What Is Transitional Style? Everything to Know About This Versatile Design

Learn the defining characteristics of transitional design, why it's so popular, and how to make it work in your space.

Farmhouse Style large kitchen
Photo: Stacy Zarin Goldberg

Transitional style combines traditional and modern design elements. It's a go-with-the-flow style that still allows you to show off your personality. And it's a natural way to incorporate modern features into your home without having to do a complete design overhaul every few years.

“Transitional design allows us to marry traditional with modern design in unexpected ways that look effortlessly timeless,” says Laura Umansky, founder and CEO of Laura U Design Collective. “The palettes are typically softer and more neutral than traditional styles, and the look is more layered than the minimalism of contemporary spaces.”

A backdrop that skews transitional allows existing furnishings or collected items to have room to shine without competing with their surroundings. Here, we break down all the defining characteristics of transitional style and share tips for decorating with the popular aesthetic.

white living room with patterned chairs
David Tsay

Why Is Transitional Style So Popular?

The appeal of transitional style lies in its versatility, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take risks. “Because it lives in the middle of two extremes, transitional style balances softness and sophistication, masculine and feminine, and antiques with new pieces,” Umansky explains.

This high-low approach is also why it’s a great choice for lively households. Because it takes on such a practical role, it’s often the best route for families who are looking to have a certain level of sophistication in their space but want to do so in a way that works with their lifestyle and needs. “We are able to layer in large-scale furnishings in plush, high-performance, kid-friendly upholstery,” says Umansky. The goal is to create a home that looks lived in but still imparts style and uniqueness.

Elements of Transitional Style

Because of its versatility, transitional style has many different aesthetics. But there are a few key indicators of the design style that will be present no matter the supporting elements.

Neutral Color Palettes

First up: A neutral color scheme. “While a serene color palette is foundational for transitional style, we are also integrating a mix of moody elements,” Umansky says. “The key here is to bring in a darker color palette in the tertiary areas, like a dark gray study or a deep blue prep kitchen.” Small spaces, like powder baths and mudrooms, are ripe for a fun, patterned wall covering, too—yet another element often seen with a transitional interior. 

Mix of Textures

Clean lines are typically associated with this design style, but Umansky likes to mix it up to foster a warm and inviting space. “We love using romantic curves and organic textures like natural oak, polished fossil, grass cloth, and white plaster to add visual interest to the space,” she explains. Similar to the old-money aesthetic, layering—whether decorative items, textures, or silhouettes—is key in creating a transitional-style room that still packs plenty of personality. 

Emphasis on Functionality

This design perspective places function over form. “While functional furnishings have always been a trait of transitional style, we are seeing the ask for separate sitting and conversation zones,” Umansky says. “With clients spending more time at home, they need more seating and unique spaces to entertain guests.” When additional seating is on the must-have list, style can easily take a back seat, but Umansky assures there are still plenty of ways to make this functional aspect of transitional decor a moment for an elevated sense of style. “Beautiful formal sitting rooms to enjoy conversation with friends and handsome club chairs to enjoy cocktails—we are here for it,” she says.

Farmhouse Style large kitchen
Stacy Zarin Goldberg

Transitional Style Design Tips

Umansky says the key to making transitional style work in your home is to make it your own. “Keep your base furnishings neutral and include modern textures, then add your personality on top of that,” she suggests. Start with a neutral palette, then play with tone, texture, art, accessories, and soft goods. “A traditional wallcovering paired with abstract art (or an abstract wallcovering paired with a traditional landscape) works well to achieve the transitional style,” she explains. 

Allow your furnishings and decor to take shape over time with elements you love. “You have the freedom to incorporate pieces from different design periods as well as your personal art collection to create an interior design that’s truly unique to you,” Umansky says. "That being said, layering is highly important to pulling it off. Fabrics like suede, chenille, and leather are a great place to start in lighter hues, allowing you to layer in pops of color, mixed metals, or, my personal favorite, oversized, statement lighting."

Bring together classic traditional elements and new modern looks in an unexpected way and you’ll be able to pull off transitional style like a pro. The fun part about this design style is that there are no hard and fast rules: You can create a ratio of old to new that works best for your home and your style. Decide what works best for your space and lifestyle and you’ll be well on your way to creating a lived-in transitional space.  

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