Traditional interiors are back: with a modern twist

24 May 2021

Traditional interiors seem so passé in today’s world of modernism and minimalism ­– it’s hard to see where needlepoint, heavy drapes and tassles fit in with how we live in the 21st century.

But interior designers are embracing a distinctively modern take on the classics – a style known variously as new traditional, modern traditional and neo-traditional, which still embraces the comfort, beauty and timelessness of traditional style, but with less frills and chintz and fuss.

But what are the main tropes of new traditional, and how can we consider blending old and new in our own interiors? Here’s where to start.

The big stuff

In traditional rooms, heavier antique pieces would often take pride of place, along with ornate couches and chairs (curved shapes are common) – all inspired by 18th- and 19th-century European interiors. In a traditional dining room, a Regency-style table may feature, with matching chairs (often upholstered in rich fabrics) and a heavy sideboard laden with the family silver. An old-style living room might feature large couches in floral patterns, classic Persian rugs and claw-foot chairs. In the bedroom, the look might include a high bed with upholstered bedhead, wing chairs and ornate bedside tables.

In neo-traditionalism, furniture is much less formal. Couches may feature old-style side-skirts at the base and arms may still be curved and rounded, but fabrics will be plainer and simpler. Antiques are still relevant, too – but stick to one dramatic piece rather than many, and update pieces such as sideboards with modern designer accessories and plants. Opt for lighter colour wood, too. Ultra-contemporary pieces – think something like Philippe Starcke “Ghost” dining chairs – will add a clever counterpoint.

In the shade

Traditional-style rooms are usually marked by “bread-pasta-and-potato” colours such as cream, taupe and ivory — never white, which is a very modern invention — which provided a neutral background for the lavish furniture, oversized artwork and dark antiques that marked this style. At the other end of the spectrum, think of British country houses and you might think of dining rooms and studies in shades of olive green or burgundy. These colours also appear in upholstery, along with motifs such as checks, stripes and florals.

According to Architectural Digest, neo-trad embraces brighter, more emphatic colours. Walls still tend to be painted in classical warm neutrals, but pops of colour in shades like green, yellow, dark pink and turquoise come into play in accents and accessories such as cushions and curtains. Traditional patterns like chintz and small florals get a contemporary update – think bold florals and ikat.

The little things

Traditional rooms are marked by maximalism rather than minimalism – and are often overflowing with large-scale artworks in gilt frames, oversized mirrors (more gilt!) and big pieces like urns, as well as oodles and oodles of decorative components, with silver a big player. Items often come in pairs, too, as symmetry is a hallmark of classical style. Drapes tend to be heavy, with added touches like tie-backs and valances, while on the floor, traditional rug styles rule.

When it comes to accessories and decorative pieces, neo-traditional still embraces the luxe tendencies of its predecessor but makes everything cleaner and simpler (not minimalistic – those bare spaces are the antithesis of this look). You want to maintain the comfort and warmth of traditional decorating, but give your space a 21st-century update. That means more organic textures – forgo the Persian rug and opt for coir and sisal underfoot. Keep your lamp base simple, but add a striking lampshade in a striped silk or patterned velvet. Heavy drapes are a no-no: roman blinds (don’t be afraid of a beautiful chinoserie pattern) and curtains in silks and linen are the go-to here.

And don’t be afraid to embrace wallpaper, a standard in classic interiors. But play it subtle – one feature wall in a bold pattern will add lashings of style without making your room look dated.

Make sure you’re covered

Any new furniture or decorative pieces that you buy will probably fall under the “contents” banner for insurance purposes — so you might want to make sure they’re covered. Even if you already have Contents Only or Home & Contents Insurance, check your policy to see whether any unique or unusual pieces will be covered, and ensure that your sum insured reflects the amount it would cost to repair or replace all your stuff, including your new fancy pieces.

Learn more about Contents Insurance

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