Accent walls: 4 steps to getting them right

Accent walls: 4 steps to getting them right

KateDo you have a room that is in need of a little pizzazz? But, are you on a tight budget? Creating an “accent wall” — that is, painting one wall a totally different color, or decorating it in another bold way — can help give your room a focal point… can create a lasting first impression and, well…because you’re only going to be fussing with one wall, can deliver champagne taste on beer budget. But where do you start? How do you choose which wall or which color will work best for your space and decorating taste? I have painted many an accent wall in my day, both in my house (where I have two rooms with accent walls) and in the houses of friends and relatives, who needed a little advice on which color to choose and which wall to accent. Based on my experience, I have four tips to get you started on your way to accent wall acclaim.

1. First, pick a room, then pick a wall.

Choosing “which” room and “which” wall sounds easy, but there are a few things to consider before you resort to blindfolding yourself, spinning around in circles and throwing paint darts. The first order of business is deciding which room you want to tackle.

A bedroom is a good place to start especially if you are going for a look that pushes the limits of your comfort zone. Bedrooms usually aren’t the largest rooms in the house, which means less paint and time are needed. Also if you get a bit too crazy with your accent wall, all you have to do is shut the door…your guests will never know!

When accenting a wall in a bedroom, I like to choose the headboard wall, after all this is a bed-room, so shouldn’t the bed be the focal point? You can also choose the wall opposite the entry door, so it is the first thing you see when you peek in from the hall.

Metalic silver retro starburst stenciled accent wallAbove – Patti used metallic paint and a stencil to create a patterned accent wall in her bedroom.

If you choose to put your accent wall in one of the more public areas of the house, such as a living room or kitchen, choosing a good wall to accent can be a bit more difficult. Look around the room you would like to liven up. What is the current focal point? Is it the fireplace that could stand to be highlighted further by some clever use of color? Or maybe you have some interesting angled ceilings that you would like to play up with a touch of color. Perhaps your room is lacking a focal point. Try adding an accent wall behind your retro hutch in the dining room or painting the wall behind your midcentury sofa in the living room to highlight your great taste in furniture.

Retro fireplace accent wallAbove – Rob and Julie’s used a bright red paint to further accent their cool stone fireplace in their Colorado living room. via 306 photos of reader living rooms.

2. Decide what accent material to use.

Painting a flat color on one wall isn’t your only option to create a fabulous new accent wall. If you are more of a minimalist at heart, then one color could be just the thing you are looking for, but keep in mind that many different effects can be accomplished with paint. Try painting your wall one color and then stenciling a shape or design in another color or sheen on top of it, depending on how adventurous you are feeling. You could also draw out a geometric pattern, mask it off with painter’s tape, and create a bold, patterned accent wall. I’ve even seen some very ambitious people do giant paint by number style wall murals on their accent walls! Your only limitation is your imagination and the time you are willing to put into painting your wall.

checkerboard accent wallAbove – Jason (BlueJay) and Nicky used several colors of varying intensity to create a geometric grid design on their accent wall in their 70s inspired living room…can you say “POW!” via 306 photos of reader living rooms.

You can also create an accent wall using wallpaper. In fact, this could be a great opportunity to put that roll of  New Old Stock vintage patterned wallpaper that isn’t quite enough for an entire room to good use.

accent wall vintage wall paperRemember Pam’s friend Clare? Above: Clare cleverly used three strips of vintage metallic wallpaper to accent a dining room buffet — a great use of a very limited amount of vintage wallpaper.

Textured wallpaper in a tiki-retro living roomAbove- This reader has what looks like textured wallpaper on their accent wall which perfectly compliments their Polynesian retro theme. via 306 photos of reader living rooms.

Looking for a more Danish modern approach to the accent wall? Installing some stained plywood or wood paneling might be perfect for you. Feeling a bit more inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright? Natural stone could fit the bill. Channeling your inner Julia Child in your retro kitchen? Try using painted peg board on one wall, which also doubles as a place to hang your copper Jello mold collection.

retro orange accent wallAbove: This reader chose their accent wall wisely indeed. The warm orange punches up the otherwise neutral room (complete with plywood wall paneling), and the dark wood beams radiate from the accent wall like the spikes on a starburst mirror. This is a 1955 mid-century modern house in the Lortondale neighborhood (Tulsa, OK). via 306 photos of reader living rooms.

white accent wall with raised panelsAbove: An accent wall doesn’t have to be a different color from the rest of your room. Sometimes creating a texture or raised design on one wall is enough to add an elegant and subtle accent wall to a room like Dave and Kristin did in their lovely Louisville living room.


3. Pick your color.

When most people think of accent walls, bright orange or red probably come to mind. If that level of bold scares you, don’t worry! There is more than one way to pick colors for an accent wall.

Personally, I like bright, bold colors, (and my favorite color is orange), which is why when I do an accent wall at my retro ranch, it tends to be…well, bright orange. When you are choosing a color for your room, it is important to first decide what color temperature you would like. Do you want your room to be warm, cozy and inviting, or cool, restful and serene? If you aren’t quite sure which way you tend to lean, try looking around your room for inspiration. Repeating an important accent color that you already have in the room in pillows, upholstery, a rug or accessories that you love will not only help you decide your color scheme, but also will help your room look more cohesive through the repetition of color throughout your space.

Here is a quickie lesson in color theory and how colors on your walls affect your space:

  • Warm colors like red, orange and yellow advance into your space — they give you an intense blast of color and *may* make the room feel smaller, cozier.
  • Cooler colors such as blue, purple and green tend to recede — they feel more subtle by comparison and *may* make a room seem larger.
  • (Tip: How to remember ‘what’s a warm color, what’s a cool color’: “Red is hot, blue is not.”)

4. Choose your level of impact

Whether you choose a warm or cool color, you also can dial the intensity up or down. For example, if you would like a more serene-feeling accent wall, try picking a color that has some grey in it (adding gray to a color is called a shade), or a pastel color (adding white to a color is called a tint). Either of these will tend to feel more restful. 

retro minimalist living room with blue gray accent wallAbove: This reader used a blue gray color to create an accent wall that makes a subtle statement in their retro minimalist room. via 306 photos of reader living rooms.

If you want to create an accent wall to add intensity to your room, you can choose neon colors. Contrast also can be used to create impact. If the other walls in your room are bright white, and you pick a dark color such as royal blue, your accent wall will be high contrast and therefore have a bigger impact than if you paint your accent wall a similar value to the rest of your walls. For example, painting one wall Mamie Pink when the other walls are soft gray would be high contrast, big impact.

No matter which wall you choose to accent, materials you decide to use or the level of impact you decide to make, accent walls can be a great way to add creative design interest to a room without committing to a total room redo. So stop procrastinating! Give it a try!


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  1. Jana (Berniecat) says

    Wonderful ideas!!! I have a small MCM ranch, so my living room is not as spacious as many of the pictures submitted by readers. When I first moved in, one entire living room wall was covered in dark walnut paneling that made the room feel like the inside of a cracker box. The paneling was pitted, scratched and just plain u***! (Sorry, not a fan of paneling). I filled in and sanded the pits and scratches, primed and painted it a light peachy/pink to make the room seem larger. This wall is the focal point of the room (because of the TV & large starburst clock ), and I put up a pale chartreuse green wallpaper border with retro geometric interlocking squares. I have hardwood floors, so I continued the geometric square theme to tie it to the rest of the room by using a large accent rug with geometric squares. Now, with your ideas and tips, I am ready to tackle the bedroom! Thanks!

  2. Lauryn says

    Great post, Kate, and very informative. Pam converted me to the charms of wallpaper, but the vintage rolls are limited and expensive and the reproduction rolls are just plain expensive. We bit the bullet, though, and put some Bradbury & Bradbury in our breakfast nook, below the windows. Because it’s a small space and we only did a half wall, it was not a huge investment, but oh my how it made that little corner just sing! (And fellow readers, if you are considering B&B paper but concerned about the price, do get a sample … the colors are unbelievably gorgeous and however they print it makes it incredibly vivid. Completely worth the price.)

    • says

      Thanks Lauryn!

      Good to know about the Bradbury & Bradbury wallpaper! I keep wondering where I could squeeze some of that into my house….they have such great designs!

      • Jeanne says

        I used the Bradbury & Bradbury Gee Gee Gray in my tiny foyer and love it! I paid to have it professionally installed, as the edges of the paper need to be trimmed and I didn’t want to attempt it myself and risk making a mistake. No regrets here…I love the final product!

        • Lauryn says

          We had ours professionally installed too. Never having installed wallpaper (though I watched my mom do it growing up), I didn’t dare mess up that gorgeous paper. It was a wee bit of a challenge finding someone, but he was affordable and did a fabulous job and I too love the final results!

        • Lorrie says

          Why does your photo of the gray look so much lighter than the pics of the gee gee gray on the Bradbury website? I thought maybe yours was a different one that maybe was discontinued. I would like to put this in my foyer as well. How many rolls did you purchase? Any advice would be appreciated. I am just getting started on my midcentury home that we purchased last Summer.

  3. Lynne says

    Clare! If you are reading this, where did you find the shades for those matching lamps!!??? (Goodwill $2.50) I have two identical ones that I need to put into service but I simply cannot find a suitable shade. Or, for that matter, does anyone else have a source for lampshades they could share?
    Thanks much.

    • Kersten says

      Lynne, I have the same lamps too, and I’m quite sure they wear the original shades. Let me know if you’d like a picture!

  4. Wendy M. says

    Perfect timing! I’ve been pondering the question of whether or not to paint an accent wall in our living room. One question though- if the other three walls in the room have some sort of focal point already, is it too much to paint the remaining one an accent wall? I’m thinking of a pretty subtle contrast, but I don’t want to overwhelm the room with focal points. I’d love to hear your opinion.

    • says

      Hi Wendy,

      I think I’d have to see the room to make a for sure judgement about it, but if you say you already have three walls with lots going on, then perhaps an accent wall isn’t right for your room, on the other hand, you could also decide which of the three “focal point” walls was the #1 focal point and put an accent wall there to create a for sure #1 focal wall….

      • Wendy M. says

        The April 27th post (where readers could upload photos of their living rooms) mine is photo #7. If you happen to have time to look at it, my thought is to paint the wall behind the piano a pale seafoam green (another reader suggested it would make the artwork “pop” to have an accent wall.) The opposite wall is all windows with a great view (#1 focal point) and the fireplace/tv wall is the second. The one you can’t see in the pic is a walnut wall with pass-through windows into the kitchen. The golden-orange carpet is also a hard-to-miss focal point, too. 🙂 I have added two rubber tree plants on either side of the opaque window, so there is a little more going on than when that pic was taken. Anyway, I can’t figure out if I need more going on in the room, or if it’s a good place for the eye to rest. The other issue if did paint it an accent color, do I paint the header that covers the lights or leave it as is??

  5. Becky says

    We just did an accent wall in our bedroom by hanging matchstick blinds behind the bed, at ceiling height, in lieu of a headboard. They were $30 at Lowe’s. My husband removed the tapes and strings that would have pulled the blinds up and down normally, and hung the bottom edge at the top because it has a nice strip of bamboo. We love it – it makes the ceiling look higher and the whole room looks much more “done”. I saw a similar treatment in a back issue of Atomic Ranch and had been wanting to do it ever since.

  6. Ryan says

    Participating Ace Hardware stores are giving away free quarts of interior flat enamel this Saturday to promote their new line of paint. Sounds like a perfect amount to finish an accent wall.

      • Ryan says

        Thank YOU! Your blog continues to inspire me and your recent posts on knotty pine cabinets have changed my mind about painting over mine. We have a small little cave of a kitchen and thought the only way we could brighten it up was to paint the cabinets. I never really wanted to but we thought it was the only solution. You have made me reevaluate and i have decided to knock out a wall and install a door with windows that leads out from the kitchen. The scalloped board above the sink is a major light trap though so it will have to be sacrificed. I hope to have pictures for you soon. Keep doing what you’re doing because it’s making a difference!

  7. says

    Great post, and perfect timing. But our issue is a little weird: we have a looong wall, the length of the house, and it ends abruptly in two floor-to-ceiling tinted mirrors (thank you, 1980!). We’re having them removed but have NO idea of the condition of the wall behind, or whether removing them is going to completely destroy it. We’re going to have to do SOMETHING with it–anyone have any ideas for doing a wall makeover on just a section of a long wall?

    You can see the mirrors here: But the wall extends a good twenty feet behind the camera, to the front room. Argh!

    By the by, I might do that swell stenciling in my daughter’s room. Bookmarking the pattern!

    • JKM says

      One wall of our formal dining room was mirrored just like yours (thank you, 1977!) and we had them removed by a glass/mirror company a number of years ago. All were glued on with globs of black adhesive but, amazingly, they came off without breakage (I think one cracked, but no shattering or anything). Unfortunately, the adhesive destroyed the drywall finish and, once removing all remnants, left horrible scarring. Initially thinking we’d have to replace the gyp board on that wall, which wasn’t in our budget and something we really didn’t want to do, we tried patching with drywall compound and it worked beautifully. One thin layer at a time, we applied mud, sanded, applied another layer, sanded again, etc. Once painted, nobody could tell how wretched it looked beforehand. Good luck with your wall!

    • says

      Hi Jody!

      I looked at your long wall…I think right now your room is made to feel longer because it is all white and then you have that lovely greenish shade in your next room over, which draws the eye right through your dining room, making it feel even longer (could be just the angle of your photo though?). I think if you add color to your dining room walls, it will help the room to seem less long. You could accent the long wall with a painted pattern (if you have the time and patience) preferably something with a strong vertical presence.

      You could also paint a bold color on the mirrored wall as well as the wall opposite it that has the opening to the kitchen, which would make the room feel less long…once you remove the mirrors.

      Good luck!

      • says

        Great feedback. To complicate matters, our wall there is PLASTER, and the rest of the living space is painted wallpaper! I’m terrified that the space behind the mirrors will look like Andy Dufresne’s prison cell by the time they’re done. And RIGHT in the middle of the most-traversed part of the house, no less.

        Right now, our options are 1) repair the plaster; 2) install drywall over it; or 3) if the damage isn’t too bad, install a textured wallpaper that we can paint. And if I can convince my husband, maybe a shallow wall unit for display. (Assuming our toddlers won’t try to climb or destroy anything like that.)

        I think it’s likely we won’t have the dining room there–it’ll more likely be kind of a sitting area, with barstools for the kitchen. But this is all great food for thought!

        • says

          Hi Jody,

          If you opt to repair the plaster, you could always use joint compound to make the walls have a slight texture. I did this in my first house in a room that had a huge crack in the plaster. I basically took joint compound, thinly applied it with a large putty knife and then used a smaller putty knife to work it into a sort of patterned texture that was very subtle. Then after the whole thing was good and dry, I primed and painted the room.

          I’ve also removed plaster walls before in my last house. It was a lot of work and very messy! I would advise against it unless totally necessary!

          Good luck!

  8. Dave Kitch says

    Terrific post – but it reminds me of a question I’ve long had… are accent walls ‘authentic’ to midcentury decor? meaning, did folks in that period actually do accent walls or not. Any insights would be appreciated. Separately, I too lovvve orange, recently did a bedroom wall as accent in it … w the other walls all white, it seemed hmmm I don’t know how to describe, almost too stark – juvenile almost? Anyway have since been adding lots of WARM WOODS – accessories, accent pieces etc which seems to be helping make the room more inviting and cozy. Any other suggestions would be great too! Thanks again for a wonderful post!

    • says

      Hi Dave,

      I would think that accent walls using materials like stone and wood are an authentic part of MCM decor…we’ll have to run this question past Pam, the queen of retro for her say…

      As far as your bedroom with Orange accent wall goes, Perhaps trying another lighter color on the other three walls would make it look more finished? I’ve used a light green in on the other walls in both my bedroom and living room and it really helps!

      If you don’t want to paint any more walls, you could also try incorporating some textiles to complement the orange, to introduce a secondary color to your room and make it look more sophisticated. (like an upholstered chair, new bedspread or curtains?)

      • pam kueber says

        I haven’t paid attention to this question. I will, moving forward, eyeball my vintage marketing materials and magazines and look for precedents. I tend to think *yes*, there is very very little that’s new in this world.

        • Dave Kitch says

          Oh gosh Kate – that room is beautiful. It’s a good idea and while I don’t love beige (darkish?) / cream generally, that’s what I’m starting to feel as a complimentary color on the other walls in my room. I’m getting excited – too bad I’m still at work 🙂 and thanks for keeping an eye out Pam – intellectually, I’m very curious. But other than that, I usually just go for what I like anyway (complete authenticity be danged!) and me like a well done accent wall, in the right color, on the right wall, and accessorized right…. and not one in every room… lol. cheers and thanks again for the advice!

  9. Jeanne says

    Another idea for more subtle accents – and along the lines of the tint/shade tip – is to pick a color paint strip (I always use Benjamin Moore) and pick two colors from one strip (light and dark) to use in one room (do one wall in the dark color) or adjoining rooms. That way you know the colors will coordinate.

    Also, I’m remembering a reader’s living room that was featured here a while back. They did a modern graphic treatment to one wall out of wood strips and painted everything one color. The graphic treatment REALLY created a gorgeous MCM focal point.

  10. carolyn says

    how do i get to your forum? I just purchased a home 1955 with a pink bathroom, I will be changing it but whats interesting is there is a mirrow built in that is white with pink and grey boomerangs in it, design, plus the pink tile, I dont know when I will be changing it maybe in the next couple months, but i know people look for this stuff, in new jersey, just direct me where to go or post,

    for now I will decorate it for fun until it will be changed : )

  11. Andrew says

    Moving into a new house in a few weeks and these are some great ideas… Can’t wait to implement some of them.

  12. Stephanie says

    Question…my husband and I are having a disagreement. I want to paint a second accent wall in our living/dining room. He disagrees. Ha. Our main walls are a medium warm gray…the current accent wall is a beautiful mustard yellow. I want to paint a wall that will show off the high angled ceiling (I’m thinking a cool turquoise or some awesome shade of green). These two walls do not touch.


  13. Jaci says

    So I’m having difficulty deciding how to paint my living room. There is a gray brick fireplace in one corner so my plans of a care au lair colored room are not looking so bright….also one of the walls that the fireplace touched extends into the going to be green dining room with no good way to stop a paint color. But I’m afraid it’ll be too much green if I paint the kitchen dinning room and living room green so I thought about painting the opposing corner a care au lair color…but am concerned about how that will look….any ideas or help would be appreciated.

  14. Karen Maryfield says

    We r doin my sons room n he wants dark gray n like electric blue walls. I’m trying to decide what would be the best accent color? The blue? And should I do the biggest wall the blue? It’s goin to be a very small room. I’m thinking he’s goin to get a lighter gray walls otherwise it will be a cave there are 2 windows that I must do something with also

  15. serena says

    The article is very useful and made it easier for me to choose the accent wall in the living room. I am planning for a purple/ dark violate colour. Since I don’t have a focal point there, i went with the other criteria (first wall to see when entering the room; visibility from other rooms; it is the wall against a beautiful vintage leather sofa etc.). But after i finally chose this, i realised that the A/C system is on this wall (its a split system, European style orI don’t know how it is called, bottom line is that a big white A/C s on the left upper side of the wall..) Do you have any suggestion on whether it is indicated or not to have that as accent wall? or should i just choose another one, although i admit i am not sure what else would work (and the room really needs such an accent). Many thanks.

  16. Vickie says

    I have a large rustic bedroom 20×20. The walls are paneling. The vaulted ceiling is natural pine boards and the trim is a natural color wood. Red oak hardwood flooring. I want to paint the paneling I’m thinking an off white color, but I don’t know what to do with the trim. Should it stay natural or paint it. I would appreciate any suggestions.

  17. Julie says

    I am repainting my bed room. I am concerned which wall to make my accent wall. I intend on putting a small fire place and mount an tv on wall in this room. I see many post that say use the wall that bed is against but I am not sure. I have 2 windows on one side wall and two windows on another wall. Could you give me an idea or what wall to use. The room is very large?

  18. says

    I have a NYC apartment with a “home office” which is basically a U shaped room w/o any windows. I want to turn it into a dining room and use the back wall of the U as an accent. Since I have to be able to reverse anything I do, I think paint is the answer.
    I need to keep it LIGHT – what are your ideas for patterns. I love clean lines and lean towards modern/mid century modern.

  19. Tricia says

    I have a question….does the accent wall color always have to be the darker color? I am choosing brown and blue and actually thought of doing the blue as the accent wall & brown on the other walls? Everything I have read says it always should be the darker color on the accent wall. Thanks for any responses!

    • Kate says

      Hi Tricia,

      I think if the difference in value (light and dark) of your colors is a lot (extreme example: White walls with a black accent wall) it usually looks best if the dark color is used on the accent wall, since the eye will be drawn to it and that is reason #1 for having an accent wall — to create a focal point in the room. If you are going for a more subtle difference and using two colors with values that are very close, it may be fine to use the slightly lighter color for an accent wall, but personally I would stick with using the darker valued color for the accent wall. If you want to make blue your accent color, perhaps just choose a lighter brown (or a darker blue) than you had originally planned. Good luck!

      • pam kueber says

        I would think that if three walls were one color and one wall was a different color, your eye would immediately be attracted to “what is different.” This would mean to the blue accent wall (even if the adjacent walls were a similar value). Of course, it would be lesser so if the contrast was not as strong. I think it’s all a matter of preference – especially since we all interact with color differently.

  20. Karen says

    I am not bold or adventurous with paint. Here is my delema. I have gold colored walls in an open livingroom and kitchen dining area.when you walk in the door, light and medium and cream colored counters is what you see and the fireplace wall which is the wall I would like to accent. Could I paint it lighter like antique white?? Thank you!

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