How to find the right balance between modern and traditional in design?

Published: 23 July, 2018

Categories: General

How to find the right balance between modern and traditional in design?

The main purpose of design is to solve problems. Interior design, being a type of design, therefore also solves problems but usually focuses on inside spaces. Interior design focuses on how a space works (function), what it looks like (aesthetics) and the project cost (budget). Most importantly interior design makes spaces for people, which means the designer’s ability to understand what the client needs and wants is the measuring stick for project success. The people-centred approach is especially valid when designing residential interiors – someone’s home – as it is such a personal space. The following quote by Nate Berkus highlights one approach that both designers and homeowners can use as a style guide: “Your home should tell the story of who you are, and be a collection of what you love brought together under one roof.” 



Design trends often change, where we have at least one big trend surge every three to five years. Keeping up with them can be quite an expensive exercise, as furniture is one of the more expensive interior items. Letting the interior space tell the story of who you are, will help the design look current for longer, as you will be you regardless of trends.

One of the ways to stay true to your own taste but remain trendy is to mix the Traditional Style and Modern style, into something called the Transitional Style. Let’s unpack these separately:

Traditional Style

Image 1 Traditional European residential interior (reference)


The traditional style refers to styles from history, most often from 18th Century English and French interiors. Furniture from this style is curved and highly detailed mostly made of darker timbers and partly or fully upholstered in intricately patterned textiles. The tufted upholstery technique is the most recognisable having multiple button indents.


Modern/Contemporary Style

Image 2 Contemporary residential interior (reference)


In this specific context, it would be more appropriate to use Contemporary Style, as the Modern style specifically uses designs from between the 1920’s and the Second World War. Contemporary style is what is currently trendy, which changes with the times. Often the style looks clean and sleek, simple shapes and minimal colour, and uses innovative materials and finishes made available by new technology.

International Transitional Style

Image 3 International transitional residential interior (reference)


The transitional style blends the traditional and contemporary into a best-of-both-worlds solution. It balances old with new, comfort with technology, the body with the mind, the feminine with the masculine, and memories with current trends. It’s about acknowledging your past and bringing in the present to make a space for future you. Materials often contrast for example more traditional tufted upholstery and modern curved glass.


Tips for Transitional Style

Knowing the difference between the traditional and contemporary styles is half the battle.

Image 4 Furniture styles (reference)


Here are some additional suggestions, based on the Interior Design Guide by DecorAid:

  • Use contemporary palette for paint colours
  • Use traditional furniture styles in contemporary colours, patterns and textiles - pay special attention when selecting your centrepiece sofa
  • Balance traditional materials like timber with contemporary high-sheen materials and accents like glass or metallic wallpapers
  • Use white-painted wall trims that hint at the traditional-type decorative cornice and will help frame contemporary wall colours
  • Add minimal contemporary accents like abstract wall art and vases


South African Transitional Style

Image 1.4 South African transitional residential interior (reference)


The South African flavour of transitional style is fortunate to be able to add references to the traditional style from many different cultures thanks to the rich heritage of our rainbow nation.


How will you bring in your heritage to interior design today?


Written By 

Leana Scheffer

Full-time lecturer for the Built Environment

Pretoria Campus