Transitional cabinetry and design: classy modern or sleek traditional?

Karl Fendelander | Improvement Center Columnist | December 9, 2013

A blend of old and new, baroque and austere, transitional design strikes a perfect balance between traditional and contemporary styles. This transitional space between the two schools of design produces rooms filled with a restful, understated elegance. The lines in this design are simpler and cleaner than traditional but more ornate and elaborate than contemporary. A blend of neutral tones makes a calming color scheme, monochromatic without being cold or dull. Ornate patterns and isolated bursts of color provide accents. The look is sublime.

This hot new design trend is growing in popularity. The National Kitchen & Bath Association's 2013 Kitchen and Bath Style Report showed that "transitional-style kitchens and baths have clearly surpassed traditional styles, a longstanding favorite until 2012." Unlike other trends, this design allows you to mix and match new elements with those you already have, allowing for an easy transition between the two, resulting in a style all it's own.

Transitional cabinetry

In cabinetry, transitional design manifests in the lines, textures and colors used.

  • Lines. Inlaid patterns are kept to a minimum, and door panels are simple. Overall, transitional cabinets look crisp and clean without being too sharply or starkly modern. The use of wood helps add warmth to the sleek design.
  • Textures. In transitional design, texture is often used as accent, and wood grain fills this role wonderfully. Beautiful, subtle effects can be achieved by changing the orientation of the wood and direction of the grain. Different types of wood and different cuts can create dramatically different looks.
  • Colors. Darker stains and finishes are trending in transitional cabinet design, but natural is never out of style. If you're painting your cabinetry, whites and grays are also part of the transitional palette.
Cabinet and drawer hardware follow the same rules and should be sleek and functional.

The transitional kitchen

Stainless steel appliances are the way to go for transitional kitchens, especially when the metal is used as an accent. Contrast the steel with something that feels more organic, like natural wood grain, marble or tumbled stone. The intricate patterns and earthy feel of these materials sets off stainless appliances and vent hoods. This mixing of manufactured and organic materials is key in transitional design.

Traditional designs can make smaller kitchens feel cramped. Home owners Mike and Tanya S. refaced their kitchen cabinets in a transitional style last year, and the difference was spectacular. "Our old cabinets were so ugly," said Tanya, referring to the original, yellowed oak cabinetry in their kitchen. "I just wanted to rip them off the wall. The kitchen felt busy and like there was never enough room. I love it now. It's so open and light. It went from a nightmare to my favorite place for morning coffee." The design they chose has the hallmark simple paneling and sleek, brushed nickel hardware. They chose a light finish to brighten up the room and accentuate dark quartz countertops.

Tile is used much like wood grain in the transitional kitchen -- to accent. Mike and Tanya used an angled, grid-like tile pattern that Mike wasn't sure about at first. "I thought the small tiles might be too much, too busy, but it works really well with the lighting in the kitchen and the lighter wood," said Mike. "The tight pattern is set back under the cabinets enough to tone it down, while adding something more interesting to look at in the kitchen."

The transitional bathroom

The same principles apply in the bathroom as in the kitchen, but generally speaking, brushed nickel faucets and hardware take the place of stainless steel appliances. A clean feeling is key in the bathroom, but modern styling can look too sterile. Transitional design in the bathroom tempers that almost clinical contemporary look with organic textures like marble or stone. The result is a perfect blend that is comfortable enough for a relaxing bubble bath and elegant enough to make it feel like a luxury hotel.

Wherever you choose to employ transitional design, remember that you can make most anything work as long as you balance it with something else. When you put it all together, watch for anything that doesn't fit in. The room should ring true, from floor to ceiling, window to wall.

About the Author

Karl Fendelander cut his teeth on web writing in the late nineties and has been plugged in to the newest technology and tuned in to the latest trends ever since. With an eye for design and an ear for language, Karl has created content and managed digital media for startups and established companies alike. When he unplugs, Karl can be found biking about town and hiking and climbing throughout the West.