Exploring the Many Shades of White

Posted May 9, 2018 6:09 p.m. EDT

On her HGTV show, “Restored by the Fords,” Leanne Ford paints everything white, so it’s no surprise that her tiny, early 20th-century four-room cabin in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles would be white.

Ford is a host of the show, along with her brother, Steve Ford, a carpenter with a dry sense of humor and a penchant for wearing a backward baseball cap. (In one episode, in the middle of construction she wrapped a drop cloth around him and trimmed his long hair. “I think I’d be better off with a construction guy cutting my hair,” he said playfully.)

The brother and sister generally renovate dark or outdated homes and revamp the space so that it has a modern yet rustic feel that involves a lot of light and a whole lot of bright white paint. Her go-to color is Behr’s Ultra Pure White, and she convinces her clients on the show (and off the show) that it should be their go-to color as well. They all merrily follow Ford into the cult of bright white.

Which is why she warned me that her Echo Park cabin isn’t the white she typically uses, when I contacted her about writing an article about her fondness for the color. (Or the lack of color.) The cabin is painted Sherwin-Williams’ Shoji White. Which is an off-white, she explained.

“Does creamy white work for this?” she asked me via email about the article, a surprising question because of course creamy white works.

After all, isn’t white ... white?

For many of us — for a contractor looking to flip a house or an art gallery owner removing visual distractions, or a Scandinavian who wants to brighten her home over a long dark winter — white is an unobtrusive base color. This is not so for Ford, who mixes whites as a philosophy.

The cabin, which she shares with her husband, Erik Allen Ford (he recently changed his last name to hers), a founder of Buck Mason, a menswear company, is rustic and messy with exposed wood and scattered vintage paintings. It is like a wintry Catskill retreat, the opposite of what you’d expect to see in the middle of Los Angeles.

Echo Park is on the east side of Los Angeles, just a mile from the gridlocked mess surrounding Dodgers Stadium. But in this remote and artsy neighborhood, curving streets tumble into one another. Old stairways dating to the 1890s climb the wild grass- and cacti-covered hills. Enormous eucalyptus trees dip into the sightline.

The cabin itself is surrounded by monochromatic earth tones — it’s tucked behind a massive rubber tree, and Ford left the wood exterior the mellow brown color of mud.

Yet the cabin’s interior, and the entire open backside of the space, are painted Shoji White down to the hardware in a bedroom, the exposed beams in the living room, the doors, the walls, the unfinished, splintery cabinets and the shelves. In certain light, Shoji White looks like an aged book page. In direct sunlight, it’s as soft as a cloud. But her obsession with white isn’t limited to paint. On a chilly morning in March, Ford served me eggs on white pottery plates. She pulled arugula from her glossy white Smeg refrigerator. Her oven backsplash was salvaged ivory-color tile and the countertops a milky onyx. Two oversize metal chandeliers, painted white, hung above the long wooden kitchen table. The Moroccan rug in the living room was ivory. A midcentury Gepo arc lamp with a cream globe shade was suspended next to a stone hearth with an ivory midcentury Malm fireplace tucked inside it. The bathroom walls had a skim coat of concrete mixed with a touch of white powder.

“This house would not be interesting if it had drywall ceilings,” Ford said. “The reason this house is interesting is because we pull in all of these textures, down to the old sheepskin, down to the Mexican blanket and the knit throw.” She pointed to furry layers of cream and white on low-slung vintage chairs in the living room.

“Cream makes white prettier, and white makes cream prettier,” she said.

Ford has been compared to Diane Keaton in her looks and sunny demeanor. She’s from Pittsburgh originally — it’s where her show is taped and where she still lives part of the year — and that cheerful, nothing-is-too-precious nature oozes into her decorating style.

“The reason I didn’t use bright white in here was because I didn’t want this cabin to feel modern,” she said. “I actually made it look older than when I bought it.”

And it was never young. The cabin and the eight lots surrounding it originally belonged to Clara Kimball Young, a silent film star who was the second actress to have founded her own production company.

Ford pointed to where the dark wood of a beam peeked through the paint. This is one of her favorite things — when the white paint ages and the wood is exposed. “It creates a newer version of white,” she said.

Ford has always been drawn to washed-out tones. In the sixth grade, she told her mother their kitchen was too dark.

Another parent might have suggested that when she got her own kitchen, she could paint it any color she wanted. But Ford’s mother, Jackie, said, “Sure. Let’s paint it white.” According to Ford, the kitchen cabinets looked “1,000 percent better.” Ford, 37, sometimes wears a black T-shirt on her show that reads: “Wear black. Paint white.”

Her home in Pittsburgh — a former schoolhouse that also serves as an office for the HGTV show — is painted entirely in Behr’s Ultra White. There, she slathered high-gloss paint on a built-in cabinet (“High gloss is slick. Modern,” she said) and spread matte paint on the adjacent brick wall. She likes playing textures against each other.

Ford says she believes anything can be painted white. She told a story about her sister, whose home had a red brick fireplace. Ford told her to paint it you-know-what, but her sister stalled. You don’t paint brick, her sister insisted.

“But there’s good brick and bad brick,” explained Ford. “You have to step back and see how it works in the space. You don’t have to save the wood or save the brick. What you need is a house you love.” So the brick was painted white. (For the record: Her sister loves it.)

“People get nervous because they think white is going to be cold,” Ford said. “But white paint is anything but cold.”