"50 Shades of Grey" isn't just the title of a racy novel. It also describes the paint chips now arrayed on countless kitchen counters as homeowners try to pick just the right smoky shade.

Gray, it turns out, is the new beige — the neutral of choice for those seeking a sophisticated, on-trend color palette.

"It's the color of the hour," said Kristy Conlin, an interior designer with Martha O'Hara Interiors in St. Louis Park.

In recent years, the hue has undergone a radical image makeover.

"When I started, gray was such a no-no — dreary and depressing," said Abby Wettleson, an interior designer with Charles Cudd DeNovo, a design-build firm based in Plymouth. "But the accent colors now are so bright and happy. It's soothing gray instead of washed-out gray."

Gray was identified as the top design trend in a recent report by the National Kitchen & Bath Association. "Gray color schemes have witnessed a dramatic escalation since 2010, particularly over the last year," the report stated.

In 2010, only 9 percent of kitchen projects relied on gray color schemes, but by the end of 2012, 55 percent of kitchens were going gray. The increase was similar for bathrooms, from 12 percent in 2010 to 56 percent in late 2012.

According to Conlin, gray is "all over, in every magazine." It also has a starring role in Bachman's Spring Ideas House, which opens Thursday, with a color scheme of yellow, white and, of course, gray.

All grays, from palest dove to darkest charcoal, are increasingly in the color mix, but the most popular shades are "warm grays" that flirt with taupe, designers say.

Those warm undertones are one reason consumers no longer consider gray a cold, cheerless color. "It's funny — people will come in and say they want their space warm, not cold, then they show me 100 pictures of gray and white," Conlin said.

Hot stuff

Maybe it's all the heavy breathing inspired by the wildly popular erotic "Grey" novels, but steely hues are also considered sexy.

Houzz.com, the home-remodeling website, conducted an online survey last summer, asking consumers which of three bedroom color schemes best set the mood for romance. Gray won, with 77 percent of respondents choosing it over racy red (17 percent) and wedding-night white (6 percent).

"It feels like a luxury suite in a fancy hotel," one Houzz reader enthused of the "shimmering gray" bedroom pictured as part of the survey.

The hue, which is surprisingly versatile, can be glamorous or quiet and can work in wide range of interiors.

"You can make it more casual — a cottage feel with warm beachy colors. Or you can dress it up and make it more formal, with whites and patterns," said Conlin. "Any color will go with gray."

Wettleson likes to pair gray with bright hues like yellow green, fuchsia or turquoise. "Those colors work fantastically with gray," she said.

But finding just the right shade of gray for your project can be a challenge, because the undertones that make today's grays interesting can do funny things when they're interacting with all the variables in your space. A color that looks gray on a small sample or in a paint can appear purple when applied to a wall. With paint in particular, DIYers are usually smart to try several shades before commiting to one.

"Your natural light makes a huge difference when you're working with gray," said Kathy Basil, manager/buyer for Hirshfield's Design Resource.

It also can be tricky to incorporate gray into an existing color scheme, the designers agreed.

"The hardest thing about gray is combining it with things you already have," Wettleson said. "If you have the ability to start from scratch, gray is easy. It's hard to transition."

It's much easier to bring gray into a room when the woodwork is painted white, Conlin said. "It gives you a bit of contrast. In an older home with a lot of woodwork, it kind of fades away." If that describes your home, it's especially important to choose a warm shade of gray. "Go a little bit warmer than you think," she said.

And don't be afraid to dry a deep, saturated gray. Wettleson recently worked on a kitchen with dark gray enameled cabinets, set off by lighter gray walls. But the darkest shades are best used sparingly, as an accent rather than a whole room, unless the room has other features that leaven the effect. "Dark grays get heavy if you overdo it," she said.

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784