Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Transitional Design


Whereas traditional design can sometimes feel prim and stuffy, and modern design can lean too heavily on the sleek and streamlined look, transitional design samples elements from each aesthetic to form an equally classic and fresh feel. Think of transitional design as having the best of both worlds. “At its core, transitional style is a measured balance of various characteristics of traditional and modern design,” says Renee DiSanto, co-founder of Park & Oak Interior Design. “It combines curves with straight lines, it’s airy and polished, and it’s textured but not cluttered.”

In a transitional interior, you can find a classic, deep-seated sofa paired with a more mod graphic throw pillow, a Victorian-inspired chandelier hanging overhead, and off-white linen drapes framing windows, lending polish and finish to the scene. But there’s a lot more to transitional spaces than just picking out random elements from the two aforementioned styles, and a thoughtful, curated approach to decorating is at the core of any well-designed transitional space.

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Transitional style by definition

Transitional style is an ideal solution for someone who doesn’t define their style one way or the other between classic and contemporary style, says Decorist designer, Vanessa Yufe of VY Designs. Instead, there is a seamless transition between these two aesthetics, and when that balance is properly executed, the result is usually a refined yet casual, approachable interior. Here are a few easy ways to spot transitional style IRL:

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Transitional style is a relatively new addition to the design world, with its origins tracing back to the 1950s and the post-modernism era that quickly ensued. Fatigue from the stark, streamlined elements of modernism and post-modernism led to the adoption of cozier pieces, reminiscent of traditional style, which has always married comfort with elegance. “Think of the root of the word ‘transit’ as being something traveling between two destinations,” says designer Victoria Sass of Prospect Refuge Studio. “Those are the worlds of traditional and modern design, with transitional as a middle ground that combines elements of both.”

Transitional design is one that shifts through time, typically incorporating touches of contemporary style, which is constantly evolving as well. As a result, the aesthetic can feel more current than retro, changing as current trends do, all the while seamlessly blending in classic elements of design. When it comes to transitional design right now, for example, think of the California-cool vibe that’s been recently popularized by designers such as Amber Lewis of Amber Interiors, where traditional and contemporary fuse in an effortlessly chic way, or brands such as Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel, which embody the very essence of this style.

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Today, transitional design continues to be a style that’s built on the art of balance between comfort and sophistication. To get this look in your home, “a really easy way is to start with a piece that you may already have,” suggests Yufe. “For example a family heirloom, art, or piece of furniture that has been passed down to you.” Striking that balance between the past and present is the key to mastering this style.

Transitional vs. Traditional

As stated above, traditional style is a major component of transitional design. Whereas the former tends to utilize the more formal elements found in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as classic art, wainscoting, and antique furniture, says Yufe, the latter will blend them in with contemporary pieces that will result in a layered, timeless look.

On the finishes front, traditional style tends to feature a mix of mahogany woods, rich blues, reds, and heavy brocade fabrics, says designer Ariene C. Bethea of Dressing Rooms Interiors Studio, while transitional introduces a mix of lighter woods, soft blues and whites, and larger scale, more contemporary patterns and fabrics.

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Transitional vs. Contemporary

The distinctions between these two styles can be slim and subtle. Transitional design is a combination of the traditional and the modern, which given its current popularity, makes it a contemporary style. Presently, the two can be one-in-the-same whereas, in a decade, contemporary will come to entail an entirely different look, where transitional will remain just as it is.

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Transitional vs. Modern

Much like traditional design, modern is what makes up the other half of a transitional scheme. It’s what balances out classic elements, helping usher a space into the 21st century. Elements of minimalism are ever-present, downplaying the grand ornamentation of classical design through fewer decorative accents and less formal finishes.

Traditional and modern are essentially polar opposites—as high of a contrast as it gets. And yet, the two make for a flawless pairing in transitional design, complementing one another with flair. “It might seem difficult to achieve a cohesive look when mixing such opposing styles, but one of the main elements of this design style is for it to look effortless,” says Yufe.

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How to Get a Transitional Look

Here are a few ways to infuse transitional details into your home:

  • Paint the walls in soft tones and opt for tonal upholstery
  • Invest in a piece that can double as a standout accent, think modern architectural lighting or an antique coffee table
  • Pare down the number of accessories for a simple, streamlined look
  • Bring in a chunky club chair or sofa with clean lines
  • Avoid vibrant patterns and keep prints to a minimum
  • Incorporate elevated textures such as bouclé, wood, and glass into the design

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