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Decorating Styles

Traditional Home Decorating

The crown molding, patterned fabric, and wall sconces create a traditional style.

In the strictest sense, traditional home decorating adheres to a certain period of history such as Georgian or neoclassical. In general terms, however, traditional style has come to translate a generous mix of highly polished pieces from any number of periods and countries (or good quality reproductions) and luxurious accouterments.

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly would look as if they were at home in a traditional-style living room. Today, however, thanks to a newer, fresher take, so would many young families.


Older homes frequently have decorative trim and detailing that partner perfectly with such a refined decor. In a newer house, adding architectural em­bellishments and applying decorative paint techniques (stippling and combing are two examples) will help foster background elegance.

Thick Oriental rugs resting on gleaming hardwood floors, skirted tables, and gilt-framed mirrors are typical in traditional rooms. So are elaborate window treatments such as tassel-trimmed swags and jabots.

A fresher modern approach, however, shifts these classic-looking rooms to a lighter palette. As opposed to rich warm tones like red and yellow, walls are washed in taupe, cream, or pale lavender. Window dressings become tailored drapes, sheers, or shades.

Still, no matter if the tone is sophisticated or more relaxed, the emphasis is on comfort. A traditional living room decorated with furniture in classic shapes and styles -- despite how formal it may look -- is always an invitation to make yourself at home.

For instance, if an inherited Empire sofa is included, the seat cushions have been revamped for pleasant sitting. Think curl-up-and-finish-that-novel wing chairs and camel-back sofas.

To foster conversation, furniture is usually arranged with great symmetry in companionable groupings. Guests never have to hunt for a place to set down a drink or a magazine because every sofa and chair has a table at its disposal.

Depending on the tone of the room, upholstery is simply handled or lavish with decorative trimming. Fabrics vary widely: brocade and cut velvet in a stately 19th-century home; linen or wool when the approach is pared-down.

Lighting, an important part of the equation, is carefully manipulated with a combination of table and standing lamps to provide adequate illumination for large gatherings or a party of one who is reading by the fire.

Oil paintings, sporting prints, and assorted objects d'art are de rigueur in timeless traditional rooms. In fact, carefully controlled clutter -- piles of art books, plaster busts, an old globe -- are important elements of the welcoming ambience.

Contemporary accent pieces, fabrics and art can also figure in, but nothing is too glaringly new. A lean-cuisine traditional room would edit out the extras, keep the furnishings minimal, and let the architecture shine through.

The brass lamp on a table is of the classic traditional style.

In the bedroom? Family photographs, ultra-feminine dressing tables, and furnishings that enhance the way the room is used: a bench at the end of a four-poster bed, a set of armchairs, and a writing desk.

For a traditional viewpoint in the bath? A tub paneled in classical moldings, luscious materials like white marble for the floor and walls, or a black-and-white-tiled floor and painted walls.

Mahogany or lustrous cherry, furniture-like cabinetry (or an antique buffet or chest converted to serve as a vanity) also helps cast the right spell.

Similar furniture-like cabinetry and highly polished granite countertops can sweep the look through to the kitchen, too. Include a number of glass fronts for displaying pretty china and silver; select appliances and hardware (polished brass is a winner) that blend rather than stand out; and install a warm-colored wood or brick floor as a unifying element.

The grand finale? A lavish balloon shade at the window to balance a magnificent range hood or, in step with a relaxed sensibility, a pair of unpainted wood shutters the color of a handsome leather-bound book.

Get the Look

  • Add bookshelves -- the more, the better -- and fill them with books.
  • Embellish upholstered chairs and sofas with decorative welting.
  • Create vertical drama: Install oversize mirrors; mount curtains up high.
  • Mix silk with sisal, porcelain with pottery, or wood with silver for contrast.
  • Remove rugs, and allow polished floors to shine.

Unlike traditional decorating -- which typically embodies a certain period in history -- country decorating esteems a handmade, well-crafted look above all else. On the next page, discover the myriad country styles currently enjoying popularity, including American country, English country, and French provincial. To learn more about interior design and get tips and information on decorating your home, visit:

  • Interior Decorating: Get tips on how to decorate your home and read about organizing a project and selecting an interior design that fits your lifestyle.
  • Home Decorating Tips: Learn about home decorating styles and get tips on how to plan and complete decorating projects.
  • Decorating a Room: Find out how to decorate a room from floor-to-ceiling.
  • How to Design a Kitchen: Create a kitchen that works for you and get tips on how to choose and place appliances and create a decorating scheme.
  • Kids Rooms: Get tips on decorating your child’s room, with information on colors, smart strategies, and money-saving tips.