Type to search

The New Traditional


One of my early postgraduate design jobs was as an interior designer for a high-end furniture store in downtown Wilmington.

It was the showroom for quality residential furniture, and many of the pieces we carried were modern heirlooms. We had a “Williamsburg” shop within our store, and all of the licensed products were either exact Colonial Williamsburg reproductions of their original counterparts, or were designated Williamsburg adaptations, modified from the original in some way to fit 20th-century architectural standards.

The bible for the Williamsburg program was a color catalog containing all of the products in the program, including an interior and exterior paint line. Many of the items were photographed in beautiful room settings, styled with period architectural millwork. The program did not see significant annual updates, so making purchases steered by the catalog was like following a decorating “guiding light.” The furniture, based upon furniture from 1675 through 1825, carried the names of their original craftsman–Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton. Also featured were Hems from the English monarchs–Georgian, William and Mary, and Queen Anne. A brief, but detailed, history lesson along with a glossary and picture of furniture terms described each item. The contents of the catalog consisted of everything necessary to completely decorate every room of a traditional home.

Beyond the boundaries of the Williamsburg shop, the store was a gold mine of English reproductions, worthy of any Colonial Williamsburg-inspired shopper; a sea of camel back sofas and wing chairs. Unlike family life in the 1890s, the 20th-century family also wanted comfort, and many of the reproduction lines also carried (and still do carry) sofas and chairs with comfy cushions and skirted bases. These sofas and chairs had their own terminology. A Tuxedo sofa (arms the same height as the back) or a Lawson sofa (arm lower than the back) often accompanied a Queen Anne inspired wing chair in a traditional interior.

What is the new traditional? Since 2000, television, Internet, shelter magazines, and blogs influence new traditional interiors.

By Camille Gracie

Painted furniture, rustic wood, iron, slipcovers, and sisal are all new staples in traditional settings and are placed together in unexpected ways. The reproduction furniture piece has become the accent rather than the basis for the décor; too much of any one period piece is the exception, rather than the rule.

F. Schumacher & Co. was the licensed manufacturer for the Williamsburg collection in the days of the Williamsburg Shop. It is still considered a go-to source for traditional fabrics and wall coverings. Today, classic traditional patterns are reinvented and recolored every season. While formal fabrics are still available, many consumers opt for those that are comfortable and serviceable. Their recent collection by Celerie Kemble is reminiscent of the Colonial floral and flame stitch patterns of the past, with fresh, updated style and color.

Look at how architecture has adapted period homes to modern times, you’ll see recurring building materials and architectural elements on the inside and out.

Canary Cottage by Archer & Buchanan Architecture, photo by Tom Crane Photography

The interior plan of the new traditional home meets the needs of today’s family with open, spacious floor plans. The new traditional client wants the character of 18th-century inspired materials and moldings merged with open spaces, technology, organization, and casual comfort.

As this new old house emerged, so has the new traditional décor within. Formal spaces have been downsized, with great rooms dedicated to informality and comfortable congregation. Integrating media into primary living spaces by grouping furniture for television viewing is essential. Storage for electronics, books, and accessories keeps things organized and uncluttered. Natural fibers like wool, cotton, mohair, and silk are favored for upholstery, slipcovers and pillows. Natural textures, like reed, make light control easy and stylish when used for shades as window treatment stand alone or under a drapery. Sisal, sea grass, and natural materials like leather and cork, have found their way to the floor, accompanying or enhancing their wood counterparts. An Oriental rug is still a favorite to anchor every space and is likely paired with sisal as a budget-friendly coordinate. Soapstone, marble, and granite are favorites for kitchen and bath counters. Iron is added as a table base or a chair frame. All are a part of the new traditional interior, assembled in inspiring combinations for practical and aesthetic purposes.

The new traditional interior is a composition: It combines classic and modern furniture, fresh fabrics, patterned carpets, and art; incorporates modern technology in multi-purpose spaces; and withstands the test of time, yet gracefully changes along with it.

Camille Gracie, ASID, is certified by the National Council of Interior Design Qualification and holds professional status in the American Society of Interior Designers.  www.camillegracie.com

Previous Article
Next Article