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Ahh, traditional interior design. It's a familiar, versatile, and welcoming decorating style that favors a timeless appeal over trends. And if you're like most people in America, you've probably lived among traditional home decor at least once.
This guide will explore the defining features of traditional interior design, including expert quotes and inspiring examples. Then, we'll look at how traditional design elements can work in different rooms, so you're prepared for any decorating challenge.
Meet the Experts
We spoke with interior design experts about traditional design, its characteristics, and how to create a traditional style-inspired home. The experts included within this guide are:
"A traditional design style features elements that are timeless and comfortable," explains Yoselin Castro. "The magic is usually in the details, such as ornate fixtures, tufted furniture, and decorative trims."
"Traditional design has a formal feel to it, often incorporating antique furniture, chintz, and florals, and repeating patterns around a room," adds Maggie Stephens. However, you can introduce curated collections of comfortable, modern, or glam elements to personalize your home design.
Traditional interior design is inspired by European homes from the 18th and 19th centuries, but it can incorporate elements from around the globe. You'll also see Regence, Louis XV, Tudor, and Georgian influences.
7 Defining Characteristics of Traditional Interior Design
Today's traditional spaces feel timeless yet up-to-date, with modernized classic elements that never go out of style. As a result, a traditional-style home will feel ageless, comfortable, and cohesive when done well. But if you use the wrong details, they can feel stuffy, boring, and predictable.
It's all about creating a gorgeous space with a welcoming, relaxing atmosphere. And you can do it by focusing on these defining characteristics.
1. Elegant, European-Inspired Furniture
Traditional interior design often uses furniture pieces that draw inspiration from 18th and 19th century English and European designs. So instead of the minimalist look popular in modern design, it stands out with embellishments and antique motifs.
Traditional furniture like chairs, sofas, and tables usually feature dark wood tones, ornate carved detailing, button tufting, and eye-catching curved silhouettes. Upholstery fabric can range from simple creams to harmonious damask or paisley prints.
The Queen Anne armchair is a defining piece in traditional spaces, featuring curved lines, cabriole legs, a cushioned seat, and minimal ornamentation. You'll also see staples like clawfoot tubs, ornate accent cabinets, elegant side tables, and chaise lounge chairs.
2. Natural Materials
You'll see many natural materials — specifically wood — in traditional homes. Wool, cotton, linen, silk, and leather are commonly used in these spaces. And with natural materials comes earthy neutral colors.
Traditional interior design emphasizes decorative woodwork. Depending on the craftsman, the woodwork may feature graceful, sweeping lines or ornately carved detailing. It's common in architectural elements like intricate crown molding, built-in cabinetry, and coffered ceilings, but we'll look more at those features in the next section.
Many traditional homes also feature rich-toned hardwood flooring in the home's main living areas. Dark woods are most common, but you'll also see warm, honey-colored wood hues and even some lighter wood tones. Picking lighter wood finishes can give your space a more relaxed feel.
You'll see other natural materials throughout a traditional space in the form of textiles. For example, wool and cotton are standard in large, detailed area rugs for the living room or dining area. In addition, leather and cotton are often used for upholstery, and you'll see silk and cotton in draperies and window treatments.
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3. Architectural Details
We mentioned some architectural details above, but let's look closer at these essential components. Decorative woodwork will make up most of the architecture in the average traditional room, with elements including:
Paneling or wainscotting
If you're lucky enough to own your home, it's more than worth it to add some millwork. And if you'd like more drama than what most traditional interior design has to offer, consider looking at Victorian millwork for new ideas.
And for renters who don't have many options to upgrade the architectural features, ornate traditional furniture with carved wood elements is a good substitute.
4. Functional and Comfortable Rooms
Traditional rooms should feel like home despite all of the elegance and formality. They should be welcoming, comfortable, and functional, with soothing base colors and welcoming accents.
Try soothing, muted colors for the walls, ceiling, and maybe even the floor to capture a comfortable look. Then add the primary color using eye-catching upholstery on traditional furniture to give your space a cohesive look. Finally, use elements like side tables by chairs and sofas to introduce ornate, hand-carved detailing and add functionality.
Focus on leaving plenty of room to move around the space and incorporating storage elements (for example, an ottoman with hidden storage) to keep the room tidy. Additionally, consider the room's purpose and add features to make it friendlier and more accessible.
5. Timeless Color Palettes
Traditional interior design usually features muted, neutral walls that form the basis of the color palette in the space. But art, accents, and textiles can help add a pop of color, often with rich jewel tones like red and green. Of course, brown and dark wood tones also appear frequently.
If you're having difficulty choosing the accent colors in your palette for your traditional space, try starting with a large area rug or painting. Alternately, you can add color with ornate cabinets and base your palette on those. Either piece will function as a focal point in the room, making them perfect for building around.
Add a neutral color like off-white for the walls and a dark wood tone for your furniture or floors. Then, pick two or three colors from your chosen piece to fill out the palette.
"Palettes can be bold and saturated or pale and soft, but tend to be welcoming and not jarring or too graphic," Gates says. Navy blue, emerald green, deep red, mahogany, soft orange, natural tan, and white are examples of colors to try.
6. Shimmering Light Features
Shimmering light features such as crystal chandeliers, silver candlesticks, and elegant lampshades are essential for traditional interior design. And table lamps, floor lamps, sconces, and even ceiling lights present excellent opportunities to take advantage of intricate lampshades.
The entryway and dining room work well with chandeliers and other eye-catching light features. Try hanging a delicate crystal chandelier over your dining table or lighting your foyer with a shimmering floor lamp.
If you're looking for unique light fixtures and chandeliers, take a look at Hollywood Regency decor for updated pieces that can usually fit in with traditional styling.
7. Eye-Catching Details
"One of my favorite elements about traditional design style is definitely the charming and ornate characteristics within the details you see in cabinet hardware, light fixtures, and even the base of lounge chairs," Yoselin Castro told Living Cozy.
Eye-catching details seem to be everywhere in a well-designed traditional space, and they're essential for capturing the look. So look for opportunities to add detailing in each textile, accent, and piece of furniture or architecture.
For example, if you purchase an antique cabinet to use in your bedroom, consider replacing plain knobs with ornate drawer pulls that suit your space's style. Or, if you're choosing a dining room table, you might favor the one with carved designs on the feet.
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Traditional Interior Design Ideas By Room
Are you decorating room-by-room? We're here to help! Here are some traditional interior design ideas for your living room, bedroom, and kitchen:
Traditional Interior Design for Living Rooms
"Traditional living rooms will usually be centered around a grand fireplace as a nod to a simpler, more traditional lifestyle," says James Mellan-Matulewicz. "Complimentary furniture that's not too matchy-matchy, along with a bold, traditional wallpaper print is a great way to finish off the theme."
With a medium-sized fireplace and elegant seating area, this den makes the most of its limited square footage. Notice the large mirror over the mantle, accented by sophisticated candle holders. In addition, the mirror is positioned to reflect the chandelier, emphasizing it as a focal point in the room.
Try using a similar soft color palette with muted walls and furniture to capture this look. Then, add some houseplants (olive trees work well) for texture and life and a colorful patterned area rug to bring your seating area together. And don't forget the elegant mirror to enlarge the space, especially if you're working in a small room.
Traditional Interior Design for Bedrooms
"A traditional bedroom will typically avoid straight lines and plain surfaces," explains James Mellan-Matulewicz. "Instead, you'll see furniture and detailing with lots of shapes and decorative texture, which helps create a crafted and historical feel within the scheme."
This bedroom features a soft, floral wallpaper for a distinct traditional appeal. The blue-grey bed, neutral floor, and paneled ceiling help complete the look. And the soft, natural textiles used for the bedding create an inviting aesthetic that seems to say, "come in and take a relaxing nap."
To recreate this look, you can use a similar soft color palette in your bedroom and opt for a floral wallpaper if you can. Keep everything else light and neutral, and introduce some texture with a vase of flowers and linen bedding. And if you'd like a modern touch, add the round jute rug under the foot of the bed, or opt for Persian runners along either side for a more traditional appeal.
Traditional Interior Design for Kitchens
"Kitchens instantly come to mind when I think of traditional interior design spaces as they tend to give away the style the moment you see it," said Yoselin Castro. "As mentioned previously, the decorative details incorporated within the built-in cabinetry and the more antique fixtures and hardware are a couple of things that define a space."
This kitchen sticks to a soothing, simple color palette and uses decorative elements to create depth. The three hanging lights add style, while the large window lets in plenty of natural light to counteract the darker color of the cabinets. In addition, the space uses a vintage-style refrigerator with marble countertops and even an antique faucet to inject traditional elements into every nook and cranny.
A white, tan, blue, and dark blue palette is just one of many that'll work for a traditional kitchen — alternately, try swapping the blue for green or a Victorian-style ruby tone. Get a similar look by adding antique-style elements to your sink, cabinets, lighting, and other fixtures in the kitchen. And don't be afraid to play with patterned wallpaper or rich-toned cabinetry to inject more character into your space.
How to Get Started With Traditional Interior Design
Jumping into a new style can be intimidating, but traditional interior design is one of the most effortless looks for beginners to learn. Here are some valuable tips to get you started:
Go to Antique Shops and Flea Markets
"Go to your local antique shop, flea market, or antique mall!" recommends Maggie Stephens. "Look for beautiful antiques to incorporate into your home. Have some pieces reupholstered and use that fabric in a few spaces — for example, on the sofa and pillows on the chairs. Use modern pieces sparingly, and hide your electronics."
Now's the time to familiarize yourself with your local antique-hunting spots. Whether you're starting from scratch or adding to your existing traditional decor, you're sure to find what you're looking for.
Make a List of What You Need
"A great way for people to get started with traditional interior design at their home is making a list of things they like and also must-haves," advises Yoselin Castro. "If your goal is to bring in the traditional features through furniture, focus on the ornate details when shopping for these pieces."
You might also want a list of things you already have to keep track of your decor. Then, bring your list(s) with you when you hit up antique stores and flea markets to make choosing what to buy easier.
Pick a Color Palette
"Stick to a color palette that is warm and inviting, with patterns incorporated in fabrics," says Yoselin Castro.
Pick a color palette for each room, using roughly the same neutrals throughout the home for a cohesive look. Choose attractive, welcoming colors and add visual interest with patterned fabrics. You'll have room for two or three accent colors in each space, and less is often more.
Focus On Architectural Features
"If you prefer to achieve a traditional design through the built-in features, it's important to make a note of the architectural details in the space to determine how to make use of them," Yoselin Castro told Living Cozy. "For example, you can add crown molding into areas that are a bit more open, such as dining rooms and living rooms, and wall molding in rooms you wish to create a statement in."
Architectural details might be what you're missing if you're trying to improve an existing traditional space. So if you have the choice to modify your home, try bringing in a craftsman to upgrade your home with custom cabinetry, molding, and more.
Can You Mix Traditional Interior Design With Modern Designs?
Many traditional homes mix in modern designs for an updated appeal. This approach is prevalent in today's spaces, and interior designers often enjoy finding the right blend.
"You can absolutely mix two design styles like traditional and modern. They complement each other really well when done right!"
"You can absolutely mix two design styles like traditional and modern. They complement each other really well when done right!" comments Yoselin Castro. "Bringing in the charm from traditional decor and pairing it with the minimal approach modern furniture can create a design that feels curated and lived in."
Think about modern elements that you enjoy and what parts of traditional design don't stand out as much to you. Then, experiment with adding some contemporary pieces in the traditional components you can do without.
"Traditional design can feel stuffy, so mixing in some modern pieces can make a traditional room feel fresh," says Maggie Stephens. "The French do this well — a very traditional room with one mid-century modern statement chair. Or an elegant antique sideboard with a glowing neon art piece above it. Anything that feels like a radical departure from traditional can actually layer in quite well. I also love antique pieces that have been reinvented with a piece of bold modern upholstery fabric."
Pro Tip: Adding modern elements to traditional interior design can give your space a transitional appeal. If you like this combination, you might try looking at transitional homes for inspiration.