Style Primer: California Casual Modern

by Samantha Martin

In the last few years, the minimalist-yet-cozy look of California Casual Modern has taken the internet by storm. It’s easy to see why. These interiors make you want to kick off your shoes, relax, and breathe a sigh of relief. A California Casual Modern room has an it-factor—it is undeniably cool. But with all their light and texture, these spaces are never cold, never uncomfortably modern.

This style is pared back, which can make it seem deceptively simple. However, without the right balance of some key elements, a California Casual Modern room can lack dimension and life. What’s the trick to achieving Cali-cool rooms that don’t fall into the trap of boring-neutral? Let’s break it down…

Choose furniture and accessories with contrasting shapes. Because California Casual Modern eschews ornamentation, the interest and energy in these rooms often comes from the shapes and forms of furniture and accessories. Note the circular tables, the cylindrical lumbar pillows, and the defined rectangular banquette in the room above. The contrast between these shapes elevates this design.

Design: Jen Samson, Photo: Chad Mellon via Domino

White walls, light wood. White paint, white upholstery, white accessories: white is the foundation of any California Casual Modern Room. (The room above even has white floors.) Light wood tones are equally important. Light colors bounce light around, dark colors absorb it, so white walls, lighter stain on wood floors, and lighter wood furniture will provide that bright, airy feel.

Design by: Maca Huneeus, Photo by: Thayer Gowdy, via Domino

Layer textures and pattern. Neutral colors are the hallmark of this look, and the key to making this simple palette work is texture and pattern. In this room by Katie Hodges, nubby upholstery is paired with a subtly striped bench cushion, a woven table, striped and floral pillows, and a striped rug. There is little variation in color, yet the room feels full of life. (Remember: The right throw pillows can enliven any room!)

Design: Katie Hodges

Incorporate graphic elements. Have you noted all the patterned black and white rugs in these rooms, such as the one above? Whether it’s striped dhurries or furry Moroccan rugs, the graphic black and white motifs in these rugs–and in accessories such as pillows–gives these rooms a big dose of pattern through bold lines and geometric shapes.

Design: Sarah Sherman Samuel

Include something with patina. I think this rule applies to almost any interior, but it’s especially important in this style of room because a vintage, worn element balances all the bright newness and modernity of these rooms. Old wood stools, hand-thrown pottery, textiles, or vintage oil paintings give these rooms a necessary patina.

Design: Amber Lewis, Photo: Tessa Neustadt

When adding color, choose one shade. When going for more color, whether it’s in accents or a large piece, pare it down. If you start combining too many colors, the neutral foundation will be lost and the impact of that one bold choice will be muted.

Design: One Kings Lane Interior Design, Photo: David Tsay via OKL

Rattan chair / Diamond pillow / Walnut bench / Leather wrapped vase / Brass wall hanging / Marble and wood coffee table / Jute pouf / Tripod tables / Moroccan-style rug

Samantha Martin is an interior designer and former book editor at Scribner who lives with her husband and daughter in Denver. In 2015, she returned to school to study interior design, and she founded her eponymous design firm in 2018. You can find her at or @smartininteriordesign on Instagram. 

P.S. Where to find vintage rugs on Etsy and a previous style primer—New Traditional. Also, our home.

[Lead photo Design Sarah Sherman Samuel, via Domino Magazaine, photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg]

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