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Traditional Furniture vs. Contemporary Furniture

by Shelly McRae

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Living room with contemporary furniture

Traditional furniture and contemporary furniture each belong to distinctive interior design categories. Where the first is a celebration of the ornate and indulgent, the second adheres to the understated. Traditional furniture offers elegance and romance. Contemporary furniture is subtle and urban in its appeal. The styles each have their own characteristics, their own charm and attractions. They are, in a design sense, opposites.

Traditional and Contemporary:

  1. Identification: Traditional furniture is associated with such styles as William and Mary, Queen Anne, Victorian and Chippendale. The styles call for ornate furnishings with elaborate carving and emphasis on motifs and signature looks. Contemporary furniture is born of more modern styles, such as Bauhaus and post-modern. While an offshoot of modern design, contemporary furniture has softer lines and deeper upholstery than its parent styles.

  2. Features: Traditional chairs boast such features as turned or cabriole legs, ball-and-claw feet or bun feet, arched backs and rolled arms. Table legs resemble matching chair legs, and tabletops often have ornately trimmed edges. Motifs such as pineapples or seashells may be included in carvings in the backs of chairs or tabletop inlays. Upholstered furnishings, such as sofas, often have wood trim and large, dominant footings. Contemporary furniture has clean lines with soft edges. Chair legs and arms are simple, either square or round. Upholstery fabrics are either one solid color or have a subtle pattern. Contemporary tables have little if any ornate carvings. Inlaid patterns, if used, are geometric. Upholstered furniture is low to the ground with squared arms. The backs may be tufted with large, fabric-covered buttons.

  3. Time Frame: Styles ranging from art deco to post-modern could be considered contemporary in comparison to traditional styles. In terms of furniture, however, whatever followed the modern styles of the 1950s, '60s and '70s has become known as contemporary. Now these furnishings are less sleek and suppler in appearance than in earlier styles. Traditional furniture of the 21st century mimics the curves and carvings of furniture styles made through the early 20th century and so retain that stylistic identification.

  4. Misconceptions: Traditional furniture need not be oversized, overbearing or overly ornate. Softer curves, subtler patterns and controlled carvings make modern-day traditional furniture lighter and more compatible with 21st century lifestyles.

  5. Considerations: Traditional and contemporary furnishings usually don't work well together. A traditional side chair in a space designed in a contemporary style may add interest, but in the reverse, the chair will appear out of place.

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