Gray floors trigger visceral responses. So why are they seemingly everywhere?

When Anna Beagley saw gray floors for the first time, she couldn’t get it out of her head. “It was love at first sight,” she said. “They’re a nice, neutral color but still give the room a light, airy vibe.”

She hasn’t had any regrets since 2021, when she renovated her Utah home and installed gray vinyl flooring. “I can add accents in any color I want without really worrying about conflict,” said Beagley, 34, an analyst.

But she noted that a passionate discourse about dust-colored floors was taking place online. Tastemakers have drawn a line, and it’s in black and white: either you worship them or you despise them.

Gray floors are a source of animosity for many people, who have expressed their dislike on social media with posts that have often gone viral. One user tweeted, “Every time the original hardwood floors are replaced with gray vinyl planks, a year is taken from my life.” Another dubbed them “AirBnbcore”. In an Instagram post that racked up nearly 170,000 likes, designer Bilal Rehman said that gray floors “take the life out of every room you have”.

Sometimes all that hate for gray flooring can feel tiring, Beagley said. “Sometimes it’s ridiculous. These are floors, folks. It’s not a matter of life or death,” she said. “Sometimes I get a little frustrated. If you don’t like her, don’t understand her, but why would anyone feel the need to be vocal about hating her?”

In recent years, gray flooring has become the standard option for many property developers. Designers and architects believe the stark grayness is a result of the dominant minimalist aesthetic of the last decade, and developers see it as a safe and benign option. Gray floors in apartments are also often laminate – a synthetic material that looks like wood and is cheaper than real hardwood floors.

In 2021, Ultimate Gray was a Pantone Color of the Year. Now that interiors are awash with gray and people associate the color closely with the company’s neutrality, some designers are noticing that customer tastes are shifting away from ash, smoke, and silver.

Greyed out

“Grey flooring is the most common flooring we use in our multi-family housing projects,” said Olga Cotofana, senior director of design at real estate development company PMG. The company’s gray-floored buildings include a high-rise in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which opened in 2020, and an apartment complex in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, which is slated to open later this year. “Grey flooring works well in new build properties because it appeals to the masses and works well with a variety of interior design and architectural trends that are currently on trend,” said Cotofana.

According to Dean Schwartz, the company’s senior vice president of merchandising, Lowe’s has seen sales of gray wood, vinyl and tile increase. “As consumer demand for a cool, modern aesthetic has increased, we’ve seen sales of gray floor tones soar over the past few years,” Schwartz said.

“They’re not confrontational,” said Demetrios A. Comodromos, co-founder of architecture firm Method Design. “The desaturated approach also appeals to millennial color sensibilities, such as pepto bismol pink, pale yellow and other desaturated colors that have become fashionable in recent years.”

For Audra Williams, 47, it’s the symbol of the gray floors that causes irritation. Williams lives in rural Nova Scotia, Canada, where many homes have been bought by investors and converted into rentals. She saw that one particular apartment was still showing up on Facebook Marketplace and the floor was grey.

“To me, it’s just a lack of caring or concern for everyone who’s going to be living in this building,” said Williams, a freelance communications consultant. “People just feel really powerless. So many people renting right now can’t find anything other than this super grey, drab, pretty cheap flooring. People are more likely to choose others than themselves.”

Diana Viera, managing partner of design firm Italkraft, said she first noticed that gray flooring was on the rise in the US after showing up at the Salone del Mobile design fairs in Milan in the 2010s. “Usually, the new design in Italy gradually spreads to the US,” she said.

What comes next is a story perhaps best summed up by Miranda Priestly, the fictional fashion editor played by Meryl Streep, in The Devil Wears Prada, in which she explains to her assistant how trends from high fashion brands can transition to casual wear. After some luxury designers first introduced sky-blue garments to their collections, she said, “Then it seeped through department stores and then trickled on into a tragically casual corner where no doubt it was fished out of some trash can.”

That’s probably the story with gray floors. And since flooring can range from expensive options (like natural stone or hardwood) to more budget-friendly options (like laminate), the gray color trend could be applied to most types of homes, including McMansions in gated communities, luxury condos, and older homes flipped becomes.

“Because there’s this huge price disparity in materials, it’s possible to market in a way that everyone is doing it,” Viera said.

But now that gray flooring is ubiquitous and nothing intentional or seemingly new anymore, people don’t want them as much, Viera said.

A move away from gray is already underway among affluent homeowners. “In high-end, luxury homes that are very individually designed, they’re the first people to go down a different path because they can afford something else,” Viera said. Her clients go to extremes, either black floors or very light sand tones, she added.

However, many people don’t have the luxury or extra income to decide against a unit just because it has gray floors.

Lucía Massucco, a 28-year-old artist, isn’t a fan of the flooring. “It’s impossible to create a warm, cozy atmosphere with them,” Massucco said. “You have a very soulless and clinical feeling.”

But last year, while house hunting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Massucco had a hard time finding a modern apartment without gray floors. She found that all of the options with other flooring options were either luxury apartments, way out of her budget, or old and run-down. Deciding against going broke for aesthetic reasons or risking living with bed bugs, she opted for a one-bedroom apartment with light gray floorboards.

The feeling of being stuck on the gray ground has provoked violent backlash on the internet.

“Soulless” but “Functional”

Social media provides a platform where people’s likes can spread and their dislikes can go viral — being a hater can lead to likes and followers.

Floors are subject to the same rapid trend cycle as jeans, indoor plants, headphones or croissants. The internet isn’t helping to slow things down either, as the hottest trend has just seemed elusive, appearing and disappearing so fast that most people can’t keep up.

And in a few years — or sometimes even sooner — people start hating them. For example, hardwood floors—where wooden slats are arranged in a repeating, geometric pattern—were all the rage in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, customers are put off by them, said Keyan Sanai, an agent at Douglas Elliman in New York. “That’s something I have to hide now,” he said.

And although he’s heard complaints about gray floors lately, Sanai said it’s sometimes preferable to clients because it means the apartment has been recently modernized, even if it’s not particularly thoughtfully designed. “When you’re lucky enough to have floors in a New York apartment that aren’t 100 years old, that’s exciting,” he said.

Claire Lower, a 36-year-old editor at Lifehacker, a lifehacks blog, bought her Portland, Oregon home in 2020, which featured gray floors. However, she called the floors “soulless” and “corporate neutral.” found that they were at least easy to clean. “They are functional. There is nothing wrong with them, so renewal is not a priority,” she said.

Still, Beagley is in love with her gray floors. “When I discovered gray floors, I was ecstatic,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Justin Scaccy

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