If you find yourself straddling the line between a classic aesthetic and a more contemporary one, rest assured knowing you don’t have to choose between the two. Transitional design allows you to combine these striking opposites to create a space that’s balanced, flexible, and of course, incredibly pretty.
What Is Transitional Design?
Transitional design combines elements of traditional design with elements of modern or contemporary design. The result is a balanced interior, which nods to classic and modern design in equal measure.
Transitional Style Defined
"Transitional design is best described as a mix between traditional and modern," Kate Shaw and Betsy Moyer, co-founders of the experiential design firm Retreat, explain. "We often look to history for functional layout plans, but many families have modern needs. We live our lives more casually these days, and mixing up traditional elements with modern comforts defines this style."
We live our lives more casually these days, and mixing up traditional elements with modern comforts defines this style.
Jessica Davis, the principal interior designer at JL Design Nashville, puts it simply: "Imagine traditional design and contemporary design had a baby." Pull elements from both aesthetics, and you'll be well on your way to a transitional interior.
Meet the Expert
- Kate Shaw and Betsy Moyer are co-founders Retreat, an experiential design firm.
- Jessica Davis is the principal interior designer at JL Design Nashville, a Nashville-based design firm.
What's the Difference Between Transitional and Traditional Style?
Transitional design may sound a lot like traditional design, but the two are not the same. Traditional design draws on classic design elements, whereas transitional design combines classic and modern design elements.
Put simply, transitional design offers a transition between traditional design and modern design.
How to Decorate in Transitional Style
Combining modern and traditional design may sound a little daunting, but if you focus on balancing the two aesthetics, you might be surprised by how easy it is to craft a transitional interior.
To help you get started, we've rounded up 21 easy-to-pull-off transitional design ideas—and we've shared even more tips from Shaw, Moyer, and Davis below.
Look to Tradition for Your Layout
Figuring out how to lay out your furniture can be a pretty daunting task, and according to Shaw and Moyer, it’s one of the most difficult things to get right when decorating your space. Their recommendation? “Look to traditional interiors for layout ideas.”
Draw on classic layouts as you make basic decisions about where to put your furniture and how high to hang your curtains. Once you’ve established a solid foundation, start sprinkling in contemporary accents.
Pull Accent Chairs From Different Eras
Accent chairs make a classic addition to any home, and if you’re designing a seating-filled space, you might end up needing a handful of accent chairs rather than just one or two. As you shop for furniture, look for opportunities to balance modern and traditional.
By snagging accent chairs from different eras, you can strike that transitional balance you’re looking for. And if you’re worried about keeping your space cohesive, look for options made from similar materials.
Set the Scene With Millwork
Crown molding and trim may seem like finishing touches, but since they read so traditional, you’ll want to factor them into your décor scheme from day one. If your living room is filled with classic millwork, it may be able to handle some seriously contemporary furniture. Make your millwork a starting point rather than a finishing touch.
Keep Your Base Layer Timeless
Finding the right balance between traditional and contemporary furniture can get tough. That’s why Shaw and Moyer like to keep things simple with a timeless base layer. “My favorite way to treat a transitional room is to fill the base layer—your large furniture pieces—with solid and timeless silhouettes,” they say.
Think of this as a capsule wardrobe for your living room: invest in classic, quality pieces you can keep for years, then layer in some contemporary fun on top.
Pair Pieces With Different Legs
When many of us consider a piece of furniture, we pay attention to features like material and silhouette. But, take a moment to look down. A piece’s legs can tell you a lot about how it will look in a room.
Knobbier, bulkier legs are likely to read traditional, while sleeker, straighter ones will read more modern. Make sure you’re pairing pieces with different legs, and you’re bound to end up with a balanced furniture scheme.
Layer Abstract Art Over Printed Wallpaper
Few accents read as traditional as printed wallpaper. If you have any in your home, consider balancing it out with a little modern art. Abstract prints should do the trick with ease.
If you keep your palette consistent from your wallpaper to your art, you should end up with a space that feels balanced and cohesive.
Keep Your Palette Soft and Neutral
Committing to a palette is always a big deal, and Shaw and Moyer recommend keeping yours as soft and neutral as possible. This will lend your space the cozy sophistication you’d expect from a traditional interior, plus it’ll make your modern statement-makers stand out even more any time you add them.
Mix and Match Your Lines
When curating your furniture, don’t just mix and match aesthetics—keep shape and silhouette in mind, too. “Mix curves with straight lines,” Shaw and Moyer say. “For example, if your sofa is a square track arm or tuxedo shape, consider a round coffee table.”
Since curves and straight lines are abundant in both modern and traditional design, it isn’t enough to mix aesthetics 50/50. If your furniture is all straight lines except for a single curvy piece, your space will look unbalanced, even if you paired aesthetics perfectly.
Hang a Set of Classic Drapes
There’s no denying it: drapes are an incredibly classic décor choice. So if a corner of your home is reading a little too modern, consider hanging a set of elegant drapes. They’ll hold their own against your sleekest furniture pieces, giving your home that balance you’re looking for.
Balance Bulky Seating With Low-Profile Tables
Traditional furniture tends to be pretty bulky—think big armchairs, cozy sofas, and plush ottomans. All that visual weight can have your aesthetic skewing very classic.
So, add contrast by keeping the rest of your furniture incredibly sleek. Look for modern pieces with skinny legs and low-profile silhouettes. They’ll offset your bulkiest buys, returning your space to equilibrium.
Sprinkle in Pops of Color
“Transitional style usually sticks to a light and neutral color scheme,” Shaw and Moyer say. That subdued palette keeps the space both sophisticated and versatile, giving you the flexibility to play with accent pieces. But, that doesn’t mean color is off the menu entirely.
Be sure to sprinkle in a few pops of color—Shaw and Moyer specifically recommend it. And if you’re worried about these accents overwhelming your space, favor colors that are bold but not vibrant like navy or forest green.
Keep Pattern Mixing to a Minimum
Prints abound in tons of décor schemes, but you won’t find many in transitional design. “Transitional style keeps pattern mixing to a minimum to maintain the sophistication that the style embodies,” Shaw and Moyer say.
The designers recommend keeping your biggest pieces solid and simple, then using your upholstered décor to sprinkle in a few dynamic prints.
Combine Sleek and Rustic Materials
Material goes a long way in making a space feel traditional or contemporary, so be sure to mix and match your materials as much as you’re mixing and matching your furniture. Sleek marble countertops are all-but-guaranteed to read modern, but pair them with rustic wooden shelves and textured woven chairs, and you’ll be well on your way to a transitional space.
Pair a Classic Couch With Modern Lighting
A swing-arm sconce may seem out of place in a room with a plush white couch, but in transitional design, opposites really do attract. Don’t be afraid to pair your bulkiest piece of furniture with your sleekest light fixture.
Layer Two Different Rugs
The layered rug trend is an excellent way to cozy up your space, and since it involves two pieces of décor, it’s a great opportunity to pair contemporary with traditional. To get the look, layer a printed rug over a solid-colored one. Pair a boldly patterned rug with a plush traditional one, or keep your print more refined and your solid option sleek.
Use Leather to Bridge the Gap
Traditional and modern design don’t have much in common, but there is one material that abounds in both aesthetics: leather. If you’re looking for ways to soften the boundaries between your coziest and sleekest pieces, consider adding some leather. A tufted leather armchair can read both modern and traditional, depending on its silhouette, and a leather ottoman can do the same.
Favor Warmer Colors
What’s one simple thing you can do to make your space feel more transitional? “Introduce some warm tones to your color palette,” Davis says. These shades will make your space feel homey and traditional, and if you render the colors in sleek silhouettes, they should leave your space feeling pretty modern, too.
Edit Down Your Decorative Touches
To strike the right balance between traditional sophistication and sleek modernity, you’ll want to keep your space pretty pared down. “Accessorize with spare touches to keep the overall room somewhat minimal,” Shaw and Moyer say.
Don’t clutter a room with all the décor you can find. Embrace white space, and choose your decorative accents thoughtfully.
Play With Texture
When crafting a transitional interior, you’ll want to stick with solid-colored pieces in a pretty subdued palette. This means you can’t rely on go-to touches like prints and colors to make your space feel more dynamic.
One thing you can play with is texture. “Mix textures among your upholstery and pillows,” Shaw and Moyer recommend. Since these pieces are largely temporary, you can swap them out whenever your tastes change.
Look for Places to Add Personality
“Transitional can really easily read as boring,” Shaw and Moyer say, adding that it’s the “safe style choice” for many modern homes. This may be dismaying news. But remember, it’s a word of warning—not a guarantee.
“By definition, the style is the space between traditional and modern, two opposing ends of the style spectrum,” they say. “Make sure to inject your personality and a variety of textures to get a dynamic and interesting space.”
Don’t Veer Too Far in Either Direction
As you craft your transitional interior, don’t worry about striking a perfect 50/50 balance between contemporary and traditional. Just be sure not to veer too far in either direction. “Homeowners must remember that the key is to balance both styles,” Davis says.
Try to keep the big picture in mind as you decorate each room in your home, and focus on crafting a space you love. After all, you were drawn to the aesthetic for a reason, so staying true to what looks good to you could be the key to crafting a balanced space.