What Americans once thought of as traditional is rooted in English country style, with its matched sets of furniture, saturated colors, multiple patterns, and heavy layers of window treatments and accessories. But modern life has changed how we use our rooms and what we expect from them.
The new traditional is characterized by:
-- Formal furniture with more comfort, sleeker forms, and personal touches.
-- Classic seating silhouettes in a larger scale.
-- Reproduction cabinets to hold media equipment.
-- Freedom to mix finishes and periods.
Instead of a few disparate pictures over the sofa, arrange a series close together so they appear as one mass. Or display a single overscale piece. "Don't be afraid to hang something really large," says Miles Redd. "Scale -- it's what always makes a room exciting."
"I just think less is more in the accessory department, and bigger is better," says T. Keller Donovan. The same is true for furniture. "We don't need so many things," says Eve Robinson. "You appreciate the things around you more when you can see them."
Rooms with fewer contents let the possessions on display make a larger impact. "I think that new traditional is a little stronger, a little brighter, a little more defined," says T. Keller Donovan.
To make a traditional base look less fussy, "I would take some of the lamps and change the shades from pleated silk to simple paper drum shades," says Celerie Kemble.
Move chairs, end tables, chests, and hutches among rooms. "There shouldn't be more than four matching anything in one room," says Eric Cohler. "A pair of lamps is great, a pair of chairs is great, but then mix it up." Combining furniture from different periods actually makes rooms more timeless.
Seemingly disparate pieces of furniture come together with a casually unified color scheme. "It's modern to not be afraid to use your furniture like a dazzling accessory," says designer Celerie Kemble.
"Get rid of the heavy curtains," says Miles Redd. "People still love curtains, but now there's a lighter, cleaner, less detailed approach." That means editing out the valances, swags, and jabots in favor of plain tailored panels. Other simple treatments include soft Roman shades, shutters with wide blades -- or nothing at all.
"Colors have changed -- they're less saturated, much more atmospheric," says Jeffrey Bilhuber. Burgundy, dark green, and indigo make way for sage, celadon, sky or aqua blue, wheat, and white, mixed with chocolate brown for contrast.
The prevalence of neutral hues in new traditional style doesn't mean washed out and boring. For eye-catching accents, try citrus hues.
In the "formal" living room, add casual elements such as an oversize coffee table where you can set food. "If you brought in a TV, would you use the room more? If you brought in a desk, would you use it more?" says Victoria Hagan.
A rarely used dining room can become a home office or homework space with the addition of a desk and inviting lamp. "Being modern is actually philosophical," says Jeffrey Bilhuber. "It's how you move through space, how you raise your family."
"The first thing you can do to update a room is to get rid of the Oriental rug," says T. Keller Donovan. Provide a youthful balance to traditional furniture by choosing a modern rug that is monochromatic, has an overscale pattern, or is textured, such as sisal or seagrass.
Another advantage to a large, natural rug is its versatility when you change accent colors or patterns. "Keep it clean, keep it fresh, keep it now," says Eric Cohler.
Feel free to mix pieces with different finishes, such as light and dark wood stains, paint, mirror, metal, and leather.
Today's designers' favorite finish: lacquer. "Lacquering things makes them more sculptural.
The sheen has a more modern feel," says Celerie Kemble.
"The easiest way to update your old traditional look is to re-cover your pieces in solid fabrics," says Barbara Barry. "It immediately makes an old piece new again, and you read the shape of the piece more as a form."
Contrasting colors also draw attention to the form of the piece. Staid brass tacks are another way to update an old piece of furniture.
Today's traditional cabinets and tables "are more pared-down forms, stripped of their decorative layer and ornamental touches," says Barbara Barry. They have a classic shape but less molding, fewer carvings.
Upholstery still references historic shapes but seats are now large enough for sinking in and lying down.