Transitional, traditional designs can be a perfect blend

For some, modern design may be just a little too sleek. For others, traditional may feel too stuffy. The answer just might be the borderline style of transitional or what I sometimes refer to as “traditional with a twist.” There’s a definite and growing movement to bring traditional design into a fresher and more relaxed state, even though elegance and history are still very much defining elements of this style.

In any case, however you choose to refer to these two remarkably similar design styles, they do represent a marriage of traditional and modern furniture, finishes, materials and fabrics, resulting in a design that’s at once as comfortable as modern and yet as classic as traditional.

Yes, the lines between these two styles are surely blurred and successfully overlapped. There’s really a balance between the two that’s achieved through simple lines that are usually straight, a neutral color scheme of mostly nonpatterned fabrics and an overall look that’s not really too masculine or too frilly, but still inviting and comfortable.

Scale isn’t overly large for either style and usually quite refined with a mostly subtle color palette such as ivory, beige and tan. When done in a neutral color, the walls can be a great backdrop for both styles and help to highlight the wonderful furnishings and accessories.

This often showcases a blending of antique furniture along with contemporary lighting. Natural elements such as stone, granite and wool are great choices, because they play a major role in both traditional and contemporary styles.

Other elements that are generally associated mainly with transitional design (but could still blend in nicely with a traditional design) include the following:

n Flooring that’s often neutral, with soft colored carpets or wood floors in warm tones, and often there’s texture in carpets because of the neutral floors.

n Window treatments that are usually simple — solid color drapes on simple metal or wooden rods. When blinds or shades are used, they’re generally clean-line Roman shades or textures such as rich woven wood blinds.

n Artwork that’s displayed with basic white mats and simple frames with clean lines.

With traditional design today, furniture is less fussy than in the past and often more comfortable as well. Balance is still a key factor, where bright, bold colors can be used just as long as they’re offset by neutral tones. A relaxed elegance can be achieved by mixing reproductions, antiques and even some contemporary pieces. (Sounds much like transitional design, doesn’t it?)

Traditional design is all about balance or symmetry — from the architecture to furniture placement — so that the space feels balanced, i.e., two chairs placed on either side of a table. In a word, furniture is often placed in more formal arrangements that invite conversation. Even the fabric patterns need to have that fundamental sense of symmetry.

With a nod to its close kinship with transitional design, in this new and more relaxed style of traditional decorating, the fabric colors and textures may seem less formal than might be expected, but they will appear no less elegant. Neutral textured fabrics can be used to make an old-fashioned sofa or chair feel current and modern-day.

For example, a key fabric can be chosen for the sofa and club chairs, mixed with some other patterns from the same color palette. Layering pattern and texture will bring more interest to the space, along with a variety of fringe, tassels and trim. What fun to do modern traditional design!

Colors aren’t usually strong with traditional design but rather laid back and mellow, with neutrals such as taupe, cream, beige and tan as dominant colors. (Once again, similar to transitional.) Deeper browns, reds, greens and blues look great in traditional interiors as well, along with tone-on-tone colors and exotic rugs.

Further, just as in the case of transitional design, furniture pieces don’t have to match. No sharp angles, lots of pillows and tailored furniture skirts help to avoid a dated look, with tufted furniture held to a minimum. Traditional design can also be updated by choosing an oversize scale and an upbeat color.

Wood furniture and finishes might be mixed and matched less strictly than in the past, just like the fabrics. And even though traditional is evolving and changing, its hallmark characteristics are still fine woodworking, craftsmanship and graceful lines. Some old and some new might be used, side-by-side, but still with a great outcome in achieving the desired design goals.

Natural woven window shades can create a very tailored look (just as in the case of transitional design) but could be crowned, for example, with traditional cornices covered with green velvet.

Finally, arrangements on the mantel should be kept simple and clean. Chrome is never used (as it might be with transitional), but metals with soft and warm undertones like brass, bronze and copper are used for lighting, along with gilt framed mirrors and artwork.

Whatever style you choose and however they might overlap, just remember to keep it simple, keep it comfortable, keep it interesting and keep it fun.

Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer and president of Soleil Design ( Questions can be sent to

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