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A touch of traditional brings charm to any space
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Want to achieve the classic look in your home? The trick is to find those items that will look as lovely in your living room as they did in your great-grandmother’s (well, maybe not the crocheted doilies). You can’t go wrong if you let Greco-Roman elements of classical design guide you: order, symmetry, and balance. Take it a step further by creating focal points around which balance is achieved. Finally, employ timeless accents and motifs such as columns, busts, and urns—which can look surprisingly contemporary in your classic modern home.
Here, columns define the entry of a Martha’s Vineyard home designed by Lisa Sternfeld.
Every classic home needs at least one portrait in a place of prominence, and this John Singer Sargent portrait of homeowner Cortright Wetherill’s great-grandmother is one of the most striking we’ve ever published, capturing her flair with dashing brushstrokes and outstanding virtuosity.
The portrait influenced color choices for the living room, inspiring oyster silk curtains with coral and pale blue embellishments. Even the tassels and tiebacks were custom-matched to the distinctive blue of the painting.
This lovely portrait of a little girl in a garden is by Portrait Society of America’s four-time award winner, Jeremy Lipking (b. 1975), who mesmerizes with fluid, brilliant brushwork. He is more interested in painting than portraiture, and it shows in his sensuous surfaces. “Even if you don’t know the person, you should enjoy looking at the painting,” says Lipking, who admires John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, and Swedish painter Anders Zorn.
Folding screens and doors are handy for defining spaces and concealing utilitarian elements of a home, but they also carry with them a sense of mystery and intrigue. Here an antique leather screen from Lee Stanton Antiques and a tufted sofa create a cozy corner seating area in the living room of actress JoBeth Williams’ home. The rolled arm sofa and sumptuous pillows contribute to the classic look.
Chinese Export Porcelain
Chinese export porcelain was exported from China to Europe, and then to North America, where it has been a favorite accent in traditional homes for centuries, especially in homes with classic blue-and-white palettes.
Here it is displayed in a Lake Forest home designed by Megan Winters. See more from this home on the next slide.
Busts, which can always be relied upon to impart an air of antiquity, define the seating area in this Lake Forest Home designed by Megan Winters. A Ralph Lauren “Acacia Grass” wallcovering in French blue enriches the room, along with shades fabricated in a Travers linen with a pattern of Chinese export vases, which the homeowners collect. Chair pillows are covered in “Les Touches” by Brunschwig & Fils. Jansen drink tables were found in France; busts defining the seating area are antiques.
Here a bust is used with a touch of whimsy, dressed in a hat and necklace brought back from the homeowner’s travels. Note the paired lamps and sconces, as well as the landscape—all classic touches in a California home that is bold and vibrant.
In the home of actress Sela Ward, who brings Southern girl soul to her home in California, a sleek bar is hidden behind reclaimed doors in the living room.
Classic Greco-Roman motifs include the Greek key, the crest, the quatrefoil, and the shield. Here a neoclassic-style settee, upholstered in elegant ivory, gets a royal touch, with silver leaf added to highlight the carving on the frame. The bolster is rendered in a Greek key pattern.
In the Beverly Hills home of actor Sidney Poitier and his designer wife Joanna, a pillow in a crest pattern embellishes a sofa; draperies are in Chinoiserie, another classic style hallmarked by traditional Chinese motifs.
See more of this beautiful home here, and see another example of quatrefoil on the following slide.
A long familiar pattern in art and architecture, the quatrefoil is a decorative shape made up of four overlapping circles. Here a quatrefoil back “Alexandra” chair by Suzanne Kasler for Hickory Chair cozies up to at a built-in vanity, which features a shield-shaped mirror, yet another classical motif.
Sconces are among the oldest types of lighting. They stand out because they are mounted on the wall indoors, lighting dim corners, making rooms seem larger, and adding interest to corridors. Here English Deco sconces from the thirties flank a portrait of James Dean in a room designed by one of our readers’ favorite classicists, Eric Cohler.
Tony Duquette Chandelier
This “Sunburst” chandelier, designed by the legendary Tony Duquette, a Hollywood set designer, jewelry maker, and interior designer, is considered a modern classic. “I’m delirious about his work,” says Samantha Todhunter, who used the chandelier in a spectacular showcase apartment.
A crystal chandelier can embellish a formal space and elevate a casual one. Here, in a room by the late, great, designer Charles Faudree, octagonal mirrors catch the light from a crystal chandelier as milady makes her way from bedroom to master bath.
Wood paneling creates warmth and beautifully sets off artwork and furnishings. Here it was used to add character to a once nondescript room.
References to Nature
References to nature are welcome in any home, but are particular hallmarks of the classic home. Designer Frank Ponterio illustrates this with a gorgeous wallcovering in a powder room of the Ritz-Carlton Showcase in Chicago.
Tapestries are timeless, conferring warmth, providing texture, and compelling us with the stories they tell. “This tapestry is by far the most significant piece because it creates the color scheme for the entire house,” says Roger Higgins, who designed this Nashville home with Ann Shipp. The sofa in front of the tapestry is from Lee Industries. The coffee table is from J. Douglas Design.
See more of this home here, and another tapestry on the following slide.
Tapestry with Renaissance Flair
This tapestry brings Renaissance flair to a master bedroom with European style.
Originating in France in the 18th century, the rectangular trumeau mirror sometimes features scenes or decorative details at the top. It was a staple of fifties-era decorating, when the Regency look was revived. Antique carved limed-oak panels were used to create a custom trumeau-style mirror for this Nashville home.
See the rest of this home here, and another trumeau mirror on the following slide.
Chic Trumeau Mirror
At the end of the hall, a trumeau mirror reflects a row of crystal chandeliers in a home that radiates rock-star chic.
Needlepoint chairs and pillows add a grace note in a classic home with their touched-by-hand look. This is one of a set of needlepoint chairs—plucked from a Paris flea market—that inspired the soothing palette of a remodeled Houston home designed by Eleanor Cummings.
Be it silver or gold, gilding brings luster and a sense of refinement to a home.
See a giltwork mirror on the following slide.
In this entryway, a giltwork mirror hung above a painted table spells welcome—as does the fragrance of classic roses.
When invading armies approach, there is a reason that families gather their silver before they flee. Fine silver is both valuable and beautiful, and if cared for becomes lovelier with age. Collecting silver is such a passion for Carmen Lopez that she added shelves in the dining room of her exotic West Hollywood home to display her favorite pieces.
Ornamental details are to the formal spaces of classic homes what jewelry is to a gown. This beautiful dentil molding and an original plaster medallion are the only remnants of the original dining room in this twenties-era Dutch Colonial home.
Nailhead trim is evocative of careful workmanship. Here it adds interest to an armchair in a serene sea-foam color.
Contemporary Take on Nailhead Trim
Here classic nailhead trim looks fresh and contemporary on a sleek white dining table and chairs.
Like beading on a gown, passementerie (it sounds like something luscious to eat but means elaborate trimmings or edgings) adds a layer of detail that contributes to a look of luxury. Here draperies in the home of Sidney Poitier and his designer wife Joanna are embellished with elaborate tie-backs and tassels.
See the next slide for a contemporary take on tiebacks.
Chocolatey grosgrain ribbon used to tie back the taupe drapery reinterprets a time-honored detail in a contemporary way.
Maps and More
Maps, garden plans, and architectural drawings acknowledge the classic underpinnings of a home while providing visual interest.
In this bedroom, strongly colored walls, a berry ceiling, and sisal carpet make a lush setting for the focal point, a map of Paris circa-1734 that designer and homeowner Michael Connors found at a Parisian flea market, where he also scored the French Art Deco leather smoking chairs.
In her second home in Carolina, designer Lillian August hung a charming old garden plan above the fireplace mantel in the living room.
Once upon a time every parlor had a piano. Most of us don’t have the luxury of space for a music room, but wouldn’t it be lovely if we did? How very Jane Austen!
Here the former dining room of a Minnesota ranch was converted into a wine and music room. A Steinway grand piano is showcased, illuminated by a glittering Pottery Barn chandelier.
A large urn is the focal point of a bright room in an East Hampton summer home.
If you’d like to give an urn a mossy patina, try painting it with buttermilk, as garden designer Glenn Hillman did in this classic Colonial Revival garden.
Globes, armillaries, and sundials whisper of navigation, timekeeping, and exploration in the days before the GPS and the smartphone, bringing an ambience of history and adventure to both the interior and exterior of a home.
Tucked into a corner of this garden belonging to designer Henry Brown of Portland is an armillary, an ancient instrument once used to determine various celestial positions and to demonstrate the motion of the stars.
This eye-catching armillary was featured in the San Francisco Decorator Showhouse.
Take the classic look outside as designer Juan Montoya did with this Indonesian colonnade in the garden of his weekend home in upstate New York.
Skeleton keys, with their air of romance and mystery, are hung on an iron gate in an enchanting courtyard garden in Birmingham.
A sundial is used as much for beauty as for keeping time. This one makes a sun-dappled focal point in a pretty Portland garden.
Finally, we couldn’t create a slideshow about classical details without including a gorgeous, fragrant, old-fashioned rose. Help us celebrate the 25th anniversary of our magazine by ordering this Traditional Home 25th Anniversary Rose, an award-winning floribunda packed with layers of white petals enriched by warm peach highlights and an apricot center.
To order, call 800/420-2852 and refer to code THG11, or order online at thgardenstore.com, item MM066673; $36.50, plus shipping. Order early as quantities are limited and are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis. Recommended for Zones 5–9. Bare-root roses ship mid-March to June. Sorry, we are unable to ship to Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, APO/FPO addresses, or addresses outside the continental United States.