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Designing with Black and White: Conversation with Donna Mondi

When it comes to color palettes, nothing is as classic as black and white. Old-World elegance, art deco grandeur, traditional spaces, contemporary expanses—they all look spectacular wrapped in the glamorous color combination. Some of the earliest known black-and-white décor may have been highlighted in checkerboard floors in 15th century European artworks, and most famously in the modern baroque creations of iconic designer Dorothy Draper. But the duo of hues is every bit as chic and in-demand in today’s interiors.

Donna Mondi, founder of Donna Mondi Interior Design, a Chicago-based high-end interior design studio, favors the color combination for its staying power, and its striking presence. “Black and white is so timeless! It doesn’t go in and out of fashion like other colors tend to do,” said the acclaimed designer. “When used together, it creates high-contrast drama that instantly grabs your attention.”

We talked to Mondi to get her take on why we continue to be so beguiled by black and white and learn some expert tips for incorporating the combination into today’s homes.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Why do you enjoy working with a black and white color palette?

Donna Mondi It’s one of my favorites color palettes; it’s classic and timeless, yet versatile. It can be contemporary. It can be traditional.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Is that how your clients see it as well? Or do they tend to be more cautious with high-contrast looks?

Donna Mondi It does take some convincing with certain clients as they are concerned that it’ll either look too stark if it’s primarily white or too intense if the focus is on the black. Typically, if we can show them examples either with photos of past projects or computer renderings, we can ease their fears. I love to take risks in design and push the envelope, so I try to find clients who are willing to dare to be different.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury How would you balance the high drama of a black-and-white room if a client is more conservative?

Donna Mondi For more conservative clients, we can tint the white a touch and infuse the black in rich fabrics like mohair instead of high-gloss lacquered finishes on millwork or furniture. Mixing in traditional gilded accents, patterned fabrics or rugs, or colorful art in their favorite medium can also help take the edge off. There’s no fun in being too conservative though…design should be exciting!

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when designing for high contrast?

Donna Mondi I always visualize my ideas before committing to them; I close my eyes and picture where each color will go, making sure we are highlighting the good features of the room and disguising others. It’s no different than dressing for your body type. You don’t want to accentuate unsightly parts of the room. With an all-white room, black trim can define the overall space and frame windows beautifully. But, you wouldn’t want to paint the vent covers black as your eye would then go to them. White on white makes them disappear.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Is there ever a fear that black-and-white color combos feel too masculine? How do you make it feel feminine?

Donna Mondi NEVER! I think the color combo can be quite glamorous. It’s more about the style of the furnishings, the type of art displayed, and the patterns and textures of the fabrics and rugs. For a feminine space, curvy furniture with black furry pillows, a glass cocktail table with beautiful girly accessories, and large pop-art posters can make the color scheme seem so chic. On the other hand, black leather Barcelona chairs, a white rug, and sleek chrome accents are sure to appeal to someone with a more masculine style. I prefer something in between, where we blend together multiple styles to create a space that appeals to most.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What’s your feeling about gold tones as a way to balance a high-contrast palette?

Donna Mondi No one was more excited than I was when gold came back into fashion! The warmth this metal provides is beyond comparison. Brushed gold can add a fresh, modern twist while un-lacquered brass adds a layer of timeless sophistication with a nod to the past. You can go all out with a statement piece of furniture, or infuse it subtly in accessories and framing.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury When do you find it most appropriate to add black and white into a space? Is it a feeling you’re wanting to achieve? Do you want to highlight something in a room?

Donna Mondi Someone once told me that every room can use a touch of black. This has proven to be about 98 percent true! Even when you aren’t looking for high-contrast, black can be a nice neutral used to punctuate something. It could be the frame of a glass table, the spines on the books, the color woven through the rug. White is almost always existent in any space as it’s the No. 1 color for trim, doors, and ceilings. Because of this, it’s the easiest color to work into the room. It automatically blends because of the surroundings. If you have a space with all white, the challenge is to layer the textures so it doesn’t all blend together. Your eye needs to catch differences to be engaged and interested in the surroundings.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Do you take a different approach to black and white for different spaces? For instance, a living room vs. a master bedroom?

Donna Mondi Not necessarily, but I would use them differently depending on the architecture of the space and the needs of the client. An all-black bedroom can seem calming to some and jarring to others. Generally, clients do prefer lighter colors in the bedroom, so the black would be more of an accent. There are no real rules here. For every one I could make, I know I would break it.

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury How did you find your inspiration for the black-and-white master retreat? Was the color palette client-driven or did you propose it and they agreed? Did the design start with that stunning piece of artwork on the wall?

Donna Mondi One of the main reasons I chose to go with black and white was because the client’s existing bedroom had dark brown walls and gold carpeting. I wanted to brighten the space significantly but also define it in a way that added drama. The white shell gave me the perfect backdrop that stayed uninterrupted with a wall of leather panels and wall-to-wall, white draperies. Glossy black trim punctuated the outline of the space while new wood flooring added just a touch of warmth.

When I found the painted concrete floor tile for the bathroom, it was exactly what I wanted to create a focal point, while the other elements supported the design quietly. The large art pieces for the bedroom were actually chosen last. Designers work so differently with art. I design the space first, then find the art that works perfectly within it. I didn’t want small pieces that would break up the modernity of the room. The oversized paintings with a touch of blue and silver were the perfect addition!

Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Are there any new ways that designers are working with black-and-white palettes these days? Any interesting trends in terms of applications or materials?

Donna Mondi If I had to narrow it down, I would say that we’re having fun with black metal hardware (as long as it’s done well), black leather chandeliers, black hide for rugs, benches, or pillows, and black glass for accent tables. With whites, I love to see them have some texture or depth: milky glass vases, furry throws, silk rugs (no pets or kids allowed), and marble accessories.

Black-and-white graffiti art is a hot trend! We recently installed a graffiti mural on the walls in our office, which created such an edgy backdrop for our space. There’s always something new around every corner. I can’t wait to see what we find next.

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Designing with Black and White: Conversation with Donna Mondi

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