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Traditional, Transitional, or Contemporary: Discovering Your Design Style

If you don’t have much experience with interior design, it can be more than a little intimidating to try to get started. No matter how much time you’ve spent looking at other houses, magazine spreads, or pictures online, if you don’t know how to describe them, you’re going to have trouble articulating what it is you do and don’t like. This beginner’s guide is designed to walk you through the three most common and broadest categories of interior design to help you get a feel for your own sense of style.

Traditional

The lush fabrics, ornate woodwork, and intimate layout of this living room all exemplify a traditional style (by Archer and Buchanan Architecture)
The lush fabrics, ornate woodwork, and intimate layout of this living room all exemplify a traditional style (by Archer and Buchanan Architecture)

Traditional design is just what it sounds like: a style that’s heavily steeped in tradition. Think high backed upholstered chairs, thick draperies, ornate molding and wainscoting, and elaborate antique lighting fixtures. In a traditional space, everything should be plush and luxurious, with lots of rich upholstery, overstuffed seats, and warm toned wood. More than any other style, traditional spaces have a sense of old world formality, and tend to have a sense of balance and symmetry that more contemporary designs may abandon.

Layered fabrics in coordinated neutral tones make this bedroom lush and inviting, while a few elegant details (the chandelier and headboard in particular) give it a sophisticated finish (by J. Hirsch Interior Design, LLC)
Layered fabrics in coordinated neutral tones make this bedroom lush and inviting, while a few elegant details (the chandelier and headboard in particular) give it a sophisticated finish (by J. Hirsch Interior Design, LLC)

Though they aren’t necessarily populated with antiques or modeled after any particular historical period, traditional styled furniture should exhibit an attention to detail, with fine woodwork, high quality fabrics, and often intricate patterns, particularly floral designs. By and large, traditional design features a soft, neutral palette of off white, beige, and dusky pastels, but wood-heavy designs may also be paired with vivid gem tones for a space with a more masculine look and feel. Regardless of the color scheme, traditional spaces are defined by refinement, elegance, and luxury, and have the most formal feel of any design style.

Contemporary or “Modern”

Simple lines, high ceilings, and large windows all give this contemporary living room a crisp, fresh appearance and an austere sense of elegance (by Stuart Silk Architects, photo by Alex Hayden)
Simple lines, high ceilings, and large windows all give this contemporary living room a crisp, fresh appearance and an austere sense of elegance (by Stuart Silk Architects, photo by Alex Hayden)

Contemporary design is the polar opposite of traditional design. Also sometimes referred to as “modern” design (though this is technically a misnomer), contemporary style has an eye on the present and future rather than the past. Rather than intricate details and lush features, contemporary design is all about stark simplicity, with smooth angular lines, flat planes, and minimal embellishment. Where a traditional design focuses on plush, intimate spaces, a contemporary decor is wide and open, with lots of natural light, hard floors, and high ceilings that emphasize the beauty of empty spaces rather than objects.

Contemporary design is often less about the furnishings and more about using geometry and neat lines and angles to create a sense of openness and simple elegance (by Griffin Enright Architects)
Contemporary design is often less about the furnishings and more about using geometry and neat lines and angles to create a sense of openness and simple elegance (by Griffin Enright Architects)

Black, white, off-white, gray, and other light neutrals are the most common colors in a contemporary decor, but there’s much more room in this style to get creative with bold pops of color or unusual finishes. This is the one design type where a high gloss finish works really well, and since contemporary spaces have so little adornment, simply contrasting a gloss and matte finish can be quite visually interesting. If traditional design is elegant in an old world sense, contemporary design is elegant in a new world sense, focusing less on accumulation and coordination of items and more about the beauty of a simple, uncluttered geometry.

Transitional

This living room combines simple, square lines with plush furniture and lots of natural, neutral fabrics for a perfect transitional feel (by Tiffany Eastman Interiors, LLC, photo by Hulya Kolabas)
This living room combines simple, square lines with plush furniture and lots of natural, neutral fabrics for a perfect transitional feel (by Tiffany Eastman Interiors, LLC, photo by Hulya Kolabas)

Transitional design is easily the most common and most popular style right now, because it acts as a sort of compromise between these two extremes; most other design styles fall somewhere in this middle zone, making “transitional” something of a catch-all term. If a traditional style seems too ornate or old fashioned, or a contemporary style seems too stark and minimalist, a transitional design offers the best of both worlds, with a look that’s both comfortable and uncluttered. Transitional furniture is more padded and inviting looking than contemporary styles, but simpler and more streamlined in terms of design than more traditional furnishings.

The simple, square lines of this canopy bed lend a contemporary feel to a very traditional furnishing, creating a transitional bedroom that's both elegant and relaxed (Photo by Dustin Peck, design by Design Lines, Ltd, architecture by Dean Marvin Malecha)
The simple, square lines of this canopy bed lend a contemporary feel to a very traditional furnishing, creating a transitional bedroom that’s both elegant and relaxed (Photo by Dustin Peck, design by Design Lines, Ltd, architecture by Dean Marvin Malecha)

As with a traditional style, transitional rooms tend toward the warm neutral end of the color spectrum, but while they lack bold, colorful accents, texture is almost as important in a transitional design as it is in a contemporary one. Textured fabrics and upholstery and even textured flooring (like hand scraped wood or shale) lend visual interest to a transitional space without making it feel busy. You probably don’t want to go for high-gloss anything, but mixing and matching a subtle sheen with natural fibers works well for this middle of the road style. In their own ways, both contemporary and traditional styles can be very formal and rigid, but a transitional look is much more relaxed and casual, with a simplicity that isn’t overly spare, and a sense of comfort that isn’t excessively decadent.

Of course, there are many more styles than these, and many ways to combine, reinterpret, or put your own personal twist on any and all of them. But nearly all design choices fall somewhere on this spectrum, with a few distinctive features that set them apart. But though this guide is a fairly simple one, it should give you a solid place to get started talking about what you and your family do and don’t like, and what you eventually want your home to look like. Keep an eye out for our upcoming guides to more specific styles, and let me know where your taste leans in the comments below!