Our current blog series exploring the elements of enduring interior styles got off to a fresh and cozy start when we covered the “hygge” aesthetics of Scandinavian design. Next, we examined the comfortable, clean, and ever-popular American version of Scandi style — modern farmhouse design.
Now, let’s shift our focus to the other end of the interior style spectrum and consider one of the most common types of décor: traditional design.
Traditional design is exceptionally familiar; if you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably lived in a home with traditional interiors at some point in your life — or quite possibly for your entire life. Let's explore what defines these familiar spaces and makes them feel so welcoming.
Traditional Interior Design 101
Traditional design is exactly what it sounds like: a classic and comforting décor style that’s firmly rooted in the past — but not in any specific era or single period. Instead, it takes most of its cues from a wide range of 18th and 19th-century European and American interior styles.
In homes across the United States, traditional design became more popular than ever in the 20th century, as post-war suburbs boomed and people sought comfort in the classic stylings of earlier eras, from the Age of Enlightenment (1700s) through the Gilded Age (1800s).
A traditionally designed space may include Queen Anne, Chippendale, or Georgian styles; Federal, Colonial, or Empire neoclassical styles; Egyptian, Renaissance, or Gothic revival styles, or a unifying blend of any classic styles.
Today, traditional interiors are essentially the natural evolution of many cohesive traditional styles combined. Taken altogether, they create familiar, historic spaces that are timeless and placeless — spaces that beautifully portray how a conventional home should look and feel.
Elements of Traditional Design
Done well, traditional interiors feel ageless, comfortable, and put together without being too fussy. Done poorly, on the other hand, they can feel boring, predictable, and stuffy.
So how can you create gorgeous traditional spaces that make everyone feel right at home? By combining these essential elements:
1. Subtle, neutral backdrop
Creating a neutral backdrop with warm mid-tone colors is a great way to achieve the kind of consistency that makes traditional spaces feel so calm and orderly. Whether the chosen palette is based on bold, saturated hues or pale, soft colors, the overall mood should feel welcoming and soothing.
A well-balanced tonal range also keeps colorful, coordinated patterns at the forefront, something traditional design aims to achieve with complementary wallpaper, rug, and textile patterns (see below).
2. Compatible, harmonious patterns
Traditional design doesn’t shy away from patterns; on the contrary, it embraces them and relies on them to define the mood of a space. Traditional interiors often feature compatible patterns across wallpaper, drapery fabrics, area rugs, and upholstered pieces.
Patterns may be as simple as stripes, plaids, and basic florals or as intricate as damask and chinoiserie. Adjusting the scale of each pattern — small, medium, or large — can help you layer them like a pro and avoid being too “matchy-matchy.”
3. Detailed millwork; warm woods
Traditional homes are known for beautiful details and finishing touches, particularly when it comes to decorative woodwork. From built-in cabinetry, intricate crown molding, and tall baseboards to cornices, valances, coffered ceilings, and wainscotting, traditional design loves to showcase and maximize the potential of interior millwork.
Traditional homes also typically feature hardwood flooring, especially in the main living areas. While warm, honey-colored wood hues and rich, dark woods are most common, lighter hardwoods can work, too — particularly in traditional interiors with a more relaxed vibe.
4. Coordinated traditional furnishings
Given that the furnishings, artwork, and décor of traditional interiors are firmly rooted in various eras and classic styles of the past, it’s important to take a coordinated approach to create a cohesive traditional space. While that doesn’t mean that everything must match perfectly, it does mean you should aim for visual uniformity.
Furniture sets — think bedframe, side tables, and dressers or dining table, china cabinet, and buffet — are common in traditional interiors. Your pieces don’t have to be an exact match, but they should share similar finishes and/or lines to create a sense of consistency.
5. Orderly, symmetrical design
Two is always better than one in traditional design, which is defined by order and symmetry. Whether it’s in the form of paired table lamps or light fixtures, a perfectly spaced grid of framed artwork, or twin armchairs with matching ottomans, symmetrical design is a central element of traditional interiors.
Creating symmetry within a traditional space helps establish a sense of balance and harmony; it also helps draw your eye to focal points like a fireplace or seating area. Whether you’re planning the layout of a room or displaying a collection, symmetry is a top priority.
6. Beautifully dressed windows
Traditional décor is the antithesis of modern design in many ways, including its approach to window treatments: whereas modern interiors often feature minimally dressed or bare windows, traditional interiors embrace classic, layered window treatments.
Today’s traditional window treatments typically consist of functional blinds along with simple curtains or heavier, elegant draperies; formal fabric valances are less common now than they once were.