtains in a sheer, light fabric will allow light to still filter in without prying eyes, then add a heavy, warm curtain to draw when the sun sets to maximise the cosiness. Invest in good tie-backs or, if you prefer your curtains to hang straight down, exchange your curtain poles for ones that exceed the width of the windows, so that when the curtains are open, they hang against the wall rather than blocking any incoming rays.

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An alternative option is to use shutters instead of heavy curtains, but keep the sheer half curtains for privacy. Painting them in a gloss would also be ideal as it bounces light around the room and will twinkle when the shutters are drawn, the fire is lit and the room is at its most comfortable. Gloss paint, “acts like a mirror, and reflects light,” describes Edward Bulmer, which is why it can be so brilliant in a north-facing room. Mirrors themselves do the same, of course, and are always a welcome addition. You do need to hang mirrors where light falls naturally, for they can’t reflect what isn’t there. Martin Kemp points out that “glass or brass interior accessories also have reflecting qualities, and can help create a similar effect.”

This story can originally be found on House&Garden UK.