The Absolute Best Nail Designs Of 2021

This year saw a lot of stunning new trends and creativity with nail design. Expressive colors and blends of texture gave us tons of show-stopping looks. Personalization has become more popular too, as nail artists have been tasked with coming up with unique and expressive styles for their clients. Instagram continues to be the perfect place to display nail art, with its hashtagging community of nail aficionados. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Megan Thee Stallion often share photos of their nail designs, and are good barometers of what is trending.

Whether you're searching for the perfect winter nails, or something more timeless and versatile, there is plenty of nail inspiration to be found by looking at what has been popular in 2021. From fresh takes on the classic French manicure to nails inspired by "Squid Games" that will make you run to your local nail salon, this year has offered a nice mix of creative and beautiful sets.

Vampy edges

This modern take on the French manicure has been a very popular nail design in 2021. A vampy color combo of black and nude pink, in particular, will have you channeling your inner Morticia Addams. With delicate tips that stand out, this slim version of a French manicure is sure to turn heads. Having one or two nails fully painted also gives you a chance to show off your polish, which is great if you choose one with some subtle glitter, as above. The Trend Spotter also suggests that the dainty French manicure is easily achievable at home.

The dark color palette is unusual for a French style, but great for your autumn and winter wardrobe or if you gravitate towards darker colors anyway. According to Byrdie, several French manicure adaptations have been appearing this year, such as rainbow or glitter tips. It goes to show that this style is here to stay, even if the form may continue to evolve. It will be interesting to see if the slim style tips remain popular in 2022, and perhaps there will be further developments for this trendy design.

Teeny, tiny details

For those who prefer subtle additions you have to lean in to admire, these nails on Instagram are perfect. Not showy or in your face, manicures with tiny designs and accents allow you to be expressive while keeping your nails simple. This look can be copied with a lot of patience and brush skill — or with some tiny stickers, such as the ones recommended by Byrdie. Either way, choosing a small design to accent your nails will have people curiously leaning in to get a peek at your mani.

The options are endless, but in general, you want to choose a tiny design that does not have too much detail. For that reason, intricate portraits are probably out. But if you have a favorite fruit or want to try to paint something freehand, there are lots of images which you can incorporate to make this style your own. It's no surprise that this year people wanted to have something on their nails that would make them smile.

Mixing matte and gloss

Blending gloss and matte polishes allows room for creativity in your manicure. You can start with one as your base and apply the other on the tips to stand out.

This look from Kiara Sky Nails on Instagram is incredible. The neutral mixed tones match any outfit and are the perfect color scheme for autumn and winter. Though there are five colors in play — 10 if you count the gloss tones separately — the look is still unified and simple. With those glossy squared tips, this is the complete package for a classy and mature nail manicure.

Just about any matte style would look great with a glossy accent. You don't need to have super long nails to achieve this look either, although it certainly is striking if you do. The simplicity of the style also means that this can easily be done at home with the right polish and some steady hands.

Simple abstract side waves

Adaptations of the French manicure have been in demand, according to an article from The New York Times. Above, we see another elegant twist on the French manicure, these side tips and waves take the classic color combo and elevate it dramatically. The abstract design would work with other colors as well, but looks amazing even in this simple set. These nails are still perfect for professional settings, but expressive and beautiful as well. Plus, having a slightly different design on each nail shows creativity, though this set is still uniform in color and style.

Since it isn't too dramatic, this style should be achievable at most nail salons or even with your own steady hand. Make sure you refer to a picture so that you can join the wavy French manicure wave. If you want to take the style up one more notch, you could add in gemstone accents or a glitter topcoat and keep the look while adding your own personal touch. PopSugar even has a guide with several glittery styles. The simpler the look, the more versatile it is, and it's able to be customized however you'd like.

3D nail designs

Although 3D nail art is nothing new, there have definitely been some innovations for the trend this year. This style is amazing because of its versatility. Expression is key when you go for 3D nail art, whether you're asking for seasonal blends of images and shapes or even something whimsically abstract. From clouds and rainbows to mermaid tails and teddy bears, the options are endless if you want to incorporate some sculpture into your nail set.

Jelly nails with 3D designs, in particular, were blowing up this summer, according to Allure. The publication pointed out that achieving this style likely requires a nail technician who has that skill, but there are options available online if you want to purchase pre-made press-on 3D nail designs. You could even try to do it yourself following this Cosmopolitan tutorial. But if you'd rather leave it to the experts, you should probably call ahead and see if your local nail salon is able to do 3D designs before you head over.

Daisy nail art

Some celebrities have been gravitating towards floral nails this year, particularly daisies. Hailey Bieber showed off similar nails on Instagram in 2020, but the trend was still going strong in 2021. This floral look is great particularly because it offers a feminine touch and a reminder of the simple things in life.

We all remember stopping to smell the flowers as children, and having them on your nails can be a nice reminder of the fun and beauty of nature. Plus, these will match just about anything you wear, serving as a showpiece that people are sure to admire. Daisies are great because the style is simple, and they're easier to freehand paint than more complex flowers, even if you also include a stem painted along with the petals. There are also stickers and stamps available that will help you get this look for yourself. You can also get creative with the color scheme!

Individual yet collective

Some this year opted for nails that were individually expressive, like this poolside set on Instagram. Each individual nail tells a story about the person wearing it, but together they scream summer fun. From the emoji to the clouds, these nails have a lot going on, yet there is a unity to the look. Having nails that are each separate in style is a fashion risk, but this year people were jumping on the trend and nailing it. It's important not to cluster super similar styles or colors together. As you can see, this set spaces out the different colors so that they each pop.

This look isn't only for summertime either, as you could get different floral designs on each nail for spring, or wintery themes on each nail for the holidays. The best thing about having all different nails is that you are free to choose what images and colors you want to express yourself with. Luckily, Glamour reports that the mismatched nail trend is here to stay. Time to let loose and have some fun with your nails.

Glam metallic nails with gem accents

At the 2021 Met Gala, actress Cynthia Erivo rocked an incredible silver manicure, as noted by Just Jared. The detail of beads and metallic stones made this style pop, and with the subtle red and blue stones, you know she was following the gala's "In America" theme. According to Style Craze, metallic hues were popular in varied shades of silver, gold, rose gold, and more. Even bronze looked great, so, if you want to try this trend, you're safe and in style no matter what metallic color you choose!

This look can be replicated at home with some tiny rhinestones and your own shade of metallic nail polish. You'll be left with a striking textured design that is at once glamorous and, to be honest, a little intimidating. Be sure to accessorize with some sparkly jewelry, as these nails are fit for a stylish queen.

Cultural references

The hand-painted nails seen above display images recognizable from the Netflix show "Squid Game." This sort of nail style was trending in 2021, according to Nylon, as folks asked for designs that showed off their love for various cultural phenomena, particularly shows and celebrities. According to The Guardian, the "manicure has been elevated to an art form." This is certainly the case when it comes to the detailed and beautiful designs that some nail artists were able to pull off in 2021.

Some nail artists even went viral for their ability to create gorgeous nail sets by hand. TikTok star Vivian Xue found success by sharing her artistic process, as she painted custom nails with designs from "Harry Potter," Disney movies, and more. The amount of detail and care she puts into her work is clear to see, and we don't doubt that this trend of making cultural reference through nail designs will well continue beyond this year.

Hand-painted artwork

These are Kylie Jenner's "Pucci" nails, which she posted on Instagram this year. You can tell from the detail that these are hand-painted and required a lot of skill to execute. The abstract, geometric designs are reminiscent of Emilio Pucci's designer brand aesthetic and are perfect for pairing with a retro look. "Pucci" nail art has actually been a trend this year, according to PopSugar. Timeless and refined, these nails combine multiple colors in fun patterns. So if you're a fan of vintage aesthetics, you may have found yourself with a mani like this in 2021.

Clearly any nail artist who did this nail design in 2021 spent a lot of time getting the details just right. However, given that freehand styles tend to be more expensive at your local salon, fans of this trend may have opted to purchase hand-painted sets online to apply themselves, which would also certainly take less time than a salon visit.

Window tips

In 2021, people were making their nails into windows ... kind of. This trendy look involves wearing clear tips, often alongside hand painted designs. These are eye-catching, but will definitely require you to have the right length to really make an impact. Of course, you will need to be wearing false nails for this look, as natural nails are not transparent. While it's possible to achieve this look at home, it'll be much easier to head to a salon instead! Ask your nail salon if this is something they can do for you, and prepare to be the star of the show while wearing this unique style.

Perfect for special occasions, these window nails offer lots of room for expression. It is certainly one of the more innovative trends this year, seeming to play off of the stained-glass window nail art trend that was popular in 2020, according to PopSugar. The window nail style works well for photoshoots or other moments when your hands need to look amazing.

Stamp designs

Stamping has been around for a while, and it isn't going anywhere. This year, we saw geometric patterns in particular, which are perfect for stamped sets. You can also do stamping with floral or leaf designs, as seen above. This style is perfect if you want to go over an existing color and versatile since you don't necessarily need to stamp each nail. You can have just a few nails showcase the stamped design while other nails are left a solid color. Or you could stamp once with one color and again with another to create an interesting look. The options are endless, and there are many stamps online you can buy and play around with, as noted by NailPro.

If you don't have a stamp, but can't wait to try this look out, there are even household items you can use. A sponge or newspaper will work as a budget-friendly option for picking up the polish and stamping it onto your nail. Experiment with what you have to see the possibilities with nail stamping.

Statement nail

One gorgeous nail style involves having one nail chosen for an intricate design in an otherwise simple look. You can select a single nail on each hand to wear the more complicated design, or even just one nail for the whole set of 10. This is your statement nail. The style elevates a simple manicure without involving too much work since only one or two nails will be showcasing the design. This is a great option if you have a nail technician who is skilled in freehand painting and can spend a little time making something special for you. Floral designs, as seen above, are one great choice, as noted by Byrdie. You can also incorporate geometric designs, or some 3D detail into your statement nail.

If you are doing nails at home, but don't have the skill to design a statement nail yourself, you could use a false nail with an intricate design rather than attempting to paint on your own. The rest of the nails you can do as normal, while selecting just the one to stand out from a premade set. Or you can choose to have your statement nail simply be a different color, according to L'Oréal Paris.

Intricate initials

This year, we saw many more choosing designs with initials and messages, hand-painted or stamped onto nails. These are a great way to express yourself, particularly if you have a short message to convey or want to wear your initials or those of a loved one. Stylized letters can elevate an otherwise simple manicure with a monogram. Rather than displaying a logo, which is so 2019 (via Elle), you can make your own initials the star of the show. You could even put your phone number on your nails, if you dare.

Perfect for airbrush stencils, these can also be done by hand, though it would certainly take longer. Incorporating some gemstones or other accessories will also kick your look up a notch. Iridescent gems bring attention to the glam set of nails above, the perfect choice to pair with contrasting pink and black polish. These small details may seem minor, but they pull the entire look together.

Airbrush sets

Airbrushed nails allow for hyper-detailed images that tell a story, often achieved with the use of a stencil. The gorgeous palm trees seen above were surely achieved by spraying over a stencil cutout, and the ombre color scheme is also one thing well-suited to airbrushed nail art. Having some escapist art on your nails may help keep your mood lifted, as you can always glance down at your nails between zoom meetings. It's no wonder that this year people were often opting for bright, expressive nail designs rather than the typical and basic.

The airbrush technique brings all sorts of imagery to life, and offers accuracy and perfection that often isn't available from freehand painting with polish. Imagine trying to hand-paint those palm trees! Tiny details and outlines make airbrushed nails the ideal choice if you want something highly complex on your nails. It makes sense that this style has made a comeback after falling out of style for a while, as PopSugar reported. There are some styles you really just need an airbrush for.