Know About dozens of interior design styles in existence—and new ones entering the zeitgeist everyday—transitional design offers a reprieve among more boxed-in, hard-and-fast decor styles. All You Have often described as a mix between a more traditional style and modern design, the aesthetic blends formal, more ornate elements with relaxed touches to create a space that feels both classic and current. “Transitional design is the palette cleanser of all design styles,” says Jenn Feldman, a Los Angeles–based interior designer and founder of Jenn Feldman Designs. To better understand the style, AD spoke with Feldman as well Ariel Okin, a New York–based interior designer, about the history and design elements that craft transitional interiors—as well as how to bring this timeless look into your house.
What is transitional design?
As noted, transitional design is generally defined as an interior style that combines modern style with traditional design. “Transitional spaces are defined by a tonal, textural, monochromatic, and minimal aesthetic,” Feldman says. All You Have Homes with this look often make use of comfortable, streamlined furniture; neutral color palettes (though pops of color are allowed); and ornate accents. For example, in a transitional home, you might find more linear furniture paired with a few pieces that bring in softer curves—like a circular ottoman. Some of the more embellished parts of traditional decor are there—for example, through an accent light fixture—though they’re more pared down compared to a classic traditional home.
It’s worth noting that designers may interpret the look differently—some may opt for more traditional while others embrace more modern—though the aesthetic could still be described as transitional no matter which way the scale tips.
What does transitional mean in design?
While transitional spaces are often defined as a combination of traditional and modern design, it’s worth noting that the term can also reflect interiors that mix multiple aesthetics. As Feldman explains, “Transitional decor is a way to lean in or layer into other styles, silhouettes, and shapes.” Instead of focusing on a specific set of “rules” that you might find in one specific design aesthetic, transitional style allows you to play around with multiple looks. “It’s a foundation aesthetic that allows for growth and change, not committing to one singular point of view,” she adds. For example, you may see some elements of minimalism or midcentury design, and their presence wouldn’t impact the transitional description. As Okin explains, “transitional design has its roots in a traditional aesthetic, but the silhouettes are a little fresher, more updated, and less fussy—cleaner lines and softer palettes.”
What is the difference between transitional and contemporary design?
While transitional and contemporary design can look similar, they are understood as different design aesthetics. As Feldman explains, “contemporary interiors define a moment in time; transitional interiors define space and place that is timeless.” Generally, transitional design combines modern and traditional styles, whereas contemporary homes combine multiple popular styles in an ever-evolving fashion. “From the 1970s forward, contemporary design has continued to grow just as a very current, very on-trend way to define a style that is moving forward,” Erin Sander, an interior designer based in Dallas, told AD earlier this year. “I think what you’ll see is contemporary borrows from so many different styles and combines them all together.”
Generally, contemporary interiors combine any popular style of a current age, whereas transitional interior design has always been understood as a combination of traditional and modern aesthetics. “Transitional interiors are a bit more warm, layered, and softer than a true contemporary interior,” Okin explains. “Where a contemporary space might use cooler toned metals and palettes, transitional might be a warmer greige palette, unlacquered brass, and nubby neutrals.”
History of transitional design
As a mixture of multiple styles, the history of transitional style is somewhat murky. Traditional design dates back to the 1700s and 1800s, often with roots throughout Europe. As the name implies, the look incorporates more traditional elements, like chandeliers, crown molding, floral arrangements, and ornate rugs—you often wouldn’t find things like neon signs or Pop art in homes in this style. In the middle of the 20th century, a new interior design trend emerged, which embraced a more minimalist style as a reaction against the embellishments of the traditional look. What is now known as a midcentury modern, transitional style began popping up as these two distinct looks merged together. Transitional style can be seen as a best-of-both-worlds scenario, and the spaces generally make use of clean lines, a neutral color palette, and pared-back ornamentation.
Defining elements and characteristics of transitional design
To better understand how to spot transitional design, it’s helpful to understand the elements that make up this popular home decor style. According to Okin, you’ll often find “texture, tone-on-tone neutrals, and lush upholstery that is clean-lined but neither modern nor traditional or fussy,” in transitional spaces.