Classical Old World Charm » pro tips for getting it right

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Are you dreaming of bringing a touch of charm and antiquity to your home, but also want it to feel sophisticated, timeless and fresh? I know I sure do!

I’m in the midst of a full renovation on my home that was built in the 1920s and stripped of many of its original details and charm. The floorplan was butchered and converted into four apartments in the late 1940s. While it was restored back to a single family home in the late 1950s, there were two additions over the years with much of the work done in a very mid-century way. Sadly, not really honoring the original structure of the house!

That said, the house has great bones and we are doing our best to return it to its glory and bring in architectural details that feel original and cohesive, like they’ve always been there.

The main goal for the interior design?

Make it feel timeless, elegant and sophisticated, but not stuffy. And most importantly, COMFORTABLE.

To achieve this look I’m mixing it up with cottage style elements, as well as bringing in touches of classical old world charm and coziness. Below I’ve assembled loads of ideas and tips for your own inspiration. Happy decorating!

What is “Classical” Old World Charm?

The term “Old World” charm is used to describe style elements used today that would have been found in Europe, Asia and African prior to the 1500s that are considered to be alluring and pleasing.

Therefore, generally speaking, and I mean very generally, we can classify “Old World” design styles into three broad categories:

  • Classical (inspired by Europe and its regions, most specifically Rome and Greece)
  • Eastern (inspired by Asia and its regions)
  • Tribal (inspired by Africa and its regions)

In this post, we’re focusing solely on classical old world charm because most of our architecture here in America, from government buildings to our homes, is classically inspired – including the house I’m renovating.

My perspective on design is that you should always try to honor the bones and structure of the architecture with the interior decor. It always feels more fitting and like it belongs.

The main architectural elements that define Classical style include – architectural symmetry, pediments above the main entrance, columns, statuary and decorative ornamentation such as scrolls, acanthus leaves, architectural molding and trim work, and the Greek key motif.

Elements a Classical Home Should Have

According to the design experts over at Architectural Digest, these are the style elements a home should have to achieve a traditional classical look.

Molding

You can’t go wrong with crown molding in a room. It enhances the visual appeal and adds instant depth and character providing a sense of timelessness. Here are the recommended crown molding sizes based on ceiling height:

For standard 8-foot-high ceilings, the crown/cornice height should be 2½ to 6 inches; for 9-foot ceilings, 3 to 7½ inches, and for 10-foot ceilings, 3½ to 8 inches.

If you really want to amp up the charm factor, consider adding picture-frame molding to your walls and ceiling medallions around your light fixtures. I love this look.

Gilded mirrors

These large gorgeous mirrors add instant drama and sophistication. They also work wonders to visually expand the space in smaller rooms. They can also be a great option to bring in ornamentation and decorative embellishment to rooms that don’t have crown molding. However, they look equally as dramatic in rooms that do!

The Anthropology Primrose line is a beautiful (very popular) option.

But I’m also equally loving this new non-gilded take from the Leanne Ford collab over at Crate and Barrel.

Full-length Curtains

Whether you choose a solid, toile, floral or other textile, full-length curtains add charm and elegance to any room. Run them floor to ceiling for the greatest effect.

My handy hanging guide for getting the most height and drama, and old world charm from your curtains.

Crystal chandeliers

These brilliant sparkling fixtures make a statement in any room and are not just for foyers and dining rooms.

They add a touch of formality and a luxurious classical touch wherever they are used. Nowadays, they come in so many styles and sizes you can find the perfect fit for any space in your home – from your master bath to your closet.

Antiques

Aside from molding and trim details, antiques are the second most important element when it comes to putting together a classical home decor style statement. It is one of the main areas in your home where you can truly bring in that feeling of authenticity, especially if you’re lucky enough to pick up some truly “authentic to the period” pieces.

It is also very easy to find really good reproductions as traditional style furniture has never gone out of style. And if you need a little guidance, check out this great antique furniture guide from Antique Trader with tips on identifying furniture from varying periods and styles.

Cane-backed chairs

Caned furniture’s roots have been traced as far back as ancient Egypt and China and it became popularized in classical style furnishings in Europe around the 1660s in Holland, England and France.

Cane furniture then made a big comeback in the 1970s and it is having a major trend moment again right now.

Just make sure to stick with cane furniture with classical lines, such as the wonderful high backed chair below. 

Steer away from 1960s -1970s pieces with mid-century or boho vibes. That said, a piece here or there can make a huge style statement, but definitely avoid multiple pieces in a single room unless you are going for a more of a 70s or boho look – then by all means layer them on!

Marble mantels

Not only do they add a focal point, they add a great deal of interest and timeless stateliness to a space.

“The focal point of any room, a mantel commands attention and presents a spotlight for inspired styling.”  ~Timothy Corrigan, Designer

8 Inspired Ways to add Classical Old World Charm Without Looking Old & Dated

Color Scheme

Colors commonly used were various shades of blue, green, red, orange/yellow and black, colors that could be produced with minerals and other natural methods. We have this misconception that classical statues and interiors were all white, but in actuality this is not true. The ancient marble statues from Rome were originally brightly painted and adorned. Therefore, colors really can run the full color wheel spectrum and still stay classically true.

One of the best ways to keep your space looking modern and updated, no matter what the architectural style, is to use a color scheme that feels fresh and on trend.

Paint and accessories are typically the most economical way to achieve this.

Furniture

Whether you prefer furniture with rectilinear details or more graceful curves, there are classical styles you’ll love. We have a tendency to think of heavy, ornate furniture when we hear the term “Old World”. But not always so! Look at the gorgeous, elegant, and not to mention feminine lines of this ancient Greek furniture.

“Antique engraving of artifacts from ancient Greece. Published in Systematischer Bilder-Atlas zum Conversations-Lexikon, Ikonographische Encyklopaedie der Wissenschaften und Kuenste (Brockhaus, Leipzig) in 1875.” Getty Images.

Overall, you want to stay with furniture that has traditional lines and detailing. However, don’t be afraid to add in a modern statement piece here or there for wow factor. The French have a knack for doing this so well as in this gorgeous classical style French apartment with modern touches.

Textiles

With fabrics, you definitely want to stay with natural textiles. Anything made out of silk, linen, wool and cotton. Classical old world decor is heavily influenced by Greece and Rome, but it also had lots of Asian influences, especially silk textiles coming out of China and cottons from India.

Florals, pastoral scenes, and natural motifs were very popular. Once again, we can have a tendency to automatically go to heavy and ornate tapestries and rich “moody” colored textiles when we think of “Old World” decor which will automatically date a room. Anyone remember  this trend?

Boy, that 90s-00s Tuscan style, definitely did a number on all of us and our perceptions of classical style.

But contrary to the dark and heavy images we may automatically conjure up, many Old World classical textiles featured decorative patterns of brightly colored florals and wildlife.

Lee Radziwill’s Paris apartment depicts a more modern take.

Floors

Stone and wood floors are your go tos for this style.

For stone, choose a travertine, limestone, or marble if your budget affords. Otherwise, look for a large scale ceramic or porcelain tile that mimics this look. If going with a tile, stay away from the highly polished options and stick with styles that have a satin or matte “unglazed” treatment.

You want to do a similar thing with hardwood floors. Stick with a satin or matte finish and stay away from the high gloss polyurethane finishes.

Also, layer on the rugs. Rugs are a decor area where you can have a lot of fun and not worry as much about sticking to a certain style or era. While any antique style is going to look great. Go with what strikes your fancy. Moroccan and more modern takes look great as well!

Walls

Originally, plaster was the most common material that would have adorned most classical structures. However, most of our homes here in the states no longer have plaster walls. Outdoor scenes and murals depicting landscapes and architectural ornamentation were also a popular adornment.

We have so many great options today to bring classical styling to our walls, from beautiful lime wash paint finishes, rich saturated paints like Farrow and Ball, gorgeous wallpapers like Gracie and Fine Paints of Europe marvelous high gloss options like these.

Porcelain

Don’t you just love the classic blue and white chinoiserie porcelain? You can never go wrong with this classic. It complements almost every design style wonderfully and always adds a classical touch.

Or…… this beautiful collection from de Gournay…

Accessories

Accessories can be kept simple. Look at options such as a beautiful bust or statue statement piece and simple vases or decorative urns. 

Also, look for paintings in ornately carved frames depicting rural landscape scenes, portraiture, florals or religious art for a true authentic touch.

Alternatively, go bold with a piece of modern art for wow factor. Classical interiors look amazing when complemented with modern art. Once again, you can look to the French for some gorgeous inspiration.

Elle Decor
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