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Interior Design Training: Principles of the Four Basic Style Categories

If you are beginning your coursework or self-training to become an interior designer, you want to have a firm grasp of the basics. Whether you’re decorating a dorm room or a whole house, a bungalow or a penthouse, you’ll find the many specific design styles fit into four broad generic categories.

This overview guide will define the Casual, Formal, Traditional and Contemporary styles so you may proceed in your studies and your career with an understanding of each categories’ design principles.


Formal is the look of elegant Ritz-Carlton hotels and public government buildings like the White House. While homes today are not usually constructed with 12″ high baseboard moldings, hand-laid herringbone-patterned wood floors, or elaborate carved plaster ceiling and wall decorations, there are elements of the formal style of decorating that you and your clients may want to utilize in a project.

Symmetry is one of the key features of interiors and exteriors of homes designed in a formal style. Windows, furniture, paintings are elements which are most often arranged in pairs with a straight axis dominating each room.

A central focal point will define a room, and it might be a beautiful window-wall looking out to a perfect lawn, a large stone fireplace centered on one key wall, or an exquisite piece of furniture. A formal style of decorating suits a home with high ceilings, large and tall windows, and architectural features such as beautifully paneled walls, columns and pilasters.

Formal style interiors are decorated to attract attention and display wealth so they include highly polished woods, glistening mirrors, highly polished brass window and door hardware, sparkling crystal chandeliers and wall sconces, and unique and interesting pieces of fine wood and upholstered furniture.

Furniture and accessories in formal interiors are often antique or fine reproductions. Woods used are generally dark and rich looking, but lighter woods are often used for decoration and inlay. Imported Oriental rugs cover polished hardwood floors. Original artwork is often elaborately framed in hand-carved gilt frames and stone or bronze figurative sculptures will be displayed on pedestals.


Contemporary decorating is for those who like to keep current with the latest styles and enjoy things that are of today. While it’s been thought that modern interiors are cold and minimalist, today’s contemporary interiors are often comfortable and welcoming without being cluttered and dark. It’s a style that is equally appropriate for offices and homes, lofts and stores.

A contemporary style home can be quiet and serene, and may give the appearance of an Asian meditation space. Simplicity, subtle sophistication, texture and clean lines help to define contemporary interiors. The focus of each room is tranquil space rather than furnishings. By focusing on color, dimension and shape contemporary interiors are thought-provoking, sleek and fresh.

Neutrals, black and white are the main colors in contemporary style interiors. The palette is often accented with bright and bold color, and, within a few style variants, ornate patterning and glitzy ornamentation. Black is often used to ground and define a room. With walls painted in a basic neutral, you have a backdrop for bold colored accessories.

Line is a key design element. It’s found in architectural details and defined by the use of bold color blocks, high ceilings and bare windows. Geometric shapes are used in wall art and sculpture. Bare space is left on walls, between pieces of furniture, and above in upper areas, and it becomes as important as areas filled with objects.

In contemporary interiors, less is more since space creates perspective and dimension. Each piece of furniture stands out as individual and unique. Contemporary style takes advantage of structural elements as decoration. Air ducts may hang from a ceiling, fabric and bricks provide texture and stability. Structural details may be painted in bold contrasting colors, or simply exposed and painted the same color as the wall to diminish their importance.


A casual style room is homey, warm, comfortable, and inviting. For TV watchers, it’s like walking onto the set of Friends or The Big Bang Theory. Who doesn’t want to be comfortable in their own home? If you want to put together a casual style room, learn the basic elements that combine to create an informal, unassuming room. Casual rooms have simple details, textured elements in fabrics and accessories, soft, neutral-colored upholstery, low-luster surfaces, structural elements and furniture arrangements that avoid perfect symmetry.

Details are simple, and elements are rectangular or softly curved. A room decorated in a casual style has simple details, but it is the perfect place to add an unexpected touch of whimsey, such as an old, reconstructed birdhouse or a bowling pin for a lamp base. Casual decorating is easily incorporated into such specific styles as rustic, cottage, beach, French Country, Shabby Chic, or American Country decorating styles.

With people enjoying more relaxed lifestyles, many homes today are totally decorated using the elements of casual decorating. But any home can incorporate the elements into a guest room, country kitchen, TV room, or bath. Elements of the casual style of decorating can infiltrate into most any room and make it feel comfortable.


Traditional decorating is calm, orderly and predictable. You may have grown up in a home that was decorated with traditional style furnishings. Furniture is classic and might feel outdated, so nothing is a surprise. Pieces fill up a room and match and are consistent.

Furniture pieces are often reproductions. They are a part of dining room sets, living room sets and bedroom sets, and all room sets are similar in furniture styles. Furniture and accessories are placed in pairs and tend to be centered in each room. There is nothing out of place or of a vastly different style.

Traditional rooms are not ostentatious but somewhat casual so that traditional style homes feel comfortable for any age group. It’s a familiar look that you see in magazines or furniture show rooms.

Upholstered furniture in a traditional room shows classic lines and understated details. They may have decorative details but they are functional, unfussy, and restful looking. Edges are soft, smooth, and blend into the whole. Fabrics are generally neither too shiny nor too textured. Plain colors, florals, muted plaids, understated stripes, geometrics, tone-on-tone and small all-over patterns are common.

As you continue your education, knowing the four broad generic categories of Casual, Formal, Traditional and Contemporary, you will lay a good foundation for your career. Once you research these well, and expand your studies into specific styles, their history and their resources, you can confidently guide your clients through their various projects to make each a unique expression of their taste and your design ability.

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