You probably didn’t realize that when you put an ornate old picture frame next to the sleek Pottery Barn sofa in your living room, you had your finger on the pulse of America’s design culture.
But you did.
What some interior designers call “transitional” decorating – artfully mixing contemporary pieces with vintage ones – is “the No. 1 featured style in magazines like House Beautiful, and in Elle Decor on a fine level, and in Cottage Living,” says interior designer Mallory Mathison.
It works in any room and helps you get style mileage out of things you already own or buy second-hand. It’s also environmentally friendly and practical to use older items in otherwise contemporary rooms.
“There is something to be said about a well-made, 50-year-old piece still doing its job in your present home,” says designer Brian Patrick Flynn.
“A lot of older things were just made better. But mixing those quality older pieces with something new gives them a fresh look.”
Another money-saver: The look can be easily tweaked and ages beautifully, unlike all-modern or all-traditional rooms.
“If everything is brand new and matchy-matchy,” Flynn says, “your home will look like a catalog or a showroom and appear flat or dated.”
Mixing old and new has its challenges, of course. But it can be done just as easily and more affordably than sticking with one style.
“Contemporary is hard to pull off without looking cheap if you don’t have very fine things,” Mathison says. “And traditional can get old and staid, if you don’t have very fine pieces also.”
Another bonus: This approach is all about personal expression.
“I have never come across a client who is one-dimensional,” designer Janine Carendi says. “And interiors should reflect their experiences, tastes, travels and personalities. Mixing old and new is a way to achieve this.”
Sounds appealing. But how do you create an eye-catching combination of old and new, rather than a jumbled hodgepodge of conflicting styles?
Texture, scale and shape: “It doesn’t matter how many old or new pieces are mixed together, but rather how it’s done,” says Flynn, whose trademark style is creatively combining the two.
“A muted, traditional sitting room can be totally updated with one piece of bold modern art. On the flip side, a super-minimalist modern space can be given that unexpected touch of traditional with a crystal chandelier hanging above a sleek dining table.”
One good tactic is using contrasting textures, like smooth and rough or shiny and matte.
If your new pieces and old pieces all have the same or similar textures, the room will fall flat,” Flynn says. “If your new sofa has the same type of upholstery as an old ottoman, break it up by introducing a new texture with throw pillows.
“In my old loft, I paired a sleek 1960s vinyl sofa with rustic barn door window shutters, a gigantic traditional brass chandelier sprayed red, chrome 1970s club chairs and a super plush kelly green shag rug. It worked well because it was balanced and had a collected look. The different styles were all united through color and scale.”
You’re aiming for contrast, but not cacophony.
“I would not mix more than a few styles,” says Carendi, but the percentage of old versus new is up to you.
“It depends on your concept,” she says. “Is the room meant to be more traditional? Then use more antiques. And vice versa.”
Apparently, size matters.
“Ensure that the proportions of the furniture do not fight and that the size of one does not overwhelm the other,” Carendi says. “Look at the individual shape of each piece.”
Where to do it: Mixing old and new can work in any room, Carendi says, “even nurseries.”
For bedrooms, says Flynn, “I like to go new with the actual bed and bedding, but pair those with old side tables and accessories. The sleek, tailored look of a new bed with aged furniture and accessories makes a beautiful combination.”
For dining rooms, he says, try “rustic farm tables paired with clean modern seating.”
Style strategies: One easy approach, says Mathison, is grouping several of the same items from different eras.
“Hang five mirrors on a wall,” she says, “maybe an old one from your grandmother, an old one from a flea market, a new one from Pottery Barn … It looks like a lot of thought and design went into it.”
You can do the same with pieces of china or other types of items.
Old lighting fixtures or lamps from flea markets (or your attic) can bring cool contrast to an otherwise modern room.
“Just have them painted, rewired, or get new lampshades,” Mathison says.
You can even do a mix of old and new within a single item: Take a traditional piece of furniture, perhaps something Queen Anne or Chippendale, and have it reupholstered in a bold geometric print or brightly colored solid.
You may want to spend a few days or weeks tinkering with the final design. And you can always adjust it periodically.
How do you know when you’ve struck the right balance?
“The best way to keep it looking good is to plan from the beginning,” Mathison says. “If you’re hitting antique malls, it’s good to go with an idea in mind, rather than just buying what you see.”
But in the end, she says, trust yourself: “It’s really about pulling together things you love.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.