Everyone’s familiar with beige. Love it or hate it, this quiet neutral is ubiquitous in the worlds of interior design, fashion, and more. It’s incredibly versatile, but it still gets a bad rap sometimes — the word “beige” is sometimes used to describe something bland or boring.
However, when you use it thoughtfully, beige is anything but boring. Here’s a bit about the color beige and how to use it to create memorable designs.
Beige in Brief
Most of us probably recognize beige when we see it. However, it can be difficult to pin down an exact definition. And if you consult different dictionaries, it only gets more confusing!
Merriam-Webster defines beige as either “a variable color averaging light grayish-yellowish brown” or “a pale to grayish yellow.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “a pale brown color,” and the Webster’s New World Dictionary describes it as “a grayish tan.” The Oxford English Dictionary characterizes it as “a pale sandy fawn color.”
Ultimately, there’s a lot of overlap between beige and related shades. But if you want to really pin down a definition, it helps to look at the etymology. The word “beige” comes from the Old French word “bege,” which refers to the natural, un-dyed color of wool and cotton. Cotton is often a bright shade of white when it’s still in the field, so undyed wool offers a better representation of the color:
There are seemingly endless shades of beige out there, but the values below reflect a “standard” shade:
If you’re familiar with the design world, you might have heard people mention “warm beige” and “cool beige.” Warm beige usually has yellowish (and sometimes reddish) undertones like the color above. Cooler beige has gray or blue undertones. It can be hard to pick out the exact undertones present, but if you’re familiar enough with warm and cool colors, you’ll probably recognize warm and cool beige when you see them.
Is Beige the Same as Tan?
If you have little experience with colors and color theory, you might lump beige in with most other pale brownish shades like tan. However, these two colors are much more different than you may have thought:
As you can see, beige is much paler than tan. Tan also leans a lot more towards a brown shade than beige.
Beige in History
We’re surrounded by beige. The color is a common choice for homes (both on the interior and the exterior), clothing, furniture, and more. That’s nothing new — beige has been ubiquitous for decades. At the same time, it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s favorite color. So why is it so popular?
In her book The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair sums up the answer in a couple of sentences: “The hope is not that everyone will like ‘beige’, but that it won’t offend anyone. It could be the concept-color of the bourgeoisie: conventional, sanctimonious, and materialistic.”
Essentially, if beige were a person, it would be a conformist. And while blind conformity might not be an admirable trait for a human, a highly versatile color is a good thing for a designer. And as we’ll see in a moment, artists and designers have made good use of beige for decades — even centuries.
Beige in Early Human History
Early civilizations didn’t have as many words for colors as we do now. However, the lack of names didn’t stop them from creating a range of different shades. Ancient French cave paintings incorporated beige pigments, and the artists had to go to some trouble to create those pigments — they were made by mixing brown, white, yellow, and gray.
Beige in the Fashion World
Beige might not always be a color that signals distinction. But thanks to a few fashion designers (and one label in particular), beige has come to be regarded as a color of sophistication and simple elegance.
Coco Chanel was largely responsible for bringing beige into the fashion spotlight. Her inspiration? At the age of 12, she became an orphan and went to live in an abbey. She was surrounded by black, white, and beige, and these colors eventually dominated her designs. During World War I — when she rose to prominence — her most popular pieces were primarily white and beige. At least in the eyes of the American public, beige now had a connection to luxury.
Today, Chanel isn’t the only fashion house to prominently feature beige in its catalog. Fendi often works with neutral base shades, and warmish beige is a popular one. But Fendi took it a step further than many designers and created its own shade of beige called Alba!
Beige in Interior Design
You might associate beige with modern interior design. And while it’s true that beige is a mainstay of contemporary interiors (though greige is giving it a run for its money), it’s been a favorite in the design world much longer than you think. Beige was a favorite of Elsie de Wolfe, a 1920s interior designer who is generally considered to be the inventor of the profession. She was so enamored with this shade that when she first saw the Parthenon, she exclaimed, “It’s beige! My color!”
Beige is inoffensive enough that it can be paired with almost any other color, and it works in almost any style of design. It features prominently in the modern and ever-popular Scandinavian-style design. This style brings together various soft shades (often a collection of neutrals) and different textures to create a cozy yet minimalist space.
The Meaning of Beige
Every color has an associated meaning, and some of those meanings are more obvious than others. For example, yellow is a bright, cheerful shade, so it’s only fitting that many cultures associate it with joy and optimism. Blue is a classic cool color, so it’s often associated with serenity and calm.
But what about beige? It’s one of the most neutral neutrals, so it’s harder to pick out a definitive meaning or association. However, beige does have a few symbolic meanings:
Simplicity and Modernity
Critics of beige regard it as being dull, basic, and even boring. That might be true in some cases, but there’s a definite upside to having these traits — beige has also come to be associated with simplicity and minimalism.
More specifically, it’s connected to the kind of simplicity that’s often found in modern interior design. Beige dominates the color palettes of so many minimalist, contemporary interiors that the color alone makes many people think of modernity.
Beige originated as the color of wool, so it’s only fitting that it’s come to symbolize comfort. It might be a modern shade, but it has a sense of warmth and coziness that you don’t get with most modern color schemes.
Not all neutrals have a calming effect. However, regardless of whether it leans slightly warm or slightly cool, beige is a relaxing shade. If you want to really lean into that sense of calm, pair beige with cool colors like blue, green, or purple.
Shades of Beige: Example Color Codes
Earlier, you saw that there are many different shades of beige. That’s not a bad thing, but it certainly makes it harder to choose one. Here are a few great shades of beige to help you get started.
1. White Asparagus
This color is fairly close to that of beige. It comes from the Pantone catalog, and it’s essentially beige with more gray. Although it’s a bit darker than actual white asparagus, this color is a beautifully balanced one that works great for walls or backgrounds.
2. Cosmic Latte
You might think that this color’s name comes from the frothy milk of a coffee drink. However, the meaning is much more literal — and fascinating. The name comes from a 2002 study where researchers averaged the color of all the sources of light in the universe (like galaxies and gas clouds). They got this color as a result, and they appropriately named it Cosmic Latte.
3. Desert Sand
If you’ve visited multiple deserts, you know that the color of the sand within them can vary pretty drastically. This one is essentially a shade of pale beige with a hint of pink, and many people think of it as beige. There’s a good reason they do that. In the 1960s, AT&T described a Desert Sand phone it sold as “beige.”
Chamomile is a warmish beige variant that’s roughly the color of freshly brewed chamomile tea. It’s deeper, darker, and yellower. However, even though it’s a bit darker, it doesn’t have the grayish, dusty look that some darker shades of beige seem to have. If you’re looking for a shade of beige that effectively overlaps with tan, this is a great one to pick.
5. Cloud Cream
With a name like Cloud Cream, you might expect this color to be a little whiter than it is. Instead of mirroring the color of fluffy clouds or vanilla ice cream, Cloud Cream essentially looks like the shade most people picture when they imagine beige. It sits comfortably between warm and cool, and it’s a shade that can layer equally well with warmer neutrals and cooler ones.
How Does Beige Compare to Similar Shades?
The line between beige and similar colors often gets blurred. To help reduce confusion, we’ve chosen a few similar colors, each of which already has a name:
1. Khaki vs. Beige
Khaki is essentially a shade of tan with an extra yellowish tint. As you can see below, khaki is generally darker than beige.
But just as there are many shades of beige, there are many shades of khaki. The “standard” one shown here comes from A Dictionary of Color, a book that was published in 1930 and was considered to be the authority on color names, at least until the dawn of computerized colors. This same shade is also the HTML/CSS web color called “khaki.”
2. Greige vs. Beige
Like beige, greige is a color commonly found in modern interiors. And as you likely inferred from the name, it’s approximately a mix of beige and gray. Since there are so many shades of both beige and gray, there are lots of shades of greige, too. The shade below is one of the more common ones.
3. Camel vs. Beige
Camel is another chic brownish color that you can effortlessly layer with beige and other neutrals. Along with cognac and similar shades, it’s become especially popular as a color for leather furniture in recent years. Camel is darker and warmer than most beige shades, but it’s still much lighter than most shades of brown.
4. Fawn vs. Beige
Much like beige, fawn is a color that’s somewhat vaguely defined — it’s a pale, yellowish tan. You might sometimes see this color name used to describe paint colors or home furnishings, but it’s most commonly used to describe the coat colors of several dog breeds. Pugs, Great Danes, boxers, bullmastiffs, and French bulldogs are a few examples.
The shade of fawn shown below is on the darker end of the spectrum. At least when it comes to fawn coats in dogs, paler variants are close to the shade of beige shown below.
5. Cream vs. Beige
It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish cream colors from shades of very pale beige. But usually, cream has more pronounced, buttery yellow undertones. It also doesn’t have the slightly gray cast of many beige variants. The CMYK values listed below illustrate the difference plainly — you can see that cream has a higher Y value and a K value of 0.
What Colors Pair Well With Beige?
Beige is incredibly easy to incorporate into almost any color scheme. However, unless you’re creating a beige-on-beige design, you’ll need to choose at least one other shade to use. Beige will go well with just about any color — but that often just makes it harder to pick one! Here are a few suggestions to help you get started.
Hex Codes: #000000, #FEFCEC, #9F838C
If you want your design to have a contrast that’s both sleek and stark, try pairing jet black with a very pale shade of beige. This combination works beautifully in simple and intricate designs alike. For example, if you’re creating a basic announcement, try black text on a beige background with a black border. However, thanks to the strong contrast between the two, you can also use this combination to create complex, abstract patterns.
Hex Codes: #AF6F09, #F5EDE0, #280003
Caramel is a color that’s pretty similar to camel, and the one above accurately captures the smooth warmth of the classic favorite candy. Using caramel alongside beige is an interesting choice — the two are somewhat similar, but a design using both doesn’t exactly seem monochromatic, either.
If you’re designing an interior and are going for something with a modern feel, the caramel/beige combination is a perfect base for a Scandinavian color scheme. If you’re creating a living room, you could start with beige walls and caramel leather couches. From there, you could add a woven seagrass rug, fluffy ivory throw blankets, pale wooden end tables, and dark brown accent pillows.
3. Sage Green
Hex Codes: #9CAF88, #F1ECE4, #594A26
You couldn’t ask for a more perfect pairing than sage green and pale beige. Both are soft and nature-inspired. If you choose a cool, pale beige like the one shown above, both colors also have a grayish or silvery cast. And if you’re looking to expand the palette, a brown-leaning olive drab like the one shown above is a wonderful addition.
This grouping of colors would work nicely as a palette for a nature-inspired website. And because sage is a color that can work almost like a neutral, the sage/beige combination is also great for creating a Scandinavian-style interior. Create a cozy yet refreshing look with sage green walls and beige-colored couches (or bedspread, depending on the room you’re designing). Continue the light, airy feel with pale, natural wooden furniture.
4. Petal Pink
Hex Codes: #E5ADC8, FDF7EC, #DCC156
Some shades of beige (like the one shown above) have faintly pink undertones. You might not notice them if you’re looking at the color by itself. But when you take a pretty shade of petal pink and add it to the mix, it brings out those undertones, adding a subtle layer of complexity to your project.
One interesting way to use these colors is to create a room that’s mostly beige and then add a few touches of petal pink. You can add some shine and character by bringing in rose gold metallic accents, too. For example, if you’re designing a living room, you could include beige walls and beige furniture to start. From there, you could add petal pink throws, pillows, and other accents. Finally, adding metal picture frames or even accent sculptures with a rose gold finish will give the space some pizazz.
5. Forest Green
Hex Codes: #014421, #F9F8F0, #6F5E53
The combination of hunter green and tan is a classic. If you like that look but want something that’s a little cooler, try forest green alongside a cool shade of beige. If the beige shade is light enough (like the one above), this combination can be used to create beautiful logos.
When it comes to interiors, this combination is perfect for creating dramatic and memorable spaces. If you want to keep things relatively safe, try adding velvet or velour forest-green couches to a room with beige walls. But if you want the space to be bold yet luxurious, paint the walls a rich, jewel-toned forest green and add pale beige furniture. Tie everything together with a few forest-green accents placed throughout the room.
How Do You Successfully Use Beige in a Design?
Beige is endlessly versatile, and there’s a shade to suit almost every taste. But how do you successfully bring beige into your current project? Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Craft Interesting Backgrounds
Many of us think of beige as a background color — as nothing more than an afterthought. But a well-crafted background adds more to a design than you may realize. For instance, beige excels as a website background color. Especially if you’re using a very pale tint, a beige background might only be a few shades darker than plain white. It might not seem like a big difference, but a pale beige background can make even the brightest computer screen look like a freshly printed newspaper.
The concept of a beige background extends to interior design as well. For example, if you have a collection of colorful paintings (or another kind of wall art), the color of the wall you hang them on matters.
You might want to use a color that’s a little more interesting than plain white. But if your pieces of wall art include many different colors, you want to make sure the background doesn’t clash with any of them. Beige is a safe choice — it goes with almost any color.
Are you worried about beige looking too dull? It can be, but fortunately, the color scheme is only one facet of a project. Textures can add fascinating dimensionality to digital designs as well as interior designs. Don’t be afraid to mix different textures together — this is an especially effective strategy for interior designs. Fluffy, velvety, smooth, woven, and satiny design elements can all work in harmony.
Use Subtle Layers
If you’re familiar with contemporary interior designs, you’ve seen the trendy, Scandinavian-style layering of light neutrals. Beige works beautifully when you create a gradient-style palette of closely related shades. Your design (digital, interior, or otherwise) will be cohesive while still remaining visually interesting.
Go Bold With Black/Beige Contrast
If the subtle layering technique isn’t enough for your design, take an opposite approach by combining beige and black. There’s enough contrast between these two to make them good for colorblocking. Alternatively, you might consider adding black accents to a mostly beige design.
Where Will Beige Take You Next?
Beige might be the last color you picture when you think of adventure. But when you’re willing to explore all the possibilities this color offers, you can transform your designs for the better. Whether you select it as a background color or make it center stage, beige is more than worth exploring.