To their horror, many millennials have found themselves with safe, way-too-gray decor and TikTok is skewering them. Here, what’s behind this conflicting phenomenon—and tips on escaping a colorless existence.
By Grace Rasmus
“OH, LOOK, the kitchen floors are gray now,” I said, juggling boxes as I stepped inside my newly rented apartment. “Nice!”
When I’d first toured the 1940s townhouse in Queens, N.Y., that floor was tiled in aging checkerboard squares of black and icky-cream. The promise to replace them had thrilled me, but the color came as a surprise. Then I noticed the kitchen walls were now a seemingly identical gray. A few months later, when my landlord needed to replace the mid-century-pink bathroom floors, I was less enthused. “Oh, look, the bathroom floors are gray now,” I said. “Ugh.”
This decor style—or lack thereof—that I and so many of my millennial peers have ended up with has inspired the mocking phrase millennial gray. “There’s a millennial gray-looking restroom inside the Mexican restaurant,” TikToker @chloeisag sang in February in a viral video with 3.5 million views. The video contrasts the cheery, piñata-filled decor in a restaurant’s seating area with the clean-yet-bleak bathroom in the back. Gray floors. Gray walls. Gray artwork. A fake plant. “It’s giving ‘airport,’” she sings. “It’s giving ‘live, laugh, love.’ It’s giving ‘corporate.’”
As the phrase circulates online, many millennials are realizing, to their chagrin, that it all-too-accurately describes their own homes. “So I just heard the phrase ‘millennial gray’ for the first time,” said horrified TikTok user @victoria.thatsit in another video. “Let me show you guys my house. My bathroom: gray. My floor: gray. My counters: gray…Our chairs: some type of gray. Our dog beds: gray. Our walls are gray. This last one really gets me: Our dogs are gray!”
That video has 5.6 million views. “It’s a thing?” one TikTok commenter said of ‘millennial gray.’ “Cause it’s true lol. Everything I own is gray and I’m buying more gray.” Another pinpoints the problem: Gray harmonizes effortlessly with…more gray. It “will go with anything…including everything we’ve bought that’s already gray that we bought to go with everything.” A third writes, “I think we all had intentions of adding pops of color but we have commitment problems.”
Boomers and GenXers have ridiculed millennials for decades, but punches from below, from Gen Z and TikTok and the very internet millennials grew up on, are uniquely gutting. And this one particularly hurts because it’s true. I accept no blame for my walls and my floors—as a renter, I don’t make the rules; my (millennial-aged) landlords do. But you know what else is gray? My sofa. My bedding. I chose those. Me. I’m only 29, but as soon as the “millennial gray” snipe surfaced online, I knew the phrase would haunt me for the rest of my decorating years.
How did my generation, known not too long ago for a penchant for pastels, let ourselves slip into a haze of gray? It isn’t necessarily the result of conscious design choices, says Nicko Elliott, 42, co-founder of Civilian architectural and interior design studio in Brooklyn, N.Y. As he explained, house flippers and property managers tend to like inexpensive furnishings in safe, neutral, durable colors, which means many millennial renters and first-time homeowners signed a dotted line on a space that already had gray in its bones: the floors, the cabinets, the counters, the walls. And even when it came time to renovate, many millennials “have been really focused on…having a blank slate for the next person,” said Jen Cook, 39, a Vancouver-based designer and co-founder of Otto Studio, which sells removable, renter-friendly wallpaper.
And the “take it or leave it” gray of choice is often particularly numbing and middle-of-the-road. “Sensible property managers and landlords might say, ‘go for middle grays,’” said Mr. Elliott. “‘If it’s too light it’s going to show dirt. If it’s too dark it’s going to show dirt.’ Everything’s going to push you toward a middle tone.”
Another factor: Impatient millennials want things fast. When it comes to major design purchases like sofas from mass-market outlets, neutral colors like gray are often what’s in stock, no ordering required, said Ksenia Kagner, 37, the other co-founder of Civilian in Brooklyn. “For colored sofas, these days you have to wait 12 to 18 weeks.” For millennials accustomed to two-day shipping, that kind of wait isn’t an option.
Then, as Ms. Cook put it, there’s the fact that “some folks don’t feel comfortable matching [colors]. They’re worried about getting tired of it, so if people are feeling busy and stressed and tapped out, a gray neutral palette feels much more doable.”
The look was once actually a coveted, luxe trend. “In the late ‘90s, when we were coming out of peach-beige-mania, there was more of a high-end design movement about gray and dark woods,” said Mr. Elliott. That trickled down into mass-market decor options. Now, as the design pendulum swings back around to beiges, a gray palette can seem dated, and millennials are realizing to their dismay that they’ve been living life in colorless spaces for the past several years.
Of course, to some, a simple gray palette might seem like a relaxing choice after a stressful day at work. “I think gray just feels very comfortable,” said Nathaniel Dressler, 24, who is enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and recently bought and redecorated a home with mostly gray furnishings in Panama City, Fla. When he moved in, the walls were green and blue and, to him, seemed “really busy.” After he muted the look by painting it gray, “it felt very peaceful and calming.” Like me, he first encountered the phrase “millennial gray” on TikTok and found it amusing (though, by most definitions, he is technically a member of Gen Z). “We had just picked out the colors for our walls and floors and cabinets, and our furniture was already [gray]…Then when I saw it on TikTok, I was like, ‘Oh, this is definitely what they’re talking about.’”
Mr. Dressler said he notices lots of neutral color choices among his peers, a contrast to the home he grew up in with its yellow and red accent walls. “Every generation wants to move against whatever their parents had as decor,” says Ms. Cook. “For our parents, it was the Tuscan kitchens, for their parents, maybe it was pastels in the ’50s.” At least one TikToker agrees: “As a millennial with a lot of gray walls…I grew up at a time when it was appropriate for everyone to have this faux Tuscan kitchen,” @corndogbicep said in a video. “So what do millennials do with such traumatizing life circumstances? Well, we all decided to have a mental health crisis simultaneously. This is not farmhouse gray; this is asylum gray. We’re living in peace now.”
ME GRAY? NO WAY
Realized you’re living in a dull daze at home? How to break the cycle.
- Think of color as an investment in your happiness. “Our homes impact our mental health so much,” says Ms. Cook. “Ask yourself: Am I inspired by warm, citrusy colors? Am I into pastels? Do I want to go big and bold with some neon touches?”
- If you want to work with the gray you’ve already got: Pull in complementary colors throughout your space. Try sophisticated versions of primary colors, like oxblood, a deep yellow or cobalt blue. “These colors would help bring electricity and contrast to a dull gray space,” Mr. Elliott said.
- Finally, if you’re dead-set on gray walls, at least choose the right one. Wickham Gray by Benjamin Moore is a go-to gray paint that Ms. Kagner and Mr. Elliott have used in multiple projects. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “There’s a little bit of green in it, a little bit of blue in it, and there’s a richness that will change over time. It absorbs colors, it reflects light throughout the day, and it has different moods.”