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Traditional…French Provincial…Eclectic…Victorian…Industrial…Hollywood Regency…Modern… Contemporary. And that’s just the tip of the design style iceberg.

It can be overwhelming and confusing just to understand where your own style fits along the spectrum, and even harder to know where to begin designing and decorating. Help is here.

Consider this a basic tutorial: information to arm you against misinformation. It’s a way to begin placing architecture, interiors and products within a larger design context and conversation. And it’s a way to get to know your style self a little better so you can take a more organized approach to realizing your design vision.

Interior Design vs. Interior Decoration

Aren’t they the same thing? And what does this have to do with design styles? No. And everything. Here’s why.


Interior Design

  • Deals with the physical space including the floorplan and flow of traffic
  • Looks to the style of wainscoting, door frames, lighting
  • Reflects larger architectural styles like Mid-Century Modern or Colonial

Interior Decoration

  • Deals with what you put in the space including the flow of traffic
  • Looks to the style of furniture, textiles, décor items
  • Reflects fashion and cultural movements like Boho or GlamAn actual space, then, could be Colonial, and what goes in it could be Boho. This is helpful to keep this in mind if you’re trying to describe the type of space you want or if you’re looking for a particular kind of coffee table. The language used to classify physical spaces and the way they are decorated can be wildly different.

Is Contemporary Design Modern?

This is one that trips people up regularly. Modern is loosely and mistakenly used to mean a variety of things from “updated” to “simple.” However, if we really break it down to its most basic level, Modern refers to a cultural and design movement that took off in the early 20th century, and Contemporary refers to current design. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Modern Design

  • Reaction to the Industrial Revolution and World War 1
  • Typical materials are whitewashed concrete, steel, and glass
  • Asymmetrical structures with simple, unadorned lines and shapes
  • Interiors are open and minimal without extraneous adornment
  • A few styles that fit under the Modern umbrella: INTERNATIONAL, BAUHAUS, MID-CENTURY MODERN

Contemporary Design

  • Literally “of the moment” or current
  • Not interchangeable with Modern, but aligns predominately with the principles of Modern design
  • Reflects the cultural nuances of right now in materials, forms, technology, and construction
  • A few styles that fit under the Contemporary umbrella: NEO-FUTURISM, SUSTAINABLE DESIGN

Is Traditional Design Old?

Let’s be clear, traditional does not mean old. While traditional style has roots in particular movements, places and time periods, like Federalist or Dutch Colonial, antiques themselves are not an essential part of the equation. Nothing that’s been hanging out with mothballs for the last 100 years is required for a space to be traditional.

Traditional Design

  • Characterized by fine woodwork and ornamental details, including crown molding and wainscoting
  • Shapes are often elegant curves and soft lines
  • Features symmetrical arrangements and a sense of formality
  • A few styles that fit under the Traditional umbrella: COLONIAL, VICTORIAN, NEOCLASSIC

Is Transitional Design Eclectic?

It’s a common misconception that Transitional and Eclectic style are one and the same. Also that both are a hodgepodge of anything goes. Not so. In fact, Transitional style is far more restrained and formal than Eclectic.

Transitional Design

  • Inspired by the warm detailing and familiarity of Traditional style
  • Appreciates the simplicity of modern design
  • Ornamentation is scaled back and comfort is bumped up
  • Casual symmetry is preferred over asymmetry
  • Features symmetrical arrangements and a sense of formality
  • A few styles that fit under the Transitional umbrella: COTTAGE, ARTS & CRAFTS, URBAN LOFT

Eclectic Design

  • Interior decoration focused around curation
  • Brings together disparate styles and creating something unique
  • Incorporates storytelling with items that have a personal history
  • It’s personal: a thought expression of the personalities who live in the space.
  • A few styles that fit under the Eclectic umbrella: this one is wide open

No Limitations

The more you know about design styles, the more you’re able to weave together a comfortable style of your own. Understand the rules, so you can break them. And really there aren’t any rules, just what you find beautiful and comfortable, what you want to surround yourself with. The only style that really matters is your own. See where your style falls on the spectrum; take the Style Quiz.