Styling Traditional Wood Furniture

By Kate Riley May 11, 2015

I received an email from Sarah with a design dilemma, she like many has inherited a unique piece of furniture, it belonged to her grandmother and recently was restored by her father to its original wood state. Sarah wants to keep the heirloom buffet in her home, it has sentimental value, but her dilemma is how to create a stylish look with this piece that sits in her dining room.

grandmothers buffet

Personally, I love seeing wood pieces like this in a home, they add richness and warmth, and mixing pieces from different periods makes a home feel collected over time. The use of traditional wood furniture like this can be a purposeful placement by antique lovers, or a much treasured heirloom like Sarah’s that a family wants to keep.

In this case my first instinct is to change the wall color to anything other than brown with fresh paint or perhaps a wall treatment, and add a large scale mirror or art gallery  above. I might replace the pulls with something sleeker like these and place a large potted plant or tree to the right.

To style it there is so much she can do with decorative accents to create a layered appealing look. Here are a few examples I found where both bloggers and designers have tackled this same issue and styled traditional wood furniture in a contemporary way.

Below a gilded mirror and trio of classic blue and white chinoiserie accents (two vases, one lamp) introduce shape and color. Books and a smaller work of abstract art balance out the center of the arrangement.

traditional chest modern styling

the pink pagoda

A monochromatic white palette dominates this vignette, from the wall paneling to the shapely accents in an odd numbered arrangement; the purposeful use of white allows the piece to take the spotlight.

antique chest of drawers white objects

traditional home

You can’t go wrong with a pair of sleek lamps, partner them with a few smaller pieces of art in various scales and petite shapely objects, then add a touch of greenery.

traditional chest modern lamps

house seven

Simplicity is another approach, using a large scale mirror anchored by a pair of lamps with modern black shades. Prop another smaller piece of art in front and rotate a bowl of fruit or vase of fresh flowers weekly.

modern mirror lamps on traditional console

mark ashby design

Don’t overlook the opportunity to make a statement on the wall, beautiful grasscloth wallpaper and a glossy bamboo pagoda mirror add panache and a pair of ginger jar lamps introduces a lovely blue and white pattern.

wood buffet jessie miller

jessie d miller

Again a chinoiserie ginger jar always complements the style of the traditional chest, and an orchid in a polished silver champagne bucket adds an elegant touch. Above this chest hangs a mercury leaf mirror flanked by two gold leaf sconces, on top a smaller piece of abstract art and stack of books balances the vignette. 

ashley goforth traditional chest

ashley goforth design

What’s happening with the furniture around the traditional piece can also influence the styling. Below Tobi does an masterful job of layering blue accents in the form of books, artwork, and a lamp on this wood bedside chest, playing off the tones in the fabric on the headboard and wallpaper.

traditional wood bedside chest

tobi fairley

In Jana’s great room she styled her bookcase simply with varied book placement and floating artwork, but also notice the use of contemporary textiles to balance the traditional furniture in the room.

traditional bookcase

jana bek

This antique chest was modernized with lucite knobs then surrounded by a collection of art, and how fresh the space feels with that fabulous pink tufted chair off to the side. The styling on top is eclectic and fun, mixing a whimsical cachepot and fern with a unique sculptural lamp.

traditional chest lucite knobs

house beautiful

Pairing traditional wood furniture with contemporary accents can be done and successfully! How have you included antiques or heirlooms into your home’s design?


  1. I just swapped out my nightstand with something similar! It’s been at my mom’s house for as long as I can remember and just recently had been sitting in her garage so I saw my chance! I love all of the styles you showed with this, makes it really easy to recreate!

  2. Thanks for this post! Although I love the current trend in painted furniture, I love traditional, fine wood, furniture. I have several pieces that I will never be able to paint, no matter how much I might sit and imagine them painted. It is good to see someone showing how these pieces can enhance your home.

  3. Love the addition of antique wood pieces mixed in with other items of furniture. As you said it gives a home a collected look and our family’s history is one of the few things that are unique to us and our homes.

  4. I can’t wait to get rid of the brown walls! Thank you for these fantastic ideas, I look forward to experimenting!

  5. The inherited piece is lovely and your photo examples are all very nice – but not a single one of them has a back board like hers. It is very possible that the back board can be removed and safely stored, leaving a cleaner, yet still beautiful chest. It might be easier for some people to live with or style case goods like this if they are simplified with that one alteration.

  6. Nancy is absolutely right. The backboard, although lovely, does add to the traditional look of the piece. However, if Sarah is unable/unwilling to remove it, she can still benefit from some of these vignettes, in particular the ones which showcase artwork on the top, especially if she uses the backboard to rest the art.

    I’m not usually drawn to dark wood pieces, but these rooms have shown quite effectively how they can be modernized and quite beautiful in their own right. (My ocd personality is dying to reach in the mark ashby room and move that dresser to the left a few inches!)

  7. Changing the wall color is step one! Great inspiration photos for the project!

  8. Super timely post, Kate! I’m having fun working with some old treasures and some new ones which will keep their original colors and a few inexpensive functional pieces that will probably get painted to help tie the room together. There are some great inspiration pics here.

    Definitely a new wall color is the first step. Then, as others pointed out, if Sarah could and was open to it, remove the backboard. On my monitor, it looks a different color wood from the rest of the chest and a somewhat busier style so it might well have been added later. I think the chest would be much more of a standout without it. However, if it can’t be removed, I agree with Doreen about creating a vignette with a large mirror and/or pix to hide it – some of the inspiration pix above do it very well. I hope Sarah will send her “new do” to you and you’ll post the results.

    • Great tip Sandy C about removing the backboard to further update the piece!

  9. I have almost nothing but traditional wooden antiques that were given to me by my mother. Or I had it made for me before 2000. I can be done. It makes me sad that so many want to paint everything white.

  10. Great guide here! We’ve got some wood furniture that feels so out of place in the room it’s in – hopefully this can help me incorporate it better. Thanks for the inspiration!

  11. Good eye, Kate. I couldn’t put my finger on what was off but you called it . . . too much brown–floors, furniture, walls. Do you analyze and think about it or do you instinctually grasp the problem, a la Blink by Malcolm Gladwell? I think there’s an art to putting words to instant impressions. I find overthinking makes the impression go away and then I’m fuddling around with my head and not my instinct.

    • Yes I think the “too much brown” was instinctual Paula, as you know I love everything about interior design so I also study the experts and employ their techniques too.

  12. The back piece is the glory of the whole piece! Either paint the walls a light color or maybe a large piece of art or a picture with a lot of whit to fill the wall with light. The small picture is too tiny and doesn’t have enough weight to compliment the piece. Then come up with a vignette for the top. It really doesn’t need a lot of pieces on it, just the right ones in scale and color!

  13. I guess I’m the only one who likes the backerboard. :( I think it’s what make the piece unique, but I’m also not too fond of replacing hardware on these old beauties. With imagination and style it can be done and provide something other than the cookie-cutter images we seem to see on every blog. I grew up in Belgium and old furniture is mixed with modern pieces as a matter of course, but with panache. It also looks as if the rest of her furniture is traditional as well.

    I love the inspiration pics.

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