A mix of curated contemporary and timeless traditional, transitional is the one design style that tends to confuse homeowners most. The good news is it’s perfect for family members with different tastes (here’s looking at you, newlyweds) as it’s really more of a combination of the two most popular design styles: traditional and contemporary.
Refined and sophisticated without feeling stuffy or taking itself too seriously, the transitional style feels more upscale than eclectic design, which also features a mix of styles. Like a maestro conducting an orchestra, it requires skillful control and coordination, not to mention careful consideration when choosing furniture and accessories because it’s easy to go too far in one direction. The best examples of transitional design produce a rich, layered look with plenty of balance and symmetry without sacrificing personality, warmth, and hominess; it’s casual elegance at its finest.
That said, transitional is also one of the most flexible design styles. If you decide to switch up the look of your home down the road, it’s easy to make tweaks from a transitional style to a mid-century modern or bohemian aesthetic, for example.
It’s important to note that sometimes people refer to the transitional style as a cross between traditional and modern, but modern refers to a past era, mainly the 1940s-1960s. Contemporary design, however, refers to what is popular now and what’s likely to be popular in the future. As a result, when designers and homeowners talk about transitional style, they’re actually referring to a cross between traditional and contemporary.
If you’d love a mix of the two, here are a few guidelines to consider when decorating your home in a transitional style.
Establish Your Base Style
Just as it’s easy to stray too far into the traditional or the contemporary, it’s also difficult to mix the two equally, so it’s best not to try. If you go there, the result can end up looking a bit confused, like a room that doesn’t know exactly what it is and therefore doesn’t know how to make you feel. Decide which style, whether traditional or contemporary, you give more preference to — even if it’s slight — and make that the anchor of the room. Your largest or most show-worthy piece should be in this style, with elements from the other style layered in.
Pare Down the Color Palette
Neutral colors and a tone-on-tone palette dominate transitional design, with only a few colors tossed into the mix. In fact, transitional rooms have furniture and accessories in no more than a handful of subdued hues with a brighter, bolder shade as the focal point. (When decorating in this style it’s less about pops of color and more about a single pop of color.) The similar shades lead the eye comfortably around the room before settling on the most eye-catching spot. It’s a great way to emphasize a vase filled with fresh-cut flowers, a favorite memento from past travels, or a beloved piece of art.
Let Opposites Play Off Each Other in the Kitchen
In the kitchen, it’s easy to mix and match materials to create a transitional style. A pair of shaker-style cabinets paired with warm, wood floors and a neutral backsplash in a herringbone pattern create the perfect combination of transitional and contemporary. Whether you have a breakfast nook, a large island, a dining room, or all the above, a transitional style is also easy to achieve without major remodeling. Try pairing traditional tables and countertop styles with contemporary chairs or stools — or vice versa.
Look for Furnishings in a Similar Scale
For a transitional style to work throughout the entire home, things need to look like they belong together, even if they invoke different design styles. For example, tables or lamps with similar silhouettes and sizes create a nice balance that’s appealing to the eye, even if one has more traditional or contemporary details than the other. If you have one large or bold piece, make sure there’s at least one more equally impressive piece in the room. If dainty accessories pop up on a side table, echo that same sense of scale on a mantel with candelabras and other treasures. Whatever you do, try to keep the furniture, the accessories, and the overall decor similar in size and scale for continuity and uniformity.
Carefully Curate Accessories
While traditional design tends to emphasize collections and perfect pairs of, well, everything, transitional style takes a step towards minimalism. Only a few carefully selected accessories are placed in each room. If textiles and decorative objects have lots of color and patterns, they tend to be simple and there tends to be few of them. A great example of a transitional vignette is to place a pair or quad of bamboo frames with pictures of birds or some other reference to nature above a contemporary chest or console table that has only one or two objects placed on top.
Frame Your Natural Light Source
Nothing shapes a room like windows and window treatments. If it’s a transitional style you’re after, keep windows and window treatments crisp, clean, and classic, with few wild patterns or bold colors to distract the eye. Instead, create a neutral backdrop from which all the other pieces in a room can contrast. Look to windows as an opportunity not only to set the foundation of each space but also to bring it all together in a neat, timeless package.
Whether you’re thinking of redesigning or you’re starting from scratch, the transitional style is one of the design world’s most classic and timeless looks.
Ana Connery is former content director of Parenting, Babytalk, Pregnancy Planner and Conceive magazines as well as parenting.com.
While editor in chief of Florida Travel & Life magazine from 2006-2009, she covered the state’s real estate and home design market as well as travel destinations.
She’s held senior editorial positions at some of the country’s most celebrated magazines, including Latina, Fitness and Cooking Light, where she oversaw the brand’s “FitHouse” show home.
Ana’s expertise is frequently sought after for appearances on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and CNN. She has interviewed the country’s top experts in a variety of fields, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and First Lady Michelle Obama.