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Is gray the new neutral?

Gray can be paired with just about any color, but brights will really pop. See more hot home design pictures.

When it comes to décor, there are a few hard and fast rules. Elaborate window treatments may be popular this year, whereas in five years (around the time you've paid for all that silk dupioni drapery fabric), a minimalist look edges out the overstuffed bolsters you spent a fortune on. Even if you don't follow the trends, the colors, fabrics and accessories you see in furniture stores reflect what's new, what's in and what's probably very different from what was hot a couple of years ago.

The basic tenants of design aren't immune to change, either. Old school designers were encouraged to organize rooms around a neutral shade and two complementing or contrasting colors. Neutrals like ecru, beige, camel, tan and white have been popular for decades because they look good on walls and tend to make rooms look larger and lighter. They also blend beautifully with other, brighter colors.

The definition of a neutral has changed, though. Darker colors aren't viewed as depressing or likely to make a bright, cheerful room look small and unwelcoming anymore. Before the housing crunch, building trends favored large houses with big rooms that didn't need to rely on clever color strategies to look spacious. Today, it isn't uncommon to see homes sporting rooms with brown, bright red or burgundy walls and ceilings. The same goes for other new neutrals like shades of gray.

Because it's bold but not as saturated as darker or brighter neutrals, gray can make an attractive statement without shouting. It works very well with white or black accents. As a triple threat, gray with white and black can be dramatic and easy for a beginning decorator to work with. Bring in one bright accent color like rose or yellow, and you have a versatile color palette that can be casual or elegant depending on the accessories you choose.

Cooler gray shades can make a room feel temperate and inviting on a hot day, and grays with a pearly cast matched with pewter, silver or mirrored accessories look refined and understated. You can even use gray effectively with gold tones, browns or lots of polished wood.

Gray is also a great spatial neutralizer. Used on a far wall, it can make a long room look more in proportion without drawing too much attention to the visual trickery involved. It can minimize the impact of a too-high ceiling and provide a very effective backdrop for wall art. Oh, and if your furnishings lack unity, gray can easily create a modern vibe in the space for the cost of a can of paint. Gray will also complement shades of pink, aqua, peach, lavender and navy.

Going gray, whether it's steel, silver or somewhere in between, isn't a drab choice. If you have wonderful wood built ins, impressive high ceilings, a room with a southern exposure that bakes in August, or an undistinguished living space that needs a 21st century makeover, gray is the new beige -- and is anything but bland.