Transitional Style Design 101: Tips, Tricks, & Expert Advice

Transitional Style Living Room
Have you ever felt pulled between modern and traditional design styles? If so, transitional style interior design might be a good fit for your home decor. Transitional decor incorporates design elements from the past and present, creating a cohesive appeal that's hard to deny.

The transitional style is highly versatile and customizable with a blend of contemporary, modern, and traditional elements. You can combine masculine and feminine styling, antique and contemporary pieces, and old and new design ideas to suit your tastes.

This guide explores transitional style, comparing modern, contemporary, and traditional interior design. We've also included a simple guide to help you capture transitional style home design in any room. So keep reading for decorating ideas, design inspiration, and expert advice.

What Is Transitional Style?

Transitional Style Living Room
Credit: Kara O'Connor Interiors

"Transitional style refers to the style that is between traditional and contemporary," explains Anna Franklin. "This style incorporates clean lines but is not overly contemporary and offers a warm, comfortable feeling that a contemporary design often does not have."

The transitional look also banishes stuffy vibes from traditional and classic design styles, incorporating simpler, more modern lines. According to Kara O'Connor, it's "rooted in traditional design, but often with updated patterns, colors, texture, and scale of Contemporary and of-the-moment design trends."

Transitional styling allows you to create a diverse blend of interior design styles throughout the eras, eliminating the need to choose between the past and present. And by finding a balance that makes everything work together, you can make each room represent your unique personality and lifestyle.

Transitional Style Dining Space

Traditional vs. Transitional

Traditional interior design features home decor and furniture inspired by homes found in countries like England and France during the 18th and 19th centuries. While traditional styles might feature less ornamentation than those in the past, the classic lines, traditional architectural elements, and overall decorating style are similar.

Traditional rooms and floor plans are designed for comfort and functionality, focusing on harmony in each room. These spaces often feature:

  • Symmetrical placement: Traditional rooms often feature classic symmetrical placement of furniture. For example, side tables at either end of a living room sofa or nightstands flanking an intricate wooden headboard.
  • Architectural elements: Many traditional spaces feature architectural details like crown molding on cabinetry or wainscoting in the walls.
  • Neutral palettes: Traditional color palettes often feature subtle neutrals, dark wood finishes, and muted tones with minimal use of bright or bold colors.
  • Subtle walls: The walls of a traditional home often feature light neutral tones with accents like wallpaper to add subtle patterns or classic motifs (such as damask or floral prints).
  • Luxurious textiles: Traditional spaces often feature eye-catching upholstery with natural, luxurious materials like silk, fur, wool, velvet, and thick cotton.

"Traditional style tends to consist of more substantial furniture, which is often more decorative," explains Kara O'Connor. "Think Chesterfield sofas and carved wood tables. Traditional design often leans toward symmetrically balanced spaces and repeating patterns on a few surfaces in a room."

Transitional interior design pulls on these fun, traditional elements and mixes them with modern and contemporary looks. It pays homage to traditional interior design components, but it blends in crisp and straight lines, pops of color, modern design elements, and a dash of minimalism.

Contemporary vs. Transitional

Contemporary design is rooted in the future instead of the past. It's all about what's happening right now, so it's an ever-evolving style that moves with the times. But don't worry, interior design doesn't change so quickly that we cannot explore what it means in our present time.

Today's contemporary homes often feature:

  • Crisp lines: Contemporary style is full of crisp lines that create strong silhouettes. You'll see homes that feature sharp, geometric shapes and others with smooth, flowing forms, but crisp lines are still present in the bold color blocks, high ceilings, and large windows.
  • A mix of materials: Contemporary homes often feature materials including stone, metal, clear glass, and opaque glass. Combining them creates a juxtaposition of industrial and natural elements for greater visual interest.
  • Open spaces: Spacious floorplans and expansive open designs are popular in contemporary design, allowing each area to flow into the next seamlessly. High ceilings and large windows help add to the airy appeal.
  • Subtle, clever colors: Many contemporary homes feature primarily neutral colors like black, grey, and white. But the style also includes intentional pops of bold, bright colors to add a sense of dynamism, bringing each room to life.

Contemporary design is rooted in the now, and transitional pulls from this to introduce current elements into each space. Bright pops of color, large open spaces, a mix of materials, and clear, crisp lines blend effortlessly with elements of traditional interior design, creating the timeless look that is transitional style.

Modern vs. Transitional

Modern style is linked to interior design from the early to mid-1900s, during the height of the modern art movement. It draws inspiration from German Bauhaus and Scandinavian styles, focusing on form and function. Mid-century modern style was birthed from modern interior design in the 1950s and 1960s.

Many interior designers use the term "modern" to refer to both mid-century modern and classic modern interior design. The two looks feature many of the same elements, with the primary difference being that classic modern style keeps decorative elements to a minimum, whereas mid-century modern embraces them.

Common elements of modern style include:

  • Natural materials: Mid-century modern and classic modern interior design embraces natural elements like wood, metal, and leather. Mid-century spaces often feature vinyl, plastic, and acrylic components to provide contrast with these raw materials.
  • Minimalist style: Modern style draws inspiration from Scandinavian interior design, which is minimalist and unadorned. While mid-century modern adds more ornamentation than classic modern, it still emphasizes uncluttered spaces and simple, sleek furniture.
  • Simple palettes: Mid-century modern homes typically feature bright colors against neutral tones like black, white, and wood. Classic modern style has a more reserved approach to color and often favors a monochromatic palette.
  • Form follows function: Modern style focuses on form and function, but mid-century and classic modern styles place function ahead of form. The most important quality in furniture or a floorplan is functionality, and no piece should be without a purpose.

While modern style is distinctly different from traditional, transitional styling brings them together. So, for example, you might see a traditional dining room featuring wainscotting and a chandelier, paired with a mid-century-style dining table, complete with angled, tapered legs and an acrylic top.

How To Create a Transitional Style Room

Interior design is a careful mix of following the rules and breaking them to capture your style. With a transitional style, there's a lot of wiggle room to find what works for you and skip what doesn't. These guidelines will help you create transitional spaces you love.

Keep It Simple

"To get started creating a transitional style room, figure out how to layout the furniture," recommends Stacy Lewis. "Pare down the number of accessories for a simple, streamlined look. It is important that there's not one thing that jumps out over the other elements. Instead, it should all blend nicely to create a soothing space."

The transitional style works best with a timeless and straightforward foundation, allowing you to layer in elements that appeal to you. "I like to 'strip away' all the noise," explains Kristin Patrician. "When trying to design in this style, stay away from over-accessorized areas, loud textures or colors, and heavy furniture pieces."

Find an Accent

Transitional Style Sitting Room
Credit: Kara O'Connor Interiors

Transitional spaces work well when designed around an accent that will serve as a visual centerpiece. For example, you might invest in a striking coffee table to place in your living room like we see above and build the rest of the room from there. This transitional living room incorporates a hanging light and a neutral-toned rug to draw the eye to the ornate coffee table at the center of the room.

The accent can be any style, as long as it makes a statement. For example, if you prefer contemporary furniture, you might try a modern, low-to-the-ground chenille sectional sofa as your living room accent instead.

Mix Old and New

"Transitional design is all about balancing old (traditional) and new (contemporary), and the key is to mix elements that are modern and traditional," explains Kara O'Connor. "To create a transitional space, incorporate ornate items, such as a mirror with a unique frame, placed on or mounted on the wall above a simple, contemporary credenza or dresser. The mix of these elements is what creates a transitional feel in a space."

Consider your favorite traditional and contemporary styling elements, then find ways to bring them together. For example, suppose you love mid-century modern styling. In that case, you might choose rattan bar stools for a transitional kitchen island to contrast the traditional-style wainscotting and countertops in the room.

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Embrace Neutral Colors

Neutral colors are a shared element between the styles that transitional decor encompasses, and they're essential to capturing the look. "A transitional color palette typically consists of white and neutral hues, with deep blues and greens mixed in throughout the space," says Anna Franklin.

"Transitional style tends to have neutral color palettes. Neutral wall colors serve as a perfect backdrop for furniture, statement pieces, and artwork," adds Stacy Lewis. "Soft beige, brown, and taupe are all perfect colors for a transitional style space."

Use pops of color sparingly, using them to guide the visual experience of the room. For example, it's natural to notice bright colors in a neutral space, and your eye will then see similar colors throughout the room. So, if you place three accents of the same color in your living room, they'll guide the gaze smoothly between them — this allows you to choose the focus points of your space with strategic placement.

Comfortable and Durable Furnishings

Transitional Interior Design

A transitional space should be comfortable and welcoming, with furnishings that will last for years to come. "Transitional style is all about clean, simple, and serene sophistication, created through the use of comfortable and durable furnishings, muted colors, and simple textures," Kristin Patrician told Living Cozy.

So, whether you're opting for traditional or modern furniture, look for high-quality craftsmanship and a comfy design. Transitional style banishes any cold vibes from contemporary style and stuffy looks from traditional decor, creating an inviting appeal that invites you to sit and stay for a while.

Look for comfortable upholstery and textures, too. Fabrics with luxurious, velvety textures work well, as they help create a polished yet cozy appeal. Add texture with throw pillows, window treatments, and area rugs to give the room added visual appeal.

Opt for Modern Lighting

Transitional lighting
Credit: Kara O'Connor Interiors

Modern lighting works well in transitional spaces, offering a safe way to add funky, contemporary styling to your home. Many modern light fixtures have the power to update almost anything, from antique furniture to traditional artwork, cutting through the traditional vibe for a transitional style.

For example, you might hang a quirky pendant light over an antique-style dining set, creating a balance of formal traditional and clean, modern lines. If you must use traditional-style lighting, keep it small and consider surrounding it with contemporary accents to balance the look and feel.

Stick to Traditional Layouts

Deciding where to put your furniture might sound intimidating, but it gets easier if you stick to traditional layouts. Look at traditional interior design to get ideas on where to place your furniture in each room. "It's best to keep things simple by committing to a timeless base, so it's easier to layer it with a contemporary touch," recommends Stacy Lewis.

Traditional layouts are also helpful if you need guidelines for things like window treatments, walkways through your home, and what furniture pieces to use in each space. These layouts can also help add layers to your design, giving guests more to explore visually. For example, many transitional areas might at first appear traditional because of the layout, but your eye takes in the modern elements as it relaxes in the space.

Meet the Experts

Living Cozy works with interior designers and leading brands in the industry to bring you top-quality information and advice on everything home and furniture. For this article, we consulted with the following experts:

Written by
Shelby Golding
Shelby Golding is a Colorado-based writer/editor with over a decade of experience. She has a college education in interior design and enjoys woodworking in her free time.
Shelby Golding
Written by
Shelby Golding
Shelby Golding is a Colorado-based writer/editor with over a decade of experience. She has a college education in interior design and enjoys woodworking in her free time.
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