Style Primer: New Traditional

by Samantha Martin

There are few things I enjoy more than getting lost in the work of talented interior designers and considering what makes a particularly beautiful room design stand out—and how the same effect can be achieved elsewhere. This is the first in a series of Style Primer posts that will focus on one current style, and provide tips about how that look comes together. Let’s kick things off with what I’m calling New Traditional—a refreshing, modern update of formal interiors.

New Traditional relies on layering and the right juxtaposition of classic furniture and contemporary accents. The best new traditional rooms feel livable and approachable yet also luxe. This may be my favorite style because it has so many iterations from bold to restrained, and because the rooms are more timeless, less trendy. It’s also a style that can suit the architecture of many homes from suburban new-builds to historic row homes.

But how do we achieve that elusive balance of new and old? Let’s break it down…

Opt for clean lines. Besides architecture, the foundation of almost any room is the large furniture pieces. To achieve the new traditional style, look for sofas with clean lines: track arms and tapered legs, or classic silhouettes like an english roll arm. Keep the same thing in mind for coffee tables, consoles, or sideboards: minimal ornamentation and simple shapes.

[Pictured Design by McGrath II]

Play with form. Accent chairs and side tables are the best place to get playful. Contrast the straightforward shapes of foundation furniture with the curvier lines of an antique Bergère chair (as shown below), or a unique side chair. Add interest with unusual side tables, and consider the finishes—brass, bone, painted, ceramic.

[Pictured design by Sara Gilbane Interiors]

Include something rough. By which I mean something natural, handmade, or unpolished. In Gilbane’s vignette above, it’s the rough-hewn wood side table. In this room by Park & Oak, it’s the organic light fixture and seagrass basket. Seek out features of juxtaposition.

[Pictured design by Park & Oak Design]

Introduce new lighting. One of the easiest ways to update a traditional room is to ditch the fussy lamps and chandeliers. Notice how fresh the brass flush mount looks in this entry by Anna Burke. Or, below, look at the way the azure lamps enliven Paige Pierce’s living room design. If it feels a little risky, it’s probably a risk that will pay off.

[Pictured design by Anna Burke Interiors]

Mix in modern art. Like lighting, a single piece of modern art can give a space new life. Imagine how different this living room would look with a formal portrait in place of the abstract painting on the back wall? (See this post on sources for affordable art.)

Layer fabrics. A hallmark of each of these spaces are rich fabrics: Velvet upholstery, ikat pillows, wovens, printed linens, florals, etcetera. Mixing and layering patterns and textures is another form of juxtaposition, and a good way to make a room feel more warm and inviting.

[Pictured design by Paige Pierce Design]

Hang curtains. Dramatic, pleated drapery adds a final layer of pattern and fullness. You can have your own custom drapery created on Etsy or at a local workroom or, for a less expensive alternative, find curtains via traditional retailers. (I have some 100% linen Ikea curtains that are surprisingly great!)

[Pictured design by Pierce & Ward]

Remember, the devil is in the details. Tape trim on the curtains, self-welt or piped edges on the pillows, button tufting or bone inlay or brass details on the furniture. These may seem like minor additions, but together they add an additional layer of polish, texture, and interest that elevates a space.

And balance is a key detail. This will seem like rudimentary advice, but when you’re decorating over time, or have been living with a space that doesn’t feel right, sometimes you need to step back and take inventory. For every traditional item in the room, is there one that is more modern? even if it’s something as small as a vase or bowl? Where can you add or subtract so that on the whole you have a fairly even balance of contemporary and traditional? Consider everything from individual furniture pieces to fabrics, art, frames, lighting and accessories.

[Pictured design by Tharon Anderson Design]

Here are some pieces to get you started on a New Traditional room…

French Chair with Mudcloth / Tiered tapers chandelier / Sylvia Accent Chair
Arch Table / Aged Iron Floor Lamp / Pillows: Linen & Cloth (Moss), Spark ModernDekowe, and Linen & Cloth (Blue)
Belsize Stools / Nicolette Settee / Tanja Trunk
Pebbled Table Lamp / Willoughby Chaise & Sectional (many colors) / Marble & Iron Side Table
Tufted Ottoman / Tetra Side Table / Lydia Camelback Settee
Keely Sofa / Velvet Accent Pillows / Telescoping Table Lamp

Are you a fan of the New Traditional look? What styles would you like to see covered on here? 

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. 

[Lead Photo: Design by Mark Sikes / Photo by Amy Neunsinger for Beautiful: All-American Decorating and Timeless Style]

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