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.

Photo by Tessa Neustadt; Design by Rosa Beltran

California style has always been lust-worthy. From the bungalow ranchero vibes to the peak of the sixties, but this style hones in on a certain cultivated vibe. Ariel Okin recommends popping in a film to channel the aesthetic. “It’s Meryl Streep’s house in It’s Complicated.” Think laid back, light colors, oversized upholstery, rattan, gennery, and an assortment of global accents. “A boho piece thrown in is a must,” explains Megan Born. “Persian rug, kilim pillow, etc., and a classic yet modern surprise here or there (fun to throw in with lighting)!” For Molly Torres, the style isn’t just decor, it’s a way of being. “The whole ‘California aesthetic’ goes beyond design and style, it’s truly a lifestyle and a way of thinking. It’s a jumble of dichotomies: simple, yet extremely textural and layered. Clean, modern lines with a dash of bohemian flair. Lots of neutrals with pops of whimsical and rich colors throughout.”

Modern Farmhouse: an update of the rustic style with a modernist bent, known for airy interiors contrasted with original details like rustic support beams, steel windows, and practical, open-space designs.

Photos by Jillian Sipkins; Design by Haley Weidenbaum

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

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. “Simple design with lots of natural raw elements,” Anna explains. “It’s Wrinkled linen bedding—nothing is too precious.” Imagine the materials that are “organically imperfect,” says designer Deanna Dewey. Knotty woods, textured linen, chipped ceramics, whatever feels inviting and without being overwhelming. As Ariel succinctly puts it: “balanced, warm, inviting, timeless, calming.”

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.

Photo by Nick Glimenakis, Design by Jae Joo

Sometimes wear is wear, and sometimes it’s patina—and designers love the later. “Imagine the way a shingled beach house looks after a few years of being battered by salt air or the perfect pair of worn-in Levi’s,” explains Ariel. Our experts love adding this layer of depth to a space, particularly in contrast with newer, of-the-moment pieces. “Once something has a patina, it adds texture to any palette and therefore warmth,” Kerry Vasquez explains. “Its beauty grows as it ages, becoming richer,” Anna continues. “Patina tells a story.”

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. Our designers’ word association almost universally pulled the word “glam” along with a host of other luxe materials. “Brass, glam, and lucite loveliness!” Deanne Dewey exclaimed. While Kerry broke it down into two simple equations: “Glitz + Glam. Tufted velvet + gilded ornate mirrors.”

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

Hygge seemed to rise 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, sheepskin galore, natural organic shapes,” Anna describes. Ariel nails it down to the scent of the space. “Twinkle lights, votive candles, and the smell of sugar cookies baking in the oven.”

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

Photo by Cody Ulrich; Design by Erika Yeaman

This one can be tough for people to grasp, as it can mean everything and nothing all at once. “It’s all about what you love and marrying it in a cohesive way with loud pops throughout,” Deanna says. “Collected and playfully zany: think of Iris Apfel,” conjures. The key is balance (integrate uniting elements where you can) and boldness (don’t hold back, in this case—more really is more).

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. “Restrained, sleek, tone-on-tone or monochrome palettes, low furniture, sparse floor plans, highly-edited,” Ariel explains. 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.

Coastal: a light and bright style closely associated with beach-front locals 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. Carly Callahan of Callahan Interiors explains the allure: “It’s about the warmth of the materials and blues inspired by beaches and water.” Look for sea-faring materials like jute, 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.

Photo by Seth Caplan; Design by Crystal Sinclair

Photo by Sean Litchfield, Design by Jesse Turek

“I love this simplistic style,” Megan gushes. “Scandinavian design looks simple but has so much thought behind everything. Lots of black and white, typography and graphic patterns.” Yes, this isn’t your Hygge vibes—Scandi style goes much starker, but keeps from feeling too cold thanks to ample plant life, textures from a host of light woods, and the occasional pops of soft color.

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.

This one’s confusing. “It’s a step away from modern,” Anna delineates. “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.

New 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, there’s an approachability the previous era didn’t have. Ariel, who considers the style very much her own, explains it thusly: “A balance of clean lines and interesting textures; new and old riffing together in a neutral yet interesting palette,” she explains. “Warmth from curated antiques meets crispness from fresh, custom pieces—the essence behind how I design!”

Transitional: a blend of Traditional with Contemporary (not modern)—but not New Traditional either, which leans more on English Country style than other classic periods.

Photo by Cody Ulrich; Design by Joy Rondello

If new traditional is little more trendy, then transitional takes a safer approach to updating the classics. “It is a timeless look, the bones are classic with touches of on-trend pieces in the accents,” explains Anna. It’s rooted in the various categories of tradition, but blended with a contemporary focus. For Megan, it’s more classic than classic: “A clean yet cozy feeling, a well-put-together space that feels welcoming and without too many unexpected surprises. This style feels safe and timeless.”

Maximalism: embracing the more is more aesthetic—a blend of historical influences, colors, textures, and patterns. Personality is paramount.

Photo by Meghan Bob; Design by Katherine Carter

For designers, this means going all in. “Maximalism means no fear!” Anna gushes. “Bold colors, a mix of patterns and style. Anything goes.” The key difference between eclectic and maximalist—maximalist can go all-in on one era (think insanely ’60s or boldly Scandinavian).

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