Design Speak: What is “Transitional” Anyway?

Picking up where we left off with last week’s post on style terms, this week, we’re adding Transitional to the mix and digging into what makes Transitional, well, Transitional. 🙂

As a somewhat new style category compared to styles like Modern, some folks have a pretty clear idea of what defines Transitional style, but there are still those asking, “What exactly is this ‘Transitional’ style, anyway?” HGTV and other design websites and TV shows have made “transitional” a big buzzword, but even designers have a hard time putting it into words and helping their clients understand what this style entails.

The basics

To me, Transitional style is what I’d call “today’s traditional.” It’s clean, it’s neutral, and it’s hard to dislike!  Transitional style is a spectrum, with a cleaned-up, simplified traditional look on one side and a softened, quasi-Contemporary vibe on the other.  It takes the stately elegance of traditional style and merges it with Contemporary style’s artistic sleekness.

York Reverse Raised (RR) maple Smoke, Flat Panel (FP) maple Irish Creme Classic; Mission Flat Panel (FP) quartersawn oak Greystone
In this design, clean lines and an open layout give the room a sense of Transitional style.

In fact, one of the key hallmarks of Transitional style is the way it takes Traditional style and makes it less formal for a space that’s comfortable and inviting while still being stylish and refined. If I were to describe the overall “vibe” or feeling of a Transitional space, the words that come to mind are “restful,” “unfussy,” and “welcoming.”

York Reverse Raised (RR) maple Smoke, Flat Panel (FP) maple Irish Creme Classic; Mission Flat Panel (FP) quartersawn oak Greystone
Open shelving and contrasting neutral finishes are evident in Transitional designs. Notice that the brick wall is void of baseboard and window moldings, which also keeps the look sleek.

Like we talked about in Contemporary style, Transitional includes aspects of other style categories that value simplicity and clean lines, including Shaker, Mission, Nordic, and Japanese design. And like Contemporary, Transitional style is an evolving look that changes with trends.

Transitional Elements

Transitional style takes a palette full of neutral colors meant to fade into the background and demonstrates just how eye-catching they can be.  Grey, white, and beige are dominant, especially in a thoughtful placement of warm and cool shades.  Tone-on-tone pairings are key and give the space that trending monochromatic look.  One or two accent finishes add some interest without taking over.

Ellison Flat Panel (FP) maple White Icing Pewter Highlight; Bella quartersawn oak Shale
Turned legs, crown molding, X patterned mullions and island ends are all elements that keep this design within the Transitional style category. Also note the wood flooring: wide, warm brown planks full of character. This selection softens the space as well.

In both kitchen and bath cabinetry, white paint is stealing the show, and the brighter the better! Of course, as a close runner-up, grey finishes, especially alongside neutral brown stains (such as hardwood floors), have established themselves as a low-risk alternative to white. Still, grey is considered fashion-forward for the majority of consumers and when they opt for this neutral, they view it as a trend-setting selection. (Read more about the greatness of grey here!)

Another key tactic with a neutral transitional space is the inclusion of texture.  Since the color palette is so uniform, adding diversity through dimensional materials adds some much-needed contrast to keep the room-scape from becoming monotone or boring. Understated and subtle patterns can be introduced in tile, and light industrial elements (from exposed brick to utilitarian light fixtures) can also find a home in transitional looks.

Modern and Contemporary accents like those I pointed out in our last article (aluminum-framed doors, metal furniture feet, polished metal fixtures, and decorative glass and mirrored accents) add a sleek and shiny feel that shifts Transitional style towards a more Urban feel.  Integrating storage solutions is important for keeping counters uncluttered, and using open shelving and glass front cabinets strategically so the final lived-in look isn’t too busy.

metal_hardware collage


Essentially, Transitional style ranges from sleek and sophisticated to casual and refined.


Breaking down the doors

From a door style perspective, a “less is more” selection is the right approach. In fact, the demand for simple Shaker-esque styles has driven the expansion for five-piece styles with flat or reverse-raised center panels. Hence, the introduction of Medallion’s Pick-a-Panel launch a few years ago.

Below is an outline I put together of our Transitional door styles, and the position of where they fit on the spectrum based on appearing more Traditional or more Contemporary.

Blog graphic_Trad to Cont doors

As you look closer, you’ll see that I’ve placed styles with wide frames closer to Contemporary, as they blend the look of Shaker and Modern. Meanwhile, I’ve placed styles with profiled details closer to Traditional: the more detail, the closer to Traditional it will appear. You probably noticed that all of the center panels on five-piece styles are flat or reverse raised. This aspect, along with the finish, is key to categorizing door styles within the Transitional umbrella. If we finished all of the above door styles in Hazelnut or Pecan, or used beaded or raised center panels, they would suddenly shift to the Traditional category. So, by using neutral stains and paints, we maintain the Transitional style theme.

Capturing Transitional

What other elements make up a Transitional style design for kitchens and baths? Personally, I think it depends on the home and the personality of the client, but in new construction, I often see raised panel interior doors and wide trim work in bright white paint as the foundation. Wall colors are neutral, with the most popular being in the grey or greige family. Then, as they seek to add interest, we’ll see smaller areas, like an entry, an accent wall or a powder room as places to express more color statements and wall coverings. Of course, décor is the typical expression of color, like textiles in throws, pillows and sometimes drapery, though, like the walls, these would likely be neutral with an interesting pattern.

For cabinetry, I like to stick with a simple crown molding, like the Wide Cove, Marquis or Crescent. Below wall cabinets, I prefer using the continuous finished bottom panel, which allows for integrated under cabinet lighting without a light strip molding.  Deluxe ends vs. matching ends streamlines the design. And I’m fond of using wider door sizes, like 18″ or greater, for a more modern style. Finally, for legs, I tend to steer towards the square or stately designs.

CupThese are just a few of my favorite things in Transitional designs, but what elements do you see as key to making Transitional designs successful?

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