skip to Main Content

Something Old, Something New!

6 Tips for Mixing Traditional and Modern

We all know that styles change. In fashion, the cycle is about thirty to thirty-five years (yes, that means the eighties are back). While in furniture and home design, it’s more like fifty. For the last ten years, mid-century modern designs have been the favorite of today’s younger apartment and first-home dwellers. The looks inspired by Charles and Rae Eames, Milo Baughman, and Heywood-Wakefield are what’s popular at thrift stores. These mid-century designs are easy to mix with today’s modern furniture styles.

But what about the other stuff? Thrift stores are full of what they call brown furniture – dark woods and more ornate styles that were popular with generations who decorated in the thirties and forties, then passed it down to their children in the eighties and nineties. These styles include Williamsburg Colonial, Country, Early Victorian, and so on.

Now they are about to be handed down again to a generation who prefers modern. What a dilemma! Grandma leaves you a nineteenth-century ornate cabinet that was always in her family, your husband’s great-aunt leaves him an eighteenth-century silver tea service, and your mom gives you an Amish pie safe that lived in your kitchen growing up. You love them all, but you have no idea how to make them work together in the same home. Say hello to what’s called eclectic design.

Eclectic used to be the polite word people used to describe a hodge-podge of styles. Today, eclectic design is celebrated as representing true individuality and originality. Think of it more as curating your home’s contents, rather than doing a grand sweep incorporating one style throughout.  We like to eat something different each night, watch different types of movies or programs, and wear different styles depending on our disposition or occasion. Why should our decorating style be any different?

So, how do you mix it up? Carefully and thoughtfully. Coming from someone with a seventeenth-century grandfather clock, a dark and exotic carved Brazilian cabinet, and my grandmother’s silver service all in a living room filled with modern European furniture and art, I have some experience in this area.

1. Not every piece can be the star. Choose your statement pieces (I suggest no more than three). These are the items with a great story or a bold color or a large physical presence. Let those pieces be the standouts that determine the scale for the rest of the space.

2. Don’t decorate like the Three Bears. Pick a scale and stick to it. If an antique chair is petite, and you pull it up to an oversized sofa, one of them will look out of place. Choose a minimalist sofa (narrow arms, off the floor style, lower back), and the chair will feel right at home. Similarly, if you have a large, dark cabinet, balance it with larger-scale pieces. Think chairs with wider arms and deeper seats, for instance.

3. Colors should mix, but do not have to match. You’ll never find an exact match for the fabric on Grandma’s chair, but you can find coordinating patterns, colors, and paint. Pull out the tone you love most and use it as your main color throughout the rest of the room, either on the walls or on the larger upholstered pieces. P.S. You do not have to have the same wood color or species throughout your room. If the standout piece is dark, you can lighten up the room with blonder pieces or with glass.

4. Speaking of glass – it can be the grand unifier. A clear glass table surrounded by any style of furniture lets the surrounding pieces shine. Glass is easy to clean and as safe for your kids as a wood table (both are hard on little heads). And everything is a magnet for small fingerprints. Just be sure it’s tempered glass which, if hit, shatters into tiny, non-sharp pieces instead of shards.

5. Think of the function with the form. The reason many people are drawn to modern designs is because they are simpler and usually consider form and function together. Cabinets without carving and inlay make them easier to dust, off-the-floor sofa designs are easier to vacuum under, and so on. While most modern pieces also offer innovations that antiques and/or traditional designs do not, you can find and use your more traditional or antique pieces in non-traditional but functional ways. Turn an old Victrola cabinet into a modern bar or a pie safe into a sweater cabinet. And if something really and truly no longer has a function today, treat it as art!

6. Ultimately, if you love it, it will work in your space. I store dishes in our Brazilian cabinet, my grandmother’s silver is a holiday regular, and I can’t imagine my living room without the grandfather clock. If you love your found or family treasures, use what you love about them to pull your rooms together. These pieces can and will work beautifully with your more modern sofa, rug, and chair, because you made it happen. The eclectic style that you create by combining designs and periods is what makes your house become your home.


Sarah Paxton is president of LaDiff, which she co-owns with her husband Andy Thornton. She is also mom to a teenage daughter, Lucy, and tries to keep up with a shedding dog and cat.
Back To Top

There are reasons 17,000 families have signed up for the RFM eNews

Exclusive Contest Alerts | New Issue Reminders | Discount Codes and Savings