6 Key Elements of Traditional Style

by Lisa Frederick, Houzz | Jun 30, 2017

What it is: From antique furnishings to floral-print fabrics, traditional style sometimes gets a bad rap as fusty and outdated. But that's missing the point. While it's true that this look takes its inspiration from the past, it's really about comfort. Every element feels familiar, properly placed and predictable — in a good way.

Why it works: There's a reason that traditional decorating has thrived for so long. It promises warmth and welcome, and it delivers. Refined furnishings, mannerly textiles, dignified colors and a sense of order make this beloved style easy to live with. What's more appealing than that? 

You'll love it if... Chaos makes you queasy. Your favorite movies are untouched by Technicolor. You've vacationed in the same spot since you were 12. You swoon over Blue Willow and Wedgwood. Your ideal day involves a bookshelf full of classics and a tumbler of Scotch. You own anything tartan.

If you're thinking Yes! Totally me!, read on for a breakdown of what traditional style is all about, plus tactics for keeping it current.

Traditional 1: Colleen Price, original photo on Houzz

Style Secret: Symmetry

The traditional look is all about balance, from architecture to furniture placement. Furnishings tend to be grouped in formal arrangements that invite conversation, and positioned along the axis of a room. Your pieces don't all have to match, but this isn't the style for you if you're drawn to an offbeat, eclectic mix.

Make it fresh: Although you don't want to stray too far from symmetrical placement, there are subtle ways to keep a room from feeling static. Prop a tall mirror against one wall, hang art in a grouping that creates a sense of motion, or angle a cocktail table next to an armchair. Here, the irregular shape of the rug loosens the room just enough to give it energy.

Traditional 2: Dillard Pierce Design Associates, original photo on Houzz

Style Secret: Soft Edges

No sharp angles here — traditional rooms emphasize curves and sink-right-in comfort. Skirted pieces feel cozy and genteel and counterbalance leggy tables and chairs. Cushions are plump; pillows are plentiful.

Make it fresh: Keep skirts tailored to avoid a dated look, and choose neutral, textural fabrics to make an old-fashioned sofa or chair feel of the moment. And refrain from cramming lots of tufted furniture into a single room, or you risk looking too Victorian.

Traditional 3: Liz Williams Interiors, original photo on Houzz

Style Secret: Conservative Color

In a traditional space, color doesn't shout — it's laid-back and mellow. Neutrals such as cream, beige, taupe and tan prevail, but deeper browns, reds, greens and blues (think about a paneled library) look fab in traditional interiors as well.

Make it fresh: Neutrals are always in good taste, but if you don't want to play it too safe, think beyond the basics. Pale blue, lavender, spring green, chamois or even soft red can work in this way.

Keeping colors tone-on-tone is the key to making them sit down. Bright shades, such as lemon yellow, fuchsia or turquoise, feel newer, but to keep the style planted in traditional territory, balance them with more restrained hues — and stick with conventional positioning, architecture and accessories.

Traditional 4: Crisp Architects, original photo on Houzz

Style Secret: Rich Wood Tones

Walnut, cherry, mahogany, oak — darker wood tones rule traditional style (leave the bamboo and blond maple to another house).

From walnut railings on a white staircase to cedar beams across the ceiling, it provides the warmth and coziness so essential to this look.

Make it fresh: Let hardwood floors shine: don't leave them completely bare, but don't obscure them with a rug that's too big. Layer in wood furnishings that are in the same color family for a collected, yet still pulled-together, look.

Traditional 5: Chamber + Chamber Architects, original photo on Houzz

Style Secret: Statement Molding and Trim

Traditional rooms are known for their beautiful finishing touches. Often, millwork and plasterwork bears strong detailing, including venerable motifs such as egg-and-dart or Greek key, and is painted crisp white or ivory. Although traditional trim doesn't have to be ornate, it does need to add visual weight; skimpy moldings or a floating mantel won't seem at home.

Make it fresh: Give an elaborately carved fireplace surround an updated spin by keeping the mantel arrangement simple and clean. Let wainscoting blend into the wall. Eschew elaborate columns and finials in favor of cleaner — but still classic — lines.

Traditional 6: Craig Denis, original photo on Houzz

Style Secret: Exotic Rugs

Kilims, Persian carpets and Oriental rugs never go out of style (good thing, because after you spend the cash for a top-quality floor covering, you won't want to hide it away). And they're like fine jewelry: You can make them work with anything. They have a way of blending into the background, yet their presence always anchors the room.

Make it fresh: Frankly, this is one element that's better as-is. But if you want to try something different, you could layer an Oriental rug on top of a sisal or seagrass one (not, we beg you, the other way around). Or play with scale: a small rug next to a larger one, or three narrow rugs in a row.

Related Articles:
Matching Accent Chairs for Living Room Symmetry
Neutral Colors For Your Traditional Home
Exotic Rugs That Make a Statement