Transitional Design: Everything You Need to Know

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With dozens of interior design styles in existence—and new ones entering the zeitgeist everyday—transitional design offers a reprieve among more boxed-in, hard-and-fast decor styles. Often described as a mix between a more traditional style and modern design, the aesthetic blends formal, more ornate elements with relaxed touches to create a space that feels both classic and current. “Transitional design is the palate cleanser of all design styles,” says Jenn Feldman, a Los Angeles–based interior designer and founder of Jenn Feldman Designs, a listee on the AD PRO Directory. To better understand the style, AD spoke with Feldman as well as Directory member Ariel Okin, a New York–based interior designer, about the history and design elements that craft transitional interiors—as well as how to bring this timeless look into your house. 

What is transitional design?

As noted, transitional design is generally defined as an interior style that combines modern style with traditional design. “Transitional spaces are defined by a tonal, textural, monochromatic, and minimal aesthetic,” Feldman says. Homes with this look often make use of comfortable, streamlined furniture; neutral color palettes (though pops of color are allowed); and ornate accents. For example, in a transitional home, you might find more linear furniture paired with a few pieces that bring in softer curves—like a circular ottoman. Some of the more embellished parts of traditional decor are there—for example, through an accent light fixture—though they’re more pared down compared to a classic traditional home. 

It’s worth noting that designers may interpret the look differently—some may opt for more traditional while others embrace more modern—though the aesthetic could still be described as transitional no matter which way the scale tips. 

What does transitional mean in design?

Curved furniture is contrasted by clean lines from the shelves and fireplace in this living room designed by Jenn Feldman. 

Photo: Courtesy of Jenn Feldman 

While transitional spaces are often defined as a combination of traditional and modern design, it’s worth noting that the term can also reflect interiors that mix multiple aesthetics. As Feldman explains, “Transitional decor is a way to lean in or layer into other styles, silhouettes, and shapes.” Instead of focusing on a specific set of “rules” that you might find in one specific design aesthetic, transitional style allows you to play around with multiple looks. “​​It’s a foundation aesthetic that allows for growth and change, not committing to one singular point of view,” she adds. For example, you may see some elements of minimalism or midcentury design, and their presence wouldn’t impact the transitional description. As Okin explains, “transitional design has its roots in a traditional aesthetic, but the silhouettes are a little fresher, more updated, and less fussy—cleaner lines and softer palettes.” 

What is the difference between transitional and contemporary design?

While transitional and contemporary design can look similar, they are understood as different design aesthetics. As Feldman explains, “contemporary interiors define a moment in time; transitional interiors define space and place that is timeless.” Generally, transitional design combines modern and traditional styles, whereas contemporary homes combine multiple popular styles in an ever-evolving fashion. “From the 1970s forward, contemporary design has continued to grow just as a very current, very on-trend way to define a style that is moving forward,” Erin Sander, an interior designer based in Dallas, told AD earlier this year. “I think what you’ll see is contemporary borrows from so many different styles and combines them all together.”

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