Here’s What Transitional Style *Actually* Means (and 6 Tips to Nail the Look)
If you’ve ever taken a design quiz and found yourself torn between different styles, there’s a good chance your end result put you in one of two camps: eclectic (you like a little bit of everything, with a predilection toward vintage and boho) or transitional, a vague mix of traditional and contemporary that can spark more questions than answers. Like, what does “transitional style” even mean? What am I transitioning between? Where do I find the “transitional” section in a store, and how the heck do I transition my home into said style?! Deep breaths. Here’s exactly what the term means, how it differs from traditional style—and what you should know to nail the look.
What Is Transitional Style?
Basically, a transitional room uses traditional design as its basis, with pops of color and fun accent pieces that are more contemporary. That way, it’s still pretty timeless, but it doesn’t feel as stuffy and formal as your typical, traditional room.
Transitional style actually started in the 1950s, almost as a knee-jerk reaction to the stark look of the mid-century modern movement. It kept mid-century mod’s clean lines and light, bright look, weaving in the warmth and character that traditional style’s plush, detailed designs offer. (Picture a traditional, four-poster bed, only without the ornate detailing and paired with, say, a modern chair and sleek window treatments.)
OK, So What’s Traditional Style Then?
Transitional style leans so heavily on trad design that it’s helpful to define it a bit further. Simply put, traditional style is rooted in 18th and 19th century design, with a focus on creating a sense of symmetry and order within the space. (Kind of like how many bedrooms you’ll see feature a nightstand on either side of the bed with matching lamps atop them.) It creates a sense of peacefulness, especially with its often-neutral color palette. There’s such a sense of tradition to this design that you walk into a room and know what to expect, and there’s comfort in that. You also know that a decade from now, the room won’t seem dated—another plus.
The furniture tends to be darker and much heavier than other styles, Hardin says, which can be grounding—but can also feel too intense for some people, particularly when paired with the ornate patterns (like toile) and heavy drapery also associated with this style.
Wait—What’s the Difference Between Traditional and Transitional Style?
Transitional tends to be brighter and more playful than traditional style, thanks to the addition of more modern pieces and accents. “With transitional style, you can try a wallpaper that has a bit more funk or edge to it, or incorporate a mixed-metal table, or a table that has a wood base and a marble top, or vice versa,” Hardin says. Transitional lets you dabble in trends, but it’s not so obsessed with the new-new that the room feels like a time capsule of the exact date you decorated it.
“It can still be relevant in three, four, five years,” she adds. Consider transitional traditional with a twist—you’re transitioning into a new style, but you’re not going full-tilt into it.
How Can I Get the Look in My Home?
Hardin’s advice here is straightforward: Keep your big furniture and investment pieces traditional. That way, you won’t be sick of them in two years—and regret the money you spent on them. Then, for your accents, like throw blankets, pillows, side tables and lighting, skew more contemporary.
Target’s Threshold collection is pretty transitional, and Hardin recommends checking out Pottery Barn and Bed, Bath and Beyond for key pieces of furniture that won’t break the bank. (Psst: Bed, Bath and Beyond has actually become Hardin’s secret source for accent tables and lighting that’s transitional and affordable.)
6 Tips for Nailing the Look
- Focus on a few traditional pieces to be your statement-makers. The ornate detailing is eye-catching—and all the more so when used sparingly.
- Play up the original architecture. Do you have exposed wood beams? Crown molding? Decorative corbels? Don't try to paint them the same color as the ceiling or walls, hoping they'd recede into the background; show them off. They're like jewelry for your home.
- Round things out with modern accent pieces. The clean lines provide contrast and keep the room from looking busy. (Light fixtures are a great way to go here.)
- Add a few coordinated pops of color. It'll liven up the room and make it feel more pulled together. (Plus, it's an easy opportunity to lean into a trend: All about muted terracotta? Or inky indigos? Try an accent wall and/or layer in a few accessories.)
- Vary textures and tones. When it comes to fabrics—be it upholstery, rugs or throws—incorporating a few different textures helps make the room look polished without veering matchy matchy. The same goes for choosing fabrics in the same tones of a specific color.
- Skew contemporary with your art, traditional with your frames (or mirrors). A big part of transitional design is blending these two styles, hence why a more modern line drawing looks extra chic in a gilded frame. Or why every designer and influencer you know posts pics of Anthropologie's Primrose mirror casually leaning next to framed prints or a fiddle leaf fig. You're tempering the sophistication by surrounding it with something laid-back, creating a vibe that says, "yes, this room is gorgeous, but you don't have to be afraid to kick back and relax here."