The Trick To Mixing Modern and Traditional Furniture

A real Dear Laurel letter about mixing Modern and Traditional Furniture


Dear Laurel,

I hope you can offer some analysis of how and why some designers/artists mix elements from different periods so successfully and how we can do so in our own homes.

By modern, I specifically have in mind contemporary furniture from B&B Italia, which I love, or even some of this year’s West Elm pieces, but mixing any furniture from the “modern period” you mention below with traditionally styled furniture would be helpful as no doubt the tips about proportion, shape, or color would be similar.

For traditional, I am thinking of chairs and tables with turned legs, Lawson and  English roll arm sofas, French bergeres and settees, Gustavian antiques or reproductions  and even a few Victorian “brown” pieces, all of which are very pretty too.

I think this sort of furnishings mix is probably what a lot of us end up with, over time. I am moving into a small federal period historic townhouse, and I not only appreciate the clean design of good contemporary furniture, but the proportions are better than many of the giant “traditional” pieces that I know you have discussed. Hence, my suggestion to my favorite design blogger!



Christine had written me earlier and I asked her to be more specific about what she meant by “modern” and “traditional.”

And that is because I lot of folks mistakenly refer to contemporary as modern. They are two different things. Modern refers to a period of time– usually in the 1940s +/-. There is the “modern period” which encompasses bauhaus…

Oh damn it! Wake up! Never mind. I’m tired too and this is helluva boring. But you know the rest, mid-century modern, Mies van der Rohe modern, Danish Modern, Italian modern, shrimp modern…

… shrimp cocktail, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo, pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp…


But the mixing of styles is a VAST subject. I mean, we’re talking ten volumes of coffee table books.


However, I’m going to make a little cheat sheet of some classic modern and traditional furniture pieces that are Universal donors. (no fair looking ahead) :]

Contemporary is largely the bloated stuff they make today.

Okay, not all of it is. But too much is.

And transitional is a meaningless term, IMO. It’s really contemporary. Or, if it’s well-done, classic contemporary.

If it’s not traditional or modern and it’s made today, it’s contemporary.  If a piece of furniture is not made in the time period that it looks like it is, then we call it “whateveritis-style” ie: Chippendale-style  because Thomas Chippendale furniture was produced well over 200 years ago.

But very few do that and I’m not going to split hairs as I’ve been just as guilty for calling something contemporary, “modern.”


A room we did in 2005

As for traditional. Over the years I’ve shown clients this classic contemporary sofa (above); some see modern and some see traditional. It’s from TCS Designs,(no website) but they discontinued this frame a while back.


A lot of what makes a room feel more traditional or more modern is how the furniture is treated.


For instance this room from the One King’s Lane Studio, with its English Roll Arm sofas and wing chairs has traditional furnishings (save the contemporary coffee table)

But because of the simple monochromatic color scheme and minimal decor, the over-all effect is contemporary in feel. Added to that is just the right of contemporary and modern accent pieces.


First rule of thumb when mixing modern and traditional furniture


No matter what, you can always do a modern-style coffee/cocktail table. Always. Always. Always.


Like this beauty done by Mark D. Sikes

Can we do it the other way around?

Usually not.

For instance, here we have a classic Italian-style-modern sectional ala B&B Italia.

Only this is the Andes sectional from West Elm for about 1/8th price. I’m not exaggerating.


It’s is not going to look good with this lovely Chippendale style table found at Chairish

But, the coffee table would look great with this beautiful contemporary Sutton sofa

What’s the difference?

The first sofa is more stylized and to my eye doesn’t work as well with a traditional style. The second one does have some more traditional elements with the tapered wood legs and classic shape.


But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have traditional elements with the West Elm sofa.


But this modern Oscarine lucite and brass coffee table from Anthropologie is a wonderful universal donor. You could mix this with anything.


In addition to coffee tables are there other Universal elements for mixing modern and traditional furniture?


Yes, indeed!

I think it’s good to know the elements that can work in any decor, be it modern or traditional.

Here they are:


  • Ornate architecure
  • Modern architecture
  • Abstract art
  • Traditional art can go in modern rooms, but more sparingly
  • Modern Side/End tables
  • Oriental Rugs
  • Natural rugs
  • Chinoiserie
  • Ornate Mirrors
  • Modern lighting
  • But traditional lighting can also be cool in a modern room.


But here’s the most important rule to know when mixing modern and traditional furniture.


There are no hard and fast rules.


There is an art to it and when one starts putting formulas together, I think is when we get into trouble.

And then the other consideration is if the room is formal or casual. See, there are thousands of possibilities.

A rustic coffee table with turned legs and peeling paint is going to look silly with Italian modern furniture.


Remember when I said there are no rules? Well, I lied. This one below is pretty solid.


Architecture Aside. The room is either going to be predominantly modern or predominantly traditional– with only accents of the other style.


This is one instance where being equitable is most likely going to result in a sucktastic room.

So, how does that work?

Well, first, we need to look at the architecture of the room. Say we are fortunate to have a 19th-century brownstone with 14-foot ceilings and 10-foot high windows. sigh…

Quite frankly, you can go to your local Salvation Army, load up a U-haul, throw it all in, and it’ll be on the cover of next March’s Elle Decor.


If you have a 1960s ranch home, the same home will probably look pretty tacky unless your Salvation Army is in the middle of Greenwich, Connecticut, or someplace like that.


Leaving the architecture of the room off the table, let’s discuss what making the room predominantly one way or the other would look.


Going back to the brownstone. It is decided that we are going mostly modern. If I were a consumer and didn’t have $150,000 to drop, I would head over to Anthropologie, West Elm, and Jonathan Adler. If you don’t have one near you, you can shop online following the links.

And actually, Anthro might end up being one-stop shopping. And that is because they have already curated their collection with an eclectic combo of modern, contemporary and traditional styles. And they’ve thrown in some exotic elements too.

Yes, it’s true. They started out well over a decade ago with a tiny collection of decidedly BoHo furnishings. And yes, you can still definitely get the Boho look.

If you don’t know what Boho means it’s short for Bohemian.

But Bohemian with a hefty trust fund and a Maserati parked out front. Ya know?

However, that was then and now, they have toned it down a nicely priced and HUGE line of eclectic furnishings.

You want neutral? They have it. You want color? Oh man, they are the boss of color!

And some very pretty, classic pieces.

You can furnish the entire place with Anthro. And as a reminder above with the Timorous Beastieswallpaper, they have a fabulous collection of wallpapers and wall murals.


 West Elm

West Elm has broadened their line to a really lovely and well-designed mid-century modern collection. It is pricier than previous collections, but it is still relatively affordable compared to the likes of the aforementioned B&B Italia.


Last is Jonathan Adler.


I have also loved this line, but I debated including it in the list. And that is because they took away one of my favorite coffee tables and didn’t replace it with anything nearly as cool.

True, the faux alligator is a bit much sometimes, but the lines and scale of this piece are perfect.

However, they do have this way cool cocktail table, which fulfills a necessary requirement of having some black in a room. For some rooms, it might be too much black, however. It also comes in white, orange, peacock blue, and navy.

Peking Cocktail Table

Very versatile and there’s some storage in it too.
Many of us want rooms that are both fresh and timeless. Now, that might seem like an oxymoron. But as I see it, a timeless room by definition, is always fresh. And I think that a room can be timeless whether it is mostly traditional or mostly modern.


I think that the most successful rooms usually have some elements of both.


Here are some beautiful rooms that I think got the mix of modern and traditional furniture just right.


Above and below by Nate Berkus


Jessica Helgerson via Lonny

One King’s Lane – mixing modern and traditional

A Nashville home via Domino –

Cool mix of modern and traditional furniture and accents.

Studio McGee – always a great blend!

and I adore their shop!

mixing modern and traditional furniture via Mark D. Sikes

Mark D. Sikes – Love everything he touches.

Great modern Charlton Floor Lamp from Visual Comfort amongst beautiful traditional furnishings.

And below is the promised gathering of universal furnishings– and some iconic classics. I found as I did this exercise, that it’s mostly modern and contemporary furnishings which are universal.

While a crystal chandelier can look fabulous in a modern setting, it takes time to find just the right one sometimes. But I did add in a baroque mirror. I love to have a bit of fancy in a modern/contemporary room.


I think it’s important to have at least one unexpected thing.


Phew! That was a lot and I could’ve written about 50 more posts like this. I know that I didn’t even come close to covering everything, but hopefully, y’all gleaned some new information. I certainly did. And that comes from really thinking about how things are done; I think it’s mostly something that I’ve done instinctively.

Below is a graphic to pin for reference if you like.

classic-home-furnishing-pieces-for-modern-or-traditional-rooms - mixing modern and traditional furniture



PS: If you’re looking for Father’s Day Gift Ideas please check out the curated collection I put together. Since there are so many sales on this weekend, this is an excellent time to get gifts, if you enjoy shopping online.

56 Responses

  1. Laurel thanks so much for the personal shopping trip! I was just ruminating on how to make my cozy little living room across from the dining room not skew too “granny” or “English drawing room” and now I know what I am going to try. It’s the acrylic anthropologie coffee table. I’m also daring to try the pink OKL abstract you’ve linked to. So good to have you around I think I will keep you! 🙂 K

      1. Im going to try and see it in person, and I like that its returnable if the quality is not up to snuff. I’m thinking of this as a “fashion piece” that doesn’t have to last forever anyway.

  2. I recently discovered your blog, and am so happy I did! What a wealth of information & advice. And I love your sense of humour & writing style too! Your topic for this post was very helpful. It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to, but as another reader said, I could deal with specific examples, but I had not formulated any guiding principles. Thank you for sharing yours!

    I am interested to know your perspective on changing the style emphasis in different areas of the house. For example, having a predominately traditional living room & dining room that have modern accents, and in the same house having primarily modern with traditional accents in the kitchen, breakfast room & family room. Do you think it would make the house more interesting or schizophrenic?

    I am curious about your definition of Transitional. I would point to Barbara Barry’s style as an example of Transitional. But is her style one that you would define as Classic Contemporary?

    I would also be interested in the topic another reader suggested – how to decorate your house if you like everything. Seriously, this is something that paralyzes me. There are so many styles I like, but there is only so much you can mix before it’s a hot mess. How to choose the direction to take?!

    Thanks again for a great post & a great blog. I’ve got a lot of reading to do to catch up on your past posts!

    1. Hi Catherine,

      Thanks for such a sweet comment. This is just me, but I’m not fond of the term “transitional.” And the term “traditional” is often misconstrued into meaning something that is neither traditional or contemporary.

      I think that the best rooms always have a mix of styles. How that mix comes about is not something one can create a formula for. But I think that eventually, one’s eye becomes trained for what looks good together and what doesn’t. Or at least, that’s the goal.

  3. Hi Laurel,

    This is one of my favorite posts, but so many amazing ones, who could pick! I was thinking, just as someone beat me to it, that your posts are so remarkable, so chock full of practical advice – meaning I can understand, try to put it to use, can afford to try out, etc. – that I really should not pay for a traditional design magazine again. They are so disappointing after finding you. Your blend of honesty, humor, design smarts, and generosity are unparalleled. I love that you are truly trying to educate and support the general public, or lay population, whatever you want to call us. So rare, so admirable. Your last few months of output could be a book. You hit them outta the park as they say. Thank you.

    1. Hi Paula,

      Thank you so much! Yes, I do put a lot into it. I FEEL it. But I truly do enjoy it. I so appreciate your kind words and support. It’s my fuel! xoxo

  4. Laurel, just a brilliant and helpful post! I’ve actually wondered a lot about this myself, and have admired many of the modern and traditional designs but never realized which pieces work best when mixing. Thank you so much for the specifics, and for the gorgeous possible options!

  5. Hi Laurel,

    I love this post! And I appreciate how difficult it was to write. It’s so hard to explain how things do not have to ‘match’ but can still go together. And as always, you give such excellent advice!

    My home is such a mix of thrift store or garage sale finds, antique heirlooms and the occasional West Elm or Anthropologie splurge. People have often asked me what style it is. Truthfully, I have no idea. That’s what I love about my home – it’s original and it’s me. My grandmother always told me to get what you love. Every time I visit her and walk through her peachy pink front door, I enter into her little world. It’s so much fun to spend time with her in a place that is full of her personality.

    I really enjoy how you encourage your readers to also buy what they love and provide guidance to create the flow to make their homes beautiful. It’s so refreshing and appreciated!

  6. I tend to do the mix of styles, mainly because I enjoy frequenting antique and consignment shops (OK, junk shops, if I’m being honest…). I come up with a mix that works for me, more intuitive than anything. I read a quote in an Architectural Digest in the past year or so by one of the young, upcoming designers (don’t remember his name) who formerly had a well known designer, now dead (also don’t remember his name — maybe Albert Hadley?) — anyway, the quote, that the young designer now uses as a guideline, is:

    “Objects in conversation with each other.”

    I think that’s how my rooms make me feel — kind of like an ongoing dinner party, but with objects…

    Love your blog.

  7. Hi Laurel- don’t shoot me if this is a question you’ve already answered, okay? That first sofa in the room you did and is discontinued. Have you found one that’s very similar? It’s such a great frame with the small rolled arm and legs.

    FYI on the Eames recliners: the real deal is on the small side. They’re not terribly comfortable to many men.

    Excellent post, as always. Thanks!

    1. Hi Anne,

      No, I haven’t answered it yet and I wouldn’t shoot you; not for asking that, anyway.

      No, I haven’t found a substitute. Apparently, I’m the only one who sold it. I must’ve sold at least a dozen of that frame over the years.

      Thanks for the Eames heads up. The one pictured is a dining chair, but it does look a little petite. Or did you mean the Barcelona Chair? – The brown one? I’ve sat in a few of those and I think they’re quite comfortable.

  8. Hi Laurel, thank you for another superb article! I just finished “refreshing” my living room and am glad to see I met your guidelines. Much thanks to your blog for refining my decorating eye. Next up is a “refresh” of my match-match dining room.

  9. Fantastic post, as usual. For the English commenter who posted about sources for modern things – she may want to check out Aram in London. They have a great website and quite a few things interesting pieces for those who like a nice tension between traditional and cool. Better selection than DWR, imho.

  10. Hi Laurel,

    Thank you, thank you for this great post. I so appreciate the sources, the photos of rooms with successfully mixed styles (I plan to study them) and even a couple of good rules! I feel you have given us the tools to freshen up our homes in a more interesting way.


  11. What a great post Laurel! I know from experience, this is a hard topic to explain because it’s not quite about rules – some of the energy of a room with a mix is the contrast and pleasure of unexpected pairings. But done wrong a room can look accidental. Among many gems in here is your point that it’s best to weight a room toward traditional or modern rather than 50/50. Clearly true – not commonly pointed out!
    I was a dealer in antique and vintage modern furniture for some years (just closed). People asked often for mixing advice and I could help with specific examples but not many principles. Too bad I couldn’t point them to this piece! And your list of universal donors is really helpful too.
    I hope you revisit this topic as others have said. The mix is a good way to personalize a room. Not to mention the topic of how to freshen a room without ditching everything (both costly and hard on the planet)
    Love your blog- great advice, a generous sharing of talent and knowledge, levity, and a strong dose of practical reality! After closing my biz I am skipping most interior blogs and magazines, but will keep reading yours. Brava!!

    1. Hi Wendy,

      Well, I’m immensely flattered by your last sentence! Thank you! A friend wrote me about a post idea and it’s a great one. I’m sure that I’ve touched on it and have dealt with it dozens of times over the years.

      Inherited furniture that the client NEEDS to keep. That’s almost always for sentimental reasons and I love that because of course, they are going to keep Granny’s Victorian settee, that got passed down to Mom and now the client in their newly renovated modern-to-the-hilt home.

      That really happened, but we made it work!

      1. Thanks for this helpful post, Laurel. And PLEASE post your ideas about incorporating sentimental furniture into our 2017 spaces. I have a lovely Queen Anne-style serving chest that reminds me of my beloved, gracious now-departed mother every time I glance at it, so of course I want that in my living room – even though my taste tends toward furniture with clean lines. I eagerly await your ideas on the subject!

  12. Amazing post, Laurel, and if you could write another 50 posts like these-I’ll read them with stars in my eyes. I love to mix modern and traditional-it is more interesting to me, more layered, plainly more affordable too..and yes, there’s always an element of unpredictable to need to listen to how things talk to each in an Andersen fairy tale, you know? His things always have these long conversations at night:)
    And I love it too because you can’t really be done with the house..there always be some rain-soaked princess(a painting?a lamp? a side table?) knocking at the door:) and you’ll let her in.
    So it’s a bit of composition of a story to me in it, and that what makes it so worth it too, the process itself and not just
    a result.
    Love all the sources (well I have my beef with West Elm but their lines are good, no question about it)..a bit sad to know that Bed Bath and Beyond bought OKL..I can’t quite explain why it saddens me, but why companies need to merge and become these giants over time? Oh I know why, but I’d rather they wouldn’t.
    My rule of thumb though-never buy everything from one place even if you absolutely love it AND can afford it(which I can’t)-true, OKL and Anthropologie already have a very nicely curated, growing, wonderful mix put for you together..yet you don’t want to purchase your story at once. You want to write want the process part too.
    I learned it at some point, and even though I was mad then then I can’t afford just to buy half the store I saw and loved-now I’m so happy because ultimately my house is happier for that.
    Ah, yes and bones matter. Tremendously. Some houses, all you really need is not to spoil whatever’s already there..
    They are like some beautiful people. You can imagine them being anybody in any century-and they’ll be gorgeous in whatever costume and setting you put them, in your mind. you see that not only I’ll read your other 50 posts on the subject, I’ll also find a way to write a long illegible comment after each one:)

  13. This post is so smart!!! Wow!!! Best thing I have read on home décor in a long time. I hope you will continue talking about “the mix”. Thank you. I am going to read it all again and again.

  14. Laurel, I think your blog is so much more informative both verbally and visually than any interiors themed magazine available. I would gladly pay for your blog what I pay for ALL of my subscriptions! I hope you write more about combining contemporary and traditional as I have sadly bid adieu to my country French and am definitely excited about this new idea of mixing it up.

    1. Hi Joanne,

      What a lovely comment! There are no plans to charge for the blog itself, but I am very grateful to the many people who’ve bought my products. That keeps me going!

  15. Thank you Laurel for this article. I so much agree with you about the terminology and making sure the client and I have the same understanding.
    I recently read a book on colour. The colour info was excellent, BUT the section on styles was limited to 4. Traditional, Classic, Modern, Contemporary.
    Looking at the illustrations I got more and more confused, because there were items that I would call Classic and the author called it traditional?
    I also do not like to categories everything so much. I prefer to work with the items and see whether it works or not. Sometimes things work together beautifully although one did not expect it to work.
    Thanks again for your lovely blogs.

    1. Hi Marianne,

      It’s really true. It’s like a lot of different strong dialects for the same language, but much can be lost in the translation.

      And then there’s the furniture that defies category. haha

  16. Great article. I’ve been trying to figure out how to update my traditional living room without going overboard. Now I have some food for thought.

  17. Hi Laurel,
    I LOVE this post! I have always mixed new, old, high, low. I was on a quest a couple of years ago for good reproduction Barcelona chairs and couldn’t decide because I was afraid of the quality. The ones you have in the post get great reviews. My “wheels” are spinning again. All of the other suggestions you gave were perfect, too! XO

    1. Hi Nancy,

      I know… I just commented to the one before yours that the Barcelona is a knock-off and the only reason it’s on there is because the DWR’s image showed up very tiny in the widget and I have no control over that. If I had made a separate graphic which takes 5 times longer, I could. But then I found this one with fabulous reviews and a lot of them, so I figured it would be okay. That’s my criteria if I’m not familiar with a product/brand.

  18. Love this post. You could write a dozen more on this subject & it would never get old.
    I have always loved the look of the Eames molded chair. I’ve seen pictures of it mixed with all kinds of tables & it always looks so fresh & young. But the ones I’ve seen in stores look small & cheap. I could never imagine my 6′ husband sitting in one at our table.
    Are they all that small or does it depend on the vendor? The knockoffs of the original are certainly affordable. But I don’t want my chairs to look small & cheap.

    1. Hi Mary,

      I’m not really sure about that. There is an armchair version of the tulip chair that looks bigger. I’ve never actually sat in one.

      There are knockoffs. The real ones come from either Knoll or Design Within Reach. I did put in a knock off for the Barcelona (tannish chair) because DWR’s image on the widget was horribly underscale. These licensed pieces are very expensive. Normally, I wouldn’t link to a knock-off, but if someone wants the real thing, the link to the site is there under the Eames chair.

  19. Another great post, Laurel. I don’t know how you can do this twice a week! I stumbled across your website last year and have recommended it to several friends. The amount of work you put in to each of your posts is impressive. There are many design sites out there but I don’t think any can hold a candle to yours.

    1. Hi Leah,

      That is so kind and very much appreciated!

      This is what I do now. No clients. No kids. No husband.

      I once had all of the above. And now I have you guys! It’s just a shame that I can’t see y’all!

  20. Laurel,

    You’ve written another gem! I love to mix traditional and contemporary. I find the clean lines of modern pieces allow my eyes a bit of relief from the more ornate embellishments of many traditional styles. Great universal donor list as well. I never thought of it that way but that is a perfect description.

    1. Hi Claudia,

      I had never thought of it that way either, but as I was putting it all together, it occurred to me that there are pieces that wold look good in a variety of decors.

  21. Laurel,

    What a great post! This is such a neat look – especially since mixing these different pieces helps give a room an instantly more “collected” and interesting feel. Speaking as someone who lives in Europe (where finding neat antiques is relatively cheap and easy) I am amazed by how many better sources you have for these eclectic and modern-style pieces. Am designing a house here and often refer to your fantastic advice. I just wish there were a European Laurel and rolodex 🙂 Your US readers don’t know how lucky they are!

  22. Dear Laurel – it’s a rainy sunday morning here in Norway, so some of the farm chores can wait till I have read your blog. Which I stumbled over some months ago while surfing around for paint ideas for the farm house we are currently building.

    Thank you for your great work. Most of the decorating sites and magazines here are so heavily into modern scandinavian, that it often feels like looking at black and white pictures! After reading your blog I realized that my taste is much more colourful, and that I really like a mix of styles. I actually planned to ask you to do a blog post on how to furnish your house if you like ‘everything’ – hey presto, here it is!

    I really like that you take the practicalities of daily life into account. Such as having young children or pets around. We have both and, as said, live on a working horse farm. So I deal with questions like which furniture best withstands muddy jeans (including dark blue ones – rub-off hell!), which flooring can withstand boot spikes, which coffee table is best suited to put your feet on (including dirty socks and bits of hay), and so on.

    Luckily we will get a master bedroom where things can be a little less robust. So I look forward to implementing some of your ideas there.

    Sometimes it’s hard to not get overwhelmed in this whole building process. It’s so easy to forget that people come first – not paint, or pieces of furniture…
    Thanks again for your hard work, your ideas and your sense of humor about it all!

    1. Hi Michele,

      Thank you so much for the lovely post! Yes, people first! Always, but geeezzz, maybe take the spiked boots off first? Maybe change out of the muddy clothes?

      Oh, I know… it’s an uphill battle. I raised two grimy rambunctious little boys– strapping young men now!

  23. Laurel, you somehow always know when I need you to write about something I am struggling with. Thank you for another great article!

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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