Chuck out your 'magnolia' along with your chintz. Today's white is pure and brilliant, says Eleanor Bailey
White Is to interiors what black is to clothing. It goes with anything. It is always acceptable but somehow it bestows on its user a credible style. It has the added advantage of being a bit of a risk, for it can be stark and cold. Use white badly and your house looks like an industrial deep freeze.

The inexorable rise in white is a backlash against those wishy washy "white with a hint of apple" or "white with a dash of peach" colours that swept through "stylish" homes in the Eighties, when not making a statement was the ultimate statement. Worst of all was the ubiquitous magnolia. "Magnolia should be banned by law," exclaims George Khachfe, director of Interdesign at the Chelsea Design Centre, whose store is filled with furniture and fabrics in brilliant white this season. "Magnolia is so boring and kills atmosphere, but pure white has a lucid transparency that lets in the light."

Understatement is the worst offence, nowadays. At first, white was the backdrop to the return of explosive, bright, Sixties shades, the oranges and lime greens against which the old off-white looked drab. But now it can stand alone. "It's cyclical," says Paul Bynoth, senior tutor in interior design at Regents Academy of Fine Arts. "White hasn't been this big since the Seventies. And it is much more accessible now that paint technology has come so far. There is far less danger that your white will turn yellow."

White is flexible. Reminiscent of churches and hospitals, it is also comfortable with the whitewashed farmhouse look and, equally, can signal post-apocalyptic urban chic. But this flexibility should not be pushed too far, says Paul Bynoth. "There has been a tendency to think that white can transform a small space into a large one, but sadly all that you'll get is a small white room. White also shows up imperfections in woodwork and so on. Some places need colour."

It is not a need felt by hair stylist Charles Worthington, who has turned his four-storey house in Notting Hill into a shrine to white minimalism. "I moved in a year ago and immediately got the decorators in. They stripped everything down, ripped out the carpets and painted everything white. Now the only thing that isn't white is the wood flooring on the ground floor, but a specialist bleaching company is going to make that white, too.

"I don't want each floor to have a separate identity, I want it to just flow. It's not over-designed or overly fashionable and so it won't get outdated. It's very minimalist, very restful. Fortunately, I have another house in the country and if I gather any clutter, it can go there.

"White is very clean and sharp. The key to being successful with white is lighting. It doesn't have to be cold. I love uplighting which throws up pools of light. This is crucial, because if you get the lighting wrong you'll feel like you're walking through a hospital. What looks fabulous with all this white is to have a flash of colour, or luxurious furniture that is wonderfully set off. I have a 10ft-high rosewood-framed mirror and big squashy sofas, and I put hundreds of tulips, all the same colour, in a vase."

Naturally, Charles Worthington has not achieved this look without a large amount of money. But it's not essential, he claims: "Style doesn't have to cost money. It's about having a good eye for putting things together. White itself does not have to be expensive and to find things to set off against it is a matter of scouring markets or even just going to IKEA or Habitat."

White is one of the most powerful of all colours, says Andrew Purves, director of furniture store Purves & Purves in London. "It's the only colour that doesn't exist. It's invisible and only by shining light through white do you get colour. Consequently, it goes with every colour. It suggests the purity of spirit found in churches and monasteries. People are afraid of using it because of the impracticality. But the trend for loose, washable covers is allowing people to be much bolder with their furniture."

In Britain, of course, we do have a problem with white - namely, the climate. California sunshine it ain't. St. Petersburg is so cold and grey for so long that the buildings are routinely painted in warm pastel shades to liven things up. While it hasn't got that bad over here yet, it does mean that there is a lot of artificial light inside the home, which can make white look shabby. During the day, it can look very cold.

Then there is the practicality. "White is a tremendous indulgence," says Mary Spillane, director of Colour Me Beautiful. "You need to have a partner who is as aesthetically pure as you are. You can't have pets, children or visitors. It's not a realistic choice if your life is full of Sainsbury's and the school run."

Spillane suggests that the nervous restrict themselves to one all-white room, which they can use as a haven. Likewise, using white in selected unconventional ways can be shockingly effective. Interdesign presented pure white sofas in woven leather and chenille at this year's Biendale Paris design show.

But you don't have to buy new furniture. Interdesign's white double-width throws, from pounds 190, can transform beds and sofas. And it doesn't just look like you've got the dust sheets out, says Khachfe, "because they're made of ton-sur-ton and patterned or quilted". When you use white, texture becomes more important.

Start your conversion to white slowly, as a little goes a long way. Estate agent Sarah Cunnicliffe, 33, found out the hard way. She suffered from the blank sheet of paper syndrome. Instead of her mind feeling free from clutter, she felt claustrophobic and unable to think of anything at all.

"I had always dreamed of an entirely white flat. All that room for your mind to relax. It reminded me of California. So, when I bought my new flat I painted the walls brilliant white. I have a white muslin sofa, white chairs and a white table. The carpet is currently grey. It is wonderful in that the colours I do have really stand out. I can have any pictures and prints without having to worry if they will 'go'. Everything is perfectly set off.

"But the trouble is that although I wanted it to look empty, in fact, it looks cold and Spartan. Probably, it's being in London - it is too noisy. When you look out of the window and you see a city skyline, it jars somehow. California blue skies are much more appropriate.

"It seems like you need more than white on the walls to give it some character. In the city, you are fighting for territory all the time, so it seems like you need more identity and probably more colour. Instead of being my haven from the world, it all makes me feel a bit uncomfortable."