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The Ultimate Interior Design Terms: Our Style Guide

The Ultimate Interior Design Terms: Our Style Guide

The Ultimate Interior Design Terms: Our Style Guide

Not sure the difference between traditional and transitional? Read our handy guide to the interior design terms and styles you were afraid to ask about.

Designers tend to speak their own language—bandying about terms like “to-the-trade” and “curated” without batting an eye. While it can all feel very in-the-know-only, perhaps no terms tend to feel murkier than styles. It’s easy to point out what you like, but how do you know if it’s traditional or transitional? Scandinavian or Hygge? We asked our designers to help clear up the confusion.

California style: Currently refers to the modern blending of Mediterranean, Spanish, and modern styles. Exemplified by open floorplans, white walls, hints of Spanish revival accents (ironwork), and layers of relaxed and natural materials.

California design has always been lust-worthy, from the bungalow ranchero vibes to the peak of the ’60s. This latest Golden State incarnation hones in on a certain cultivated vibe. Think every Nancy Meyers movie: laid back, light colors, oversized upholstery, rattan, greenery, and an assortment of global accents. Boho pieces like Persian rugs and kilim pillows reflect the lifestyle—simple, yet extremely textural and layered; neutral, but with rich landscape hues woven throughout.

Photo by Madeline Tolle; Design by Mandy Cheng

Farmhouse or Modern Farmhouse: The rustic style gets a more refined bent. Airy interiors contrasted with original details like rustic support beams, steel windows, and practical, open-space designs.

Even the most citified among us can’t resist the allure of this of-the-moment style, which takes the best bits of the barn and runs them through a totally-today filter. Homepolish designer Anna Kroesser of Kroesser + Strat paints a portrati>: “Wide plank floors, black doors, black and brass hardware, a Mid-Century vibe overall with some oversized comfy pieces thrown in.” Our designers say it’s all about the perfect blend of patina (we’ll talk more about that below) and minimalist touches.

Photos by Helynn Ospina; Design by Nina Jizhar

Photos by Sean Litchfield; Design by  Cindy De Luzuriaga

Wabi Sabi: a Japanese world belief that embraces the art of transience. Aesthetically, this translates to an embrace of imperfections and organic materials.

Consider this the minimalist take on Hygge. Nothing is too precious: wrinkled linen bedding, simple design with lots of natural raw elements, materials that are organically imperfect, like knotty woods, textured linen, chipped ceramics, whatever feels inviting and without being overwhelming. 

Patina: originally used to define the way metal ages, designers now use this term to characterize the desirable weathering conditions of antiques and vintage pieces.

Sometimes wear is wear, and sometimes it’s patina—and designers love the later. Designers will like to add in depth to a space, particularly in contrast to newer of the moment pieces. A vintage chair or anitque piece of artwork can be the interior equivalent of the perfect pair of worn-in Levi’s. “It adds texture to any palette and therefore warmth,” Homepolish designer Kerry Vasquez explains. Patina tells a story.

Photo by Nick Glimenakis, Design by Jae Joo

Period or Regional style: A catch-all term that encompasses myriad of highly specific styles—Art Deco, Hollywood Regency, Chinoiserie, Aztec, Victorian, etc. 

Consider this the tier before you drill down into the specifics. Named for the eras or areas various styles originated from.

Hollywood Regency: a style that harkens back to the glamour of 1930s Tinseltown, telegraphic opulence with bold colors, contrast, metallics, and luxurious comfort. Borrows from Rococo and Baroque styles and classic designers like Dorothy Draper and Billy Haines.

You certainly don’t have to be located anywhere near Los Angeles to crave Hollywood Regency style. When we polled our designers, they universally defined the style markers as “glam,” and then moved forward to list its signature luxe materials: brass, Lucite, silk, tufted velvet.

Hygge: a Danish word describing a coziness and comfort that breeds wellness and contentment.

Hygge rose at just the right time—people were itching for a chance to embrace a decorating style designed to make life as cozy as possible. If you’re aiming to indulge your inner delighted Dane, look to the hallmarks of Nordic design and go even heavier into the deep end—picture a cottage in Copenhagen. Light, bright, lots of light wood, sheepskins, organic shapes and twinkly lights.

Eclectic: A comprehensive term that categorizes spaces mixing various design styles, periods, trends, textures, trends, and colors.

This one can be tough for people to grasp, as it can mean everything and nothing all at once. Eclectic spaces are governed by an “if you love it, it will match the rest of the things you love” ethos. We recommend marrying all those options with cohesive colors or repeating motifs. The key is balance (integrate uniting elements where you can) and boldness (don’t hold back, in this case—more really is more).

Photo by Cody Ulrich; Design by Erika Yeaman

Bohemian: A little more relaxed than its eclectic brethren, bohemian style is relaxed in its furniture and accessories selection with a focus on comfort over formality.

While bohemian and eclectic spaces often overlap they are not always the same—a bohemian space can tilt one style (say Shabby Chic) or be downright minimalist in its execution of casualness. The key points to look for are a cool mix of styles and materials, low furniture, and an easy, unfussiness. If the art is leaning or tacked up and not hung in a tight grid, you might be in a bohemian space.

Modern: Focuses on minimalism, neutral colors, clean lines, harkening to the 1950s era. Not the same as Mid-Century Modern, but relies on many of the same characteristics of monochromatic tones and industrial materials.

Don’t overlean on this term. While it can seem perfect to describe any space your mom wouldn’t have chosen, it’s a little more than that. Modern specifically refers to restrained, sleek, tone-on-tone or monochrome palettes, low furniture and sparse floor plans filled with highly-edited pieces. It’s minimalist and machine-age without feeling industrial, thanks to a blend of sleek silhouettes in materials like acrylic, polished stainless steel, and light wood.

Mid-Century Modern: A mid-20th-century design movement of architecture, furniture, graphics, and other elements. The style was rooted in the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century and innovations in the post-World War I period.

Between 1933 and 1965designers like Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Arne Jacobsen, and George Nelson redefined the world of interiors and furnishings. New innovations production meant homes could have expanses of glass and a stronger connection to nature, wood and fiberglass could be molded and pressed into new shapes, lighting was a whole new ball game. Inspired by early-20th-century Modernism, including the International and Bauhaus movements, the style coincided with the end of World War II. Newfound prosperity combined with migration to cities meant homeowners were willing to opt for new, more minimalist designs. Today the style is on the rise again, thanks to its focus on quality craftsmanship, simple forms, function, and organic influences.

Coastal: A light and bright aesthetic closely associated with beachfront locales that delicately balances geographically appropriate and nautical accents with a relaxed, more sophisticated style.

Coastal style used to get a bad rap, but designers have reigned in the sand dollars and “no shoes” signs to create a style that’s extended far inland. Now it’s not surprising to see shiplap in the most landlocked of places. The inspiration comes from the picturesque vistas—warmth materials and blues pulled from the ocean. Look for sea-faring textures like jute and rattan, relaxed slipcovered furniture, and a range of nautical inspired hues and patterns.

Scandinavian: A design movement hailing from Nordic countries, popular in the late ‘50s and again in the late 20th century that blends minimalism with rustic simplicity and functionality.

Scandi style is much more than IKEA. The simple aesthetic might seem tossed off, but much thought goes into each design decision. Bones of black and white and light woods are warmed up with ample plant life, woven textures, and occasional pops of soft color.

Photo by Christian Torres; Design by Andrea Jaramillo

Contemporary: encompassing a range of styles from the late 20th century, with several key differences from modern design—more softened and rounded lines and more uses of bold color.

Often confused with modern, it’s actually a step away from modern. The spaces are organized and minimal, but incorporate softer edges and colors and more comfortable furnishings. While contemporary should reflect anything that’s of the moment, the term doesn’t quite work in that sense here and should be used for spaces that feel more in the vein of this post-modernism design style.

Traditional: A modernization of English country style, influenced by current trends and classic Southern style and characterized by mixing formal furniture with casual accents and a blending of periods and finishes.

This isn’t your grandmother’s fussy unused living room. While there might be traditionally scaled furniture, classic layouts, or heirloom pieces, modern or new traditional spaces have an approachability the previous era didn’t have. It’s all about adding a balance of clean lines and interesting textures to the classics. The warmth from curated antiques combines with the crispness of today to create something that feels elevated and au courant. 

Photo by Sean Litchfield; Design by Nicole Fisher

Transitional: a blend of traditional with contemporary (not modern)—but it’s not New Traditional. This style leans more heavily on English Country style than other classic periods.

If New Traditional is little more trendy, then Transitional takes a safer approach to updating the classics. Here the bones are staunchly classic with new touches coming from contemporary pieces. The style feels more timeless than safe, a clean yet cozy vibe that’s welcoming, without too many unexpected surprises.

Maximalism: Embracing the more is more aesthetic—this blends of historical influences, colors, textures, and patterns. Personality is paramount.

For designers, this means going all in. Bold colors, a mix of patterns and style. Anything goes. The key difference between eclectic and maximalist—maximalism can go all-in on one era (think insanely ’60s or boldly Scandinavian), whereas an eclectic space would need to blend a few eras to qualify.

Photos by Sean Litchfield; Design by  Jesse Turek

Minimalism: A less-is-much-much more ethos that rose to design prominence in the ’90s, hallmarked by clean lines, a concise color palette, striking silhouettes, and a highly edited aesthetic. 

Before you decide that this is entirely too severe, give us a moment. The refined design style doesn’t have to feel like a showroom, thanks to elegant touches and warm materials that help sparse spaces to sing.

Industrial: An urban-inspired design style with elements and materials pulled from the factory floor.

Somewhere between steampunk and sleek sits industrial. Think luxury lofts and sprawling warehouses with dark neutral colors, steel and black touches, raw woods, and unfinished metals. You might notice a gear here or there, but the overall effect should feel more elevated than themey.

Brownstone/Brooklyn: The modern mix of traditional architectural elements, Mid-Century Modern pieces, and lightly eclectic accents. 

The farm-to-table movement wasn’t the only thing to spread from this borough. Brownstone style is a highly curated mix of Mid-Century Modern, contemporary pieces, and even minimalist designs, all set against a more traditional backdrop.

Ready to take the plunge on one of these styles? Sign up for Homepolish today.