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Traditional, Transitional, Contemporary, Oh My!

I don’t know very much about cars. They have four wheels. They use gas. They come in pretty colors. That’s about the extent of it. So when I go car shopping, I am at a decided disadvantage, and, on occasion, I have been made to feel – god forbid – stupid.


Anytime we shop for something that we are unfamiliar with we are at a bit of a disadvantage. Good salespeople will explain things to you in a respectful, non-patronizing way. Bad salespeople will enjoy and take advantage of your ignorance.


I went furniture shopping with a friend of mine a few weeks ago; she kept looking at me for a translation while the salesperson asked her if she was interested in traditional, transitional, mid-century, or contemporary furniture. Exactly the way I behave at the car dealership.


I was writing furniture copy today and I realized that a lot of people probably don’t know (and granted, maybe they don’t care) much about furniture styles, so I decided to do a blog with just the basics. So, if you would like to be a little more educated before your next furniture shopping venture, read on.


I am not going to try to describe every style of furniture ever invented in the history of the world; you are probably not going to be shopping for a medieval chair. Although with the popularity of Game of Thrones, maybe you are. You are out of luck, though, because I am going to focus on the styles of furniture that are most popular today. See if John Snow can help you with that.


Traditional Style Furniture


Traditional style furniture is exactly that, traditional. This is conventional, customary, established, for the ages furniture. Traditional furniture has a decidedly formal feel and often includes fabrics like damask and chintz. Floral and other patterns, tassels and fringe, gilt frames, crystal chandeliers, and furniture with skirts are mainstays. There is lots of wood in dark shades like mahogany, cherry, and walnut. Colors run the gamut, but the color palette will be limited and perceptible in everything from upholstery to walls to pillows to artwork. The traditional look is balanced and symmetrical; two of everything! Well, not everything, but this is the ideal style if you are a little OCD. Traditional design often includes matching arm chairs and matching end tables, matching candlesticks, matching drapes; there’s a lot of matching. When you think traditional think rounded, curved, soft and inviting. And don’t forget the Persian rug.

Crysilda EL-10012 Pendant by Lite Source Inc Athens Deep Seating by Meadowcraft
Kingstown Sedona Deep Seating by Tommy Bahama South Shore Deep Seating by Woodard

Transitional Style Furniture

Transitional style furniture does just what it says; it provides a transition between traditional and contemporary furniture. The heavily carved wood, the floral prints; the balloon shades and heavy drapes; those are gone. The skirted sofa, an oversized ottoman, a winged-back chair, these are still there, but now they are reworked; there is a little less ornamentation, a lot less flowers and a few more angles. The furniture is now upholstered in tone on tone stripes or nubby beige linen. Speaking of beige, there is not a lot of color in transitional style, cream, gray, taupe, lots and lots of taupe, tan, and khaki is a typical transitional palette. Accent colors tend to be quiet and subdued. While the colors are neutral, the textures are happening; microfiber suede, chenille, leather, raw silk or linen, tweed – these are all fabrics you will see utilized in transitional furnishings. Transitional rooms are inviting and comfortable, and they tend to be a lot more peaceful and titch more sophisticated than traditional décor. This is a room where you can get your Zen on.

Hampton Deep Seating by Windward Napoli Deep Seating by Ebel
zuo modern lighting Nob Hill by Zuo Modern


Mid-Century Modern Style Furniture


Hotter than John Hamm in a tight suit, Mid-Century Modern is one of the top contenders for home décor right now. There is a little confusion about that word “modern” which we tend to think of as “right now” – we live in modern times. However, when the word is used in décor and design it actually refers to retro or vintage style from the mid-20th century. The modern era in history spanned the late 1930’s through the early 70’s. Mid-Century Modern style came into the picture during the 50’s and 60’s.


Anyway, Mid-Century Modern style furniture is sleek, sophisticated, geometric, functional, colorful and just plain groovy. Think Austin Powers. Yeah, baby! Mid-Century Modern furniture, because it was so “modern”, introduced man-made materials like plastic, nylon, laminates, resin, fiberglass and chrome into the mix. Mid-Century furniture has an almost sculptural feel; nothing is over-stuffed or skirted or flouncy. The Mid-Century palette can go anywhere, but tends to lean towards earthy colors like orange, green, brown, and rust. The shag carpet at my childhood home was the color of vegetable soup. (Yes, I am also mid-century modern.)

Tickle Bar Stool - Green by Zuo Modern Anime Dining by Zuo Modern coriolis ceiling light
coney arm chair Mirabella Woven Sectional by Caluco puget arm chair


Contemporary Style Furniture


Some of the confusion about Contemporary style is that it is what is happening, right now. That means it is constantly evolving, which also means it’s hard to pin down. Contemporary style can be found in unique shapes and forms, juxtaposed against clean, straight lines. Contemporary furniture is simple and utilizes modern materials and it is always visually interesting. You could say that contemporary furniture is more “arty” than other furniture; there is a concerted effort to create something that makes you look twice. At the same time, however, it has to be completely comfortable or functional. In Contemporary style you have a basic, neutral palette much like Transitional style. But with contemporary you need to add jet black and stark white to the mix. Toss in some metals and then add some bold, bright accents of color.

Round Bar - Black Glass by R.A.M. Game Room Centari by Zuo Modern Darwen Bar Chairs - Black by Zuo Modern
Metropolis Sectional by Woodard Cirque Double Chaise Lounge by Homecrest


There are many other popular furniture trends that fall into these basic categories. Industrial or Industrial Chic is a little bit traditional, a little bit transitional, a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. Exposed brick, steel or other metal components and accessories, distressed finishes; all of these elements work together to create a distinctive, edgy, raw style that is all about exposing the nuts and bolts of things (literally). Cottage Style or Shabby Chic is another trend that is a mish-mash of traditional and transitional style elements; it is sweet, comfortable, relaxed. The focus here is weathered finishes, soft cotton, pastel colors, small, feminine patterns and lots of white. Toss in a pile of ruffles and you get Shabby Chic. Bohemian style can utilize various trends as well; what makes it Bohemian is the choice of color (lots of it), pattern (lots of them) and texture (ditto). Jewel tones, artisan crafted accessories, ethnic touches, Moroccan pillows, Turkish rugs, a couple of plants. And a big, round, slouchy leather ottoman. Voila! Bohemian.


There you have it in a nutshell. So when the salesperson asks “What is your style?” you know what to say. Most homes (unless they are professionally decorated) are not solely one style or another; your personality, your interests, your comfort will leave its stamp. I’m a nature girl, well, old broad to be specific. Every room in my house has some element of the outside in it; interesting pieces of wood, rocks, shells, feathers, a butterfly collection, a plant, the odd turtle shell and bee hive. This is what I enjoy and appreciate so I have made it part of my décor. Now that it’s on paper it sounds a little creepy. Maybe it is.


My disclaimer when I am talking about art of any kind of art (and design is art) is that you should do whatever the h-e-double hockey sticks you like. You want to pair up grandma’s old Chesterfield sofa with an industrial coffee table? If you like how it looks, go for it. And when you are shopping for furniture and are getting overwhelmed by terminology and style and salespeople, and can’t remember contemporary from traditional, remember this phrase. “I am not tied to any particular style; I just know what I like.” We are talking about your home, and what matters most is that it is your space and you fill it with things you love.
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