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Transitional Design Isn’t Traditional, and Here’s Why

by on Jul 18, 2016

Ever wonder about the differences between transitional design and traditional styles? These two decor and furniture styles have similar foundational elements, but when you compare them side by side, the finished look is completely different. Here are the reasons why.

First, let’s acknowledge that most people these days don’t fit into one design style category. I do, however, believe everyone has a foundational starting point. This post will help you understand the core foundation of a transitional space compared to its traditional style roots. The goal is to help you transitionalists out there understand your roots, and then add your flare.

Let’s start with a look at where the transitional design style got its roots…

Traditional Design

A traditional room is characteristic of a 17th or 18th century home. It’s warm and inviting, but can also be more luxurious. These spaces have curved and detailed furniture with a backdrop of ornate woodwork, luxurious fixtures, deep colors, and varied patterns.

If you are inspired by your grandmother’s china, traditional decor style might be you.

Transitional Design

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional

A transitional interior blends traditional and contemporary interior design. These spaces tend to have neutral backgrounds – such as grey, beige, and cream. This style mixes modern lines with classically curved transitional furniture and finishes.

Transitional style’s contemporary leanings keep these rooms less luxurious and a little more relaxed. Wood tones, fabric textiles, and various decor textures create depth in these rooms. Color and pattern is used in subtle, repeated way.

If you love a mix of modern and classic curves on a neutral backdrop, transitional design might be your style.

Let’s look at transitional home decor in more detail

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional
Studio McGee (Transitional)

1. Transitional interiors mix modern lines with classic curves.

The space above mixes modern lines and classic curves in a neutral background. It is not devoid of color but the minimal accessories keep the palette more neutral.

The difference:

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional

Traditional Design

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional

Traditional Design

These traditional spaces by Max Rollitt for House and Garden have mostly curved and very detailed furniture. The walls are neutral, but the furniture and accessories create a colorful space.

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional
Threshold Design (Transitional)

2. Solids are dominant in transitional spaces, but patterns are present in mostly subtle geometric patterns.

The difference:

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional

Photo: Casa Dulce Casa

The above traditional spaces mix varied patterns with more saturated color.

3. Transitional spaces have mixtures of wood tones present in the room.

Detailed millwork can also be present but it doesn’t define the furniture or decor. The above transitional interior is a perfect example of mixed wood tones. The fireplace mantel and lines of the built-ins are more traditional. These traditional home decor elements are toned down with the contrasting modern lines of the furniture.

The difference:

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional

 Photo: Sarah Bartholomew

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional

Photo: Traditional Home

In both these traditional spaces the woodwork is more ornate. The designers chose to showcase the details of the woodwork by allowing it to define the transitional furniture choices.

4. Transitional interiors mix different textures to create depth.

The same space from the last example shows how texture creates depth in a transitional space. The designer used jute, wood tones, leather, and subtle geometric patterns of grey to create a clean and interesting space. The room feels more casual and cozy than luxurious.

The difference:

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional


These traditional interiors are clean and cozy too, but they use more varied colors and patterns, creating a more luxurious, layered feel.

5. Transitional interiors have a neutral background but can have repeated color.

Transitional interiors are neutral, but not totally lacking in color. If a bold color is used, it’s often repeated. The above interior seen in Elle Decor is neutral with a nice pop of blue in a contemporary geometric pattern. Notice both colors (in the rug and in the flowers) are repeated creating a more calm relaxed look.

Also, note the above photo does not have symmetrical lamps. A transitional room can be symmetrical, but it can also break the traditional leanings of symmetry.

See the difference with the more traditional rooms below:

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional

Photo: Hi Sugar Plum

Both of these traditional rooms mix color and pattern. One in a more bold way and one in a more neutral way. These photos also show examples of how symmetry is present in a traditional interior.

6. Transitional interiors can incorporate modern day interior trends

While transitional interiors have roots in the traditional style, their contemporary side allows more interior trends to be included – such as the modern light fixture above.

The difference (traditional, below):

Traditional spaces stick with ornate or vintage-looking fixtures.

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional
Studio McGee

7. Transitional rooms incorporate modern wall decor

The modern grouping of black and white frames continues with the contemporary theme of transitional interiors.

The difference:

How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional

Photo: Elements of Style

The above traditional spaces include more gilded frames and oil paintings.

Example: Transitional Living, Dining, Kitchen Renovation

created at: 08/29/2012

New flooring, lighting, and a little tlc make the ‘after’ photos of this living room / kitchen / dining room combo look like the pages of an interior design magazine.

created at: 08/29/2012

Doesn’t it look like a whole new house? The floors make a huge difference, but the natural light really opens up the space. It looks much larger than the before photo. And the kitchen? Don’t even get me started!

I’m ready to move in. Should I pack my bags?

To see more photos of this before & after, visit Little House Big Plans.

Example: Traditional Family Room Gets Dramatic Makeover

Family Room Before
Photo: Robeson Design

Designer Rebecca Robeson was up against some tricky constraints when designing her client’s family room in their Spanish/Mediterranean-style Carlsbad, CA home. Those restraints came in the form of non-negotiables and included an existing red, white, and blue Persian rug, two nautical-themed art pieces, and the family dog Vesper’s favorite well-loved leather chair. Oh, yeah, and the client didn’t want a nautical theme. That didn’t deter Rebecca. She was able to incorporate all those non-negotiables by going in a “Man’s Rowing Club” direction. This is what the room looks like now:

Family Room After
Photo: Robeson Design

Watch the video below to hear Rebecca’s thought process as she planned the room’s new design. (She has some great tips that are relatable to any design style, plus some cost-saving ideas to keep in mind when approaching our next room remodel.) To read more details about the room, including detailed pictures, visit Robeson Design.

Fix it Friday: Family Room Makeover [Robeson Design]
How Transitional Style is Different than Traditional
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Hopefully this was a helpful way to see and understand how transitional interior style is comparable, but very different from the traditional interior style. Which style suits you? Please do share!

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  1. Thank you for this really helpful article! If there’s 1 thing I’m extraordinarily clear on right now, it’s how in love with traditional design I really am. The photos are transporting.