Magnolia by any other name

Taupe, buff, stone, biscuit - good old beige is back as the colour of choice for our walls, says Felicity Cannell
I could no longer stand the panel of grubby grey winding down my stair and landing walls, and indeed every part of interior wall within reach of sticky little fingers. And anyway the house needed painting properly, in bolder, braver colours. We had flung on the various shades of "hint of a tint" in haste before our first baby arrived.

So I set about trying to emulate the room sets on the Dulux colour chart - Cool Jade below the dado, Old Gold above. Or a wall of the sitting room in one of Fired Earth's gorgeous chalky terracottas. But the corner of my eye kept deflecting outwards to the solid block of colour.

Eventually, the entire hallway was painted in a shade I knew I could live with. "That's nice," said my husband. "Sort of beige." "It's not beige!" I shrieked in my defence. "It's Hessian."

Beige is back, but this time it's called taupe, buff, stone or biscuit. "Our interiors are now generally shades of creams and off whites," says Regalian sales director Jonathan Holman. "After the aspirations of the 1980s and the backlash to minimalism in the Nineties, buyers are less impressed with being shown a lifestyle. Neutral decor gives buyers the chance for self-expression."

The trend towards natural tones has evolved from the misplaced attempts to correct the bright colour decadence of the 1980s and 1990s. White is an attitude of the mind, say the style gurus. I agree, white is certainly an attitude - generally that of a control freak with an obsessive personality disorder. If you really want a colour you don't notice, then earth tones are the future.

You would be forgiven for suspecting that our obsession with all things Seventies is behind the new vogue for beige but this is not, I promise, a return to "brown with everything". A brown velour sofa is not a necessary accessory to a neutral wall in the 1990s - in fact the point is almost the opposite of that. "Design" is filling our homes with weird and colourful creations, from patterned settees to sculpture-like saucepans. Plain muted walls are the perfect backdrop.

"By using taupes and 'cloud colours', things can be moved around without causing aesthetic confusion, so the room is less static," says Kelly Hoppen, an interior designer and champion of natural shades.

Ms Hoppen, in conjunction with Fired Earth, is launching a new range of "neutrals" this year. "We have noticed a lasting fashion for gentle, natural colours," says a Fired Earth spokesperson. "Last summer we launched a brighter collection but there is obviously a shelf life for such shades."

"People make the mistake of putting bold colours on the wall and then get locked into a look which takes considerable effort to change," adds Ms Hoppen.

All well and good but the problem is that when you start talking about beiges and creams, you inevitably end up with the dreaded M-word. Are we really heading back to magnolia? Maybe, but then if we're honest, magnolia is a shade beloved by many, as long as it goes by any other name. Now ruled an utter no-no by the style cognoscenti, up until around 18 months ago it was the most popular colour since man first slopped it on his mud hut.

Thankfully, the paint manufacturers have rescued us from this dilemma. Now we have Camomile, Clotted Cream or Linen to choose from instead. Last year, Dulux launched its range of "naturals" under the names of Sand, Calico, Straw and Wheat.

Sarah Shurety, author of Feng Shui For Your Home, welcomes the move towards neutral shades. "Soft earth colours are healing and calming," she says. "Gathering" is the buzzword here. She advises sitting room colours to be warm and gathering - 'harvest colours' such as yellows and creams.

For those still doing penance with minimalist white, be warned. Far from being pure and cleansing, feng shui wisdom deems too much white to be ultimately destructive. If you need white, stick to bed linen and table settings. If you want bold brash colours, stick to cushions, a Jackson Pollock canvas and toys from the Early Learning Centre.

So hurrah for magnolia, beige and their close relations, sales of which will continue to top the charts, not least because of the amount of paint you'll need to cover the mistakes of Burnt Sienna or Dusk Blue. In her book, The Peaceful Home, Alice Westgate says, "There is a certain snobbery about magnolia, as people feel they really should go for something more interesting. The only danger with neutral colours is when they are used for safety, if householders have glorious ideas but are afraid to put them into practice."

So if it's hard, tell yourself it's temporary, until you make your mind up on something else. But I bet you never will.

'Feng Shui For Your Home' by Sarah Shurety (Rider, pounds 17.99). Feng Shui Advice Line, tel 0181293 4471. 'The Peaceful Home' by Alice Westgate (Marshall Publishing, pounds 18.99).