Something Else to Consider When Redecorating: Can You See the Bugs

Interior design 101

Trendy and modern Nordic Scandinavian style open concept kitchen with lots of natural light.
tulcarion/E+/Getty Images
Entomological Digest

I consider myself something of a design enthusiast. Specifically, I have watched most of Netflix’s interior design reality shows, and I spent a good chunk of my college years reblogging photos of starkly beautiful homes on Tumblr. As such, I know there’s a lot that goes into putting together an attractive room. Color alone demands so much deliberation: Which of the millions of options would you be happiest to stare at every day of your miserable life? Which shade reflects the most light? Which absorbs all your hate? Which best imbues your tiny dirtbag space with the faded glory of an abandoned opera theater’s grand hall, while also being affordable and easy to maintain, if that’s not too much to ask?

The answer, in my boring opinion, is usually some variation of “pale.” This is not just a result of me being brainwashed by the Kinfolk lobby of the 2010s and centuries of white beauty standards pervading every aspect of culture; I also genuinely like the tranquility of a muted palette. But I consider myself an open-minded individual. So when black was proclaimed the kitchen’s “it” color, the “next big paint trend,” the “new neutral room color,” I wasn’t reflexively against it. You might have even called me “dark accent color-curious.”

Yet one incident last year opened my eyes to the truth: large room surfaces should be light in hue not for aesthetic reasons, but for the paramount purpose of revealing bug infestations.

Picture this: It’s summer 2020. I’m home in the Midwest, in the kitchen that my mom finally got redone a few years ago with new flooring, countertops, and backsplash. I’m hovering over the mottled black granite counter when I spot something — not even a definitive shape, but more like a movement, a gesture, a mirage. What was that? I peer closer. Oh God. Oh God. It’s a horde of small black ants (later identified by Google as “acrobat ants,” though I didn’t see them doing any backflips) streaming from an electrical outlet above the counter, crawling every which way and feasting on splattered grease stains that we probably should have wiped away long ago. How did they get in? How long have they been trespassing? How come we didn’t see them earlier? Oh, that’s right, because of the fucking dark backsplash and countertop!

This unpleasant experience — which we eventually resolved over the course of several weeks using Borax-and-sugar-soaked cotton balls and a tube of transparent caulk — deeply informed my decor philosophy henceforth. But why was no one else talking about this crucial interior design consideration? “Use the Color Wheel,” one HGTV slideshow about picking a color palette advises. “Back to Black.” “Contrast Warm and Cool.” And yet nothing about bug visibility, which is weird because everyone I know in New York (allegedly one of the most design-forward cities) cannot stop talking about how their apartment is teeming with roaches.

To investigate this widespread interior design blindspot, I emailed more than a dozen design experts to probe whether they had ever considered potential bug threats when advising clients on color choices. Only one, Amanda Sinistaj of Ellwood Interiors, got back to me with a helpful response: “Dirt — for sure. I don’t think I've ever thought about whether or not you can see bugs on countertops or floors.” Follow-up questions were left unanswered.

If members of the design world elite were not asking the hard questions, then who was? I turned to two pest control experts, both of whom were more than happy to weigh in on the insect visibility/interior design conundrum from the other side of the equation.

“It is easier to see most pests on a lighter background, so if the designer was concerned with a high likelihood of pest pressure, color choice may be worth considering,” said Anna Berry, entomologist and manager of technical services for Terminix, mentioning that most household pests are dark in color.

However, Mike Duncan, another entomologist and Truly Nolen’s national technical manager, pointed out that whether you wind up with dark-colored bugs or light-colored bugs depends on where you’re located. For example, he said, “down in Florida we have a small sweet-feeding ant called the ghost ant that’s very light in coloring. It’s called the ghost ant because it seems to be fairly translucent against any color of countertop, light or dark.” I looked up a photo of the ghost ant and found it to be very scary.

But both experts agreed that color ultimately doesn’t really matter so much because creepy crawlies (my editorializing) are prone to scuttling around undetected in shadowy corners and crevices, making them hard to spot on any wall/floor/counter/cabinet/shelf — I guess so they can survive, which they love doing. Both experts also claimed that being overly concerned with the color of these surfaces as a safeguard against bugs is, well, pretty surface-level thinking. They reminded me, much to my growing embarrassment, that what’s more important is getting your home inspected, sealing up the cracks and holes that allow bugs to get into the home in the first place, doing regular pest control treatment, and keeping interiors neat and clean.

To that end, according to Berry, if having white surfaces that show every crumb and spill pushes you to clean more often, then all the better. “I’m glad to have the white surfaces to point out areas that are in need of a cleaning that even my children cannot ignore, and never let the kitchen get to the stage where I may see pests on those white surfaces,” she said. Okay, I get it, my mom and I are disgusting slobs who should really clean the kitchen more often!

Finally, starting to trust these experts’ taste, I asked for some interior design tips. Berry, who favors “a light and airy vibe,” recommended lighter colors with darker contrasts. Duncan — with a modest caveat that he is “probably as far from Martha Stewart as you can find” — shared that his house currently has dark cherry wood-stained cabinets and black marble countertops that his wife detests because every speck of dust shows up against the black marble. “If we ever decide to change ‘em out, then we’ll put light-colored — either gray or tan — marble back in,” he said. As someone who is not a design professional, I told him, that sounds lovely.