How to mix traditional and contemporary styles in your home
Another in the series of how to's based on the questions you asked in our summer competition!
The subject I hope to enlighten you on within this post is the careful alchemy of mixing the old and the new. There is a real art to this type of interior design, it is not as easy as say pulling together a ‘look’ for a brief that simply says ‘Scandinavian boho-chic’ and can be copied faithfully from many an Instagram square.
The carefully curated look of mixing old and new speaks of a home that has been lived in and loved that is personal to the owner and gives off an elegance that no other can achieve. It can be relaxed and informal yet classy and chic at the same time and yet people shy away from it as it is the hardest look of all to pull together.
We are blessed in the UK with a myriad of different architectural styles as we have housing dating back to almost Norman times! That’s great, but what if you like a spot of modernity in your pad? I guess if you are reading this what you want to know is, can you stick that that Habitat coffee table you have been lusting after in your 16th-century cottage, right?
Firstly let’s clear up what I mean when I talk about contemporary. Contemporary design means ‘of the now’ reflecting the tastes of today. If it isn’t modern and it isn’t traditional then it is contemporary. There is good and bad contemporary design (stuff that will date relatively quickly and stuff that will become a classic in its own right) but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post so let us just imagine I'm talking about the good stuff.
Just to get you slightly more confused, people often refer to modern furniture as contemporary, but actually that is a specific period of time. True modern is post 1st world war, superseded by Mid-Century Modern style that dates from around the '50s and '60s and is still having its moment right now (think most of John Lewis Home and West Elms offerings).
In terms of 'Traditional' anything is traditional that is made in the style of a time-gone-by (apart from Modern. Confused yet?) So a regency style dining table from the 1980s would be termed a traditional 'style'. The real deal would, of course, be way more expensive and be termed an ‘Antique’.
Now you've had possibly the most confusing and brief history of design lets move on to what makes a piece of furniture or the decor of a room feel traditional or contemporary. A lot of it is to do with the way the furniture or décor has been treated and the level of detail. See the sofa below by Sofa Workshop. Some would call this classic contemporary, some traditional, but the classic Howard design and vintage style hand-turned legs give it a traditional look. The fabric and colourways, however, are vibrant and very contemporary which mean this sofa would sit right in a host of settings.
Look at the interior above. The classic proportioned sofa has English rolled arms and is reminiscent of a chesterfield, but the cabinetry, mirror, and artwork are contemporary. The relaxed neutral tones also give the décor a contemporary look even though the room retains a lot of its period features in the panelling and cornice (original or not). The traditional chandelier and Georgian fireplace add some va-va-voom and do not look out of place one bit. The modern coffee table with its metallic finish mirrors the straight lines of the cabinetry and juxtaposes with the curvy more traditional shapes of the seating arrangement. The balance is just right.
If you are lucky enough to live in a period home with original features, simply decorating in a contemporary style will help neutralise some of that and help any modern pieces work within the space. Panelling, Picture rails, dado rails, beams and cornice painted in a contemporary palette will create a backdrop for a much more contemporary piece of furniture that wants to take pride of place.
Take this image for example – Joanna Plants living room interior for Poppy Delevigne. The gloss painted finish on the distinctly Victorian walls is edgy and modern, in fact, the whole vibe of this room is edgy and modern. Take the mirrored lightning flashes, the weighty lines of the Modern coffee table and then throw in some traditional seating and some beautiful period detailing and you again have a perfectly balanced room but done in a completely different style to room 1.
Have you noticed that the 2 rooms use traditional seating styles with modern coffee tables? Yes? Well, well done for paying attention as this is perhaps the easiest and most foolproof way of mixing it up in a living room.
Check out this amazing coffee table by Hay. I love it, the clean lines and simplicity. The useful removable tray top. That perfectly proportioned piece of Danish design is already a design classic in the making but guess what, it is a style that works with most sofa arrangements. Most rooms benefit from a little black, it adds weight, depth, and classicism and in a coffee table draws the eye to the centre of the room. Pair it with this classic slope armed Belgian style sofa and it just works, because they have clean lines and a certain relaxed air in common. The unfussiness of each piece works together in harmony.
That’s part of the secret, just like mixing patterns and textures in scatter cushions there has to be a common thread (ahem) that joins them together. If the sofa has a gravitas about it, so should the coffee table. You wouldn’t pair the Hay table with the Duresta sofa below in its chenille finish as they are just too disparate. The Duresta sofa needs something with a little more glitz and glamour so we’d look for something like this lovely versatile Habitat table.
I know I've gone on a bit about sofas and coffee tables, so let’s look at some other classic pairings that work well...
Ornate and decorated architecture with a cool and contemporary palette and some sharp contemporary furniture.
Cosy country cottage with fun and vibrant colours and mixtures of materials, think lots of sandblasted wood with plastic dining chairs.
Abstract art in a traditional setting and Traditional art in a, very, pared-back rustic setting
Modern side/end/Coffee tables paired with traditional style seating
Modern lighting within a traditional interior and likewise a traditional chandelier in a contemporary environment.
Traditional rugs in a contemporary setting and vice versa
So, where to go from here. We’ve talked about the fact that there needs to be some commonality, and that the pieces have to have the same feel, formal or informal. So aside from architecture, the room needs to be predominantly contemporary or traditional, with added accents of the other style.
One way to do it is to hit up one shop for a majority of your furnishings. I know, it's a little safe, but the designers of these pieces have already thought about how they work in conjunction with each other. E.G OKA is a prime example of a classic contemporary store that you could furnish your entire room with if you so wished. Then throw in a bit of contemporary lighting and some contemporary artwork and the space is elevated and less 2D.
If it’s modern you are after, (50s and 60s vibe) then Heals and Habitat are the one-stop-shop for the perfect modern home. In a modern setting throw in an antique chandelier for a little bit of fancy and you have yourself that little surprise or bit of unexpectedness that lifts an interior.
The total classics, those universal pieces that are always fresh and always timeless (and tend to have a price tag) can be modern or contemporary. Certain online retailers like Amara living stock most of them and you can guarantee that their offerings will suit a variety of settings. Finding a vintage or traditional style piece, however, to work within a modern or contemporary interior usually takes a lot more time, patience and scouring of eBay. if you don't have the right contacts.
So, I hope that some of this unravels the mystique behind the whole balancing of traditional and contemporary, just remember there are no hard and fast rules, just guidelines, much of what us interior designers do is completely instinctive and if you do get a bit stuck, just give us a call as Hartley Cox are pretty damn good at this kind of thing!
All the best