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Design Styles: What’s the Difference?

Q. What do the different design styles: Traditional, Transitional, and Modern/Contemporary mean? And how do I know which is right for my bath fixtures?

A. We often hear these three terms—Traditional, Transitional, and Modern—in relation to interior design styles. In truth, many of us don’t actually know the difference either by definition or by sight. And, more importantly, we don’t know which will work best in our own homes.

Let’s start with a brief tutorial.

Traditional Style is the easiest to describe—it covers architectural and design styles that date back from the first settlers to the early 20th century. Historical styles would be Colonial/Colonial Revival, Federal, Greek Revival, or Victorian, for instance. The White House is a prime example of the architectural styles (Federal and Greek Revival) of the late 18th to mid-19th centuries.

One can imagine that the fixtures in the bathrooms of the White House have a classic styling that, while obviously not original, looks like it could have been. Your home doesn’t look much like the White House, you say? If you take off the embellishments—the columns, the overlarge portico—you might find that you are living in a very similar, although significantly simpler, house. One of the most prevalent architecture styles from the East Coast to the plains states is Greek Revival, which was popular through the mid-1800s and followed our westward expansion. Many a farmhouse is classic Greek Revival made plain.


Modern Style is also fairly easy to understand. As an architectural style, it covers the very end of the 19th century to today and includes design styles such as Art Deco, Mid-Century Modern, Ranch style, and late Twentieth Century Eclectic. Examples of this style are seen in works by Frank Lloyd Wright.

And finally, we come to the Transitional Style. Once you’ve seen the differences between Traditional and Modern, it’s actually fairly easy to understand the concept of Transitional as the nexus between the two other styles. Other descriptive terms might be Updated Traditional or Classic Modern. Transitional styling has the classic comfort of a traditional look—symmetry, elegance, and formality—without the fussiness often associated with that style. Clean, modern lines and simple forms, neutral colors, and matte finishes add a layer of modern simplicity. Popular retailers such as Pottery Barn showcase the Transitional look in most of their offerings.

And so, how do we know which style is right for our own homes? As it always comes to with decorating—ask yourself, who am I? Am I a classicist, a modernist? Do traditional styles say “musty” or “time-honored” to me? Do modern looks scream “hard and cold” or “clean and sleek”? Are you looking to update your ranch house into sleek modernity or do you wish make it feel like the classic home you grew up longing for? Does your 1960s-era Colonial style home need a lift to bring it into the 21st century, or do you want it to feel more like the classic home in the movie, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House?


It’s all in the details.

Bath fixtures are the bling of the space and they are the fastest way to highlight the design style you are seeking to employ. Without a major overhaul, new fixtures, coordinated color palettes, and wallpaper will go a long way to set the stage—to get that look—without the messiness and expense of a major construction job! Oh, and if you were looking for a set of “rules,” sorry, but there are no rules. Just educated, thoughtful, and fun choices!
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