Neo means new, and we can surely say that traditional is new once again. It fell out of favor from the 1940s through the 1970s and since then has been emerging in newly defined ways. Not necessarily the lavishness of the 1980s, today's neo-traditional is elegant, refined, sophisticated, yet often subtle or understated. Yes, there are some flamboyant interiors today, but a quietly beautiful look with touches of opulence is often the gist of today's new-traditional design.
The long-accepted definition of traditional design has always been the formal styles from historic periods; specifically, Early and Late Georgian, Rococo and Baroque, Neoclassic/ Federal, Greek Revival/American Empire and Victorian. Seen in the majority of the neo-traditional rooms published today are selections of Georgian, Neoclassic and Empire furniture, with accents of these other styles.
Neo-traditional design uses elements from these historic periods, but the interpretation is not historically accurate. Neo-traditional fits the lifestyles of its occupants with personalized color schemes and patterns, even alternate window treatments and easy-to-maintain materials. It is often the look for formal living rooms, formal dining rooms, upscale great rooms or family rooms, master bedrooms, guest rooms, and dens or home libraries. Neo-traditional is at home wherever luxury is evident.
The essential elements of Neo-traditional motifs include window treatments, wall treatments, floor coverings, furniture styles and art and accessories. The following is an overview of the kinds of items in each of these areas that contribute toward a neo-traditional theme.
Neo-traditional interiors call for long draperies, either straight or tied back, on conventional or decorative hardware. Where conventional hardware is selected, top treatments are important. These would include cornices, pelmets, swags and cascades and tailored valances.
The fabrics selected for window treatments most often are printed or woven designs from the historic periods or of elegant textures. The shapes of top treatments also are based on historic designs. Undertreatments of draw sheers or alternate window treatments such as blinds, shades or shutters are at home here to augment privacy and energy control and to add richness to the overall scheme.
Wall treatments in neo-traditional interiors often make use of wall coverings because the richness and diversity of this history-inspired design theme often cannot be duplicated in any other way. Wall coverings provide a sense of history and a depth of coloration. They serve to document historic themes and are the surest way to establish a color scheme and an instantly decorated background.
Other wall treatments include traditional paneling, or moldings on walls faux-painted to appear as traditional paneling. Painted walls often are of solid, rich colors with woodwork trim in white or off-white, particularly beautiful when there is a matte finish to the walls and a slightly shinier finish (satin or gloss) on the woodwork.
Subtle wall textures in wall coverings include strings, cloud-like textures, satin damask or moiré patterns. Sponge painting or other painted textures such as marbling are fitting for neo-traditional themes if they are blended colors and not obvious -- sophistication often is found in understatement. Hence, neo-traditional walls serve one of two purposes: to provide documentation of a historic period or look, or to be a subtle background for art and accessories.
Historically, traditional floors were made of wood, plank or parquet and covered with Oriental rugs, French Aubusson or Savonnerie, or area rugs of Wilton or Axminster origin. In very formal interiors, marble would be the material of choice overlaid with rugs.
Today when hard flooring is chosen, the rugs also can be designer rugs, rugs from India or Tibet, Romanian Kilims or dhurries, or the Aubusson-like Bessarabian rugs. (Rugs are a wonderful study, too.) However, wall-to-wall carpeting in plain, plush colors and textures or in subtle tone-on-tone design often is the floor covering of choice today as it is luxurious, comfortable, evens the temperature in the room and is easy to maintain. It's certainly safer, too -- no tripping on the corner of rugs.
Furniture from the Early Georgian era is classified as Queen Anne and is usually executed in cherry. Furniture from the late Georgian period was primarily designed by Thomas Chippendale and mahogany is the wood of choice. Chippendale was influenced by Gothic, Rococo and Chinese designs as evidence by his "claw and ball" foot. Pattern books such as Chippendale's "A Gentleman and Cabinetmaker's Directory" made it possible for his styles to be copied in America. Settees (sofas) have exposed legs, and the camel-back style is a Chippendale design.
Rococo furniture from France has curves everywhere and the wrap-around wood frame is fully exposed in all chairs and sofas. Curved legs in French Louis XV Rococo, English Queen Anne and Chippendale styles are all referred to as cabriole.
Neoclassic furniture designed by George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton of England was used almost exclusively during the American Federal era. Concurrent was the Louis XVI French neoclassic style. Neoclassic/Federal furniture is based on straight lines with some delicate rounded (oval) or shield-back curves. Legs were tapered and often capped with a thimble foot.
Furniture from the Empire/Greek Revival era either is heavy and masculine, known as Empire style; delicate with saber-curved legs, known as Regency style and designed by Duncan Phyfe; or straight, simple and handsome, known as Beidermeier style.
Victorian furniture falls into one of these two categories: Renaissance Revival which was heavily elaborate and carved, large scale, masculine, dark wood, originally designed by Charles Eastlake; or Rococo Revival with feminine curves and ornate carving, designed by John Belter and seen in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House. Wrought iron (such as bed frames) also are Victorian.
Today many furniture companies either copy or adapt these styles. As a general rule, Early and Late Georgian and Sheraton/Hepplewhite neoclassic furniture works nicely in the same interior. Likewise, French Rococo and French neoclassic are handsome together. Empire and Victorian pieces are sometimes seen in the same room, although both of these eras produced elaborate furniture that often is best as an accent piece.
Fabric, Art and Accessories
Fabric used in neo-traditional rooms is sometimes very elegant -- satin, damask, brocade, French tergal/chiffon and tapestry all used together, for example. Today many neo-tradtional rooms use a lot of cotton prints such as warp sateens, chintz and even some cretonne, which is less refined. The formality or elegance in these interiors is dependent on color schemes and backgrounds (floor, wall and window treatments). Large scale floral designs coupled with striped fabrics are a classic in neo-traditional interiors, first used in estate homes of country England.
Artwork, such as two-dimensional paintings, sketches and prints, often are selected from the works of the Old Masters with botanicals, scenery and even architectural engravings being very popular. Portraits of the family also can be an important part of the neo-traditional scheme. Both oils and watercolors as well as pen-and-ink drawings or engravings are good choices.
Accessories include formal floral arrangements, lovely porcelain, wrought iron or brass lamps, books and mirrors with elaborate frames. Porcelain vases or figurines, urns and statuary all play a valuable role as well.
Putting It All Together
So how is this look brought together? First, decide on a look or theme -- English or French, Victorian or Empire, clean or cluttered, historic or adapted. Let the personalities of the home owners play a part in your decisions. Next decide if the floral or tailored look is appropriate, then where the fabrics should be used.
As the essential elements are chosen, check each against the look, ambiance or theme of the room and keep the quality or integrity of design high. Neo-traditional design should be very beautiful and impeccably put together -- but above all, livable.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.