Lucite stools impart the finishing touch to this contemporary Sag...

Lucite stools impart the finishing touch to this contemporary Sag Harbor kitchen by Betty Wasserman Art & Interiors. Credit: Eric Striffler, 2013

Not everyone lives in a glass box, but the trend in architecture and interior design is skewed toward modern contemporary, with all that implies: sleek surfaces, clean lines, minimal fuss. And the style is here to stay, say Jennifer Mabley and Austin Handler, the Water Mill husband-and-wife design team of Mabley Handler Interior Design.

"With access to design magazines and shows, the average person will always be exposed to current design," says Handler. "Very few people are saying, 'I want a traditional house like my parents.' "

Even if you are still attached to your antique armoire or have a tchotchke addiction, there are ways to update your castle. "We're doing a lot of transitional style," says Jackie Cappa of Piazza Di Cappa, an interior design firm with a home decor retail shop in Locust Valley. Transitional style is a hybrid of classic and contemporary looks.

For those who don't want to be surrounded with steel and glass, but don't want to be out- of-date either, here are ways to start contemporizing your house. "You need to do constant tweaking to keep things fresh and current," advises Mabley.

Less is more

The first and easiest step (unless you're irreconcilably attached to that dust-collecting silk flower arrangement or ashtray you haven't used since the days of Studio 54) is to declutter. Get rid of extraneous gewgaws. "Replace them with a single meaningful piece -- something that adds drama -- a dramatic oversized vase," says Huntington interior designer Kate Singer.

But stay away from piles of trinkets from your travels, says Mabley. "If it means a lot to you, put it in an archive case and save it for another day. Send the rest to the thrift shop." A serene space is the epitome of a modern aesthetic, she says.

Upholstery and proportions

Sorry, but it's time to donate that shabby chic sofa with the puffy rolled arms to a thrift shop or give it away on Freecycle. Contemporary furniture is like a smartphone -- square, sleek, thin. "Avoid curvy legs, and keep the sofa lower and deeper as opposed to higher and shallower," says Betty Wasserman, an interior designer based in Bridgehampton and Manhattan. "The room is easier to see through without your eye getting caught on overstuffed chunky pieces of furniture.''

As for that ornately carved headboard? Stuff it, literally. Mabley recommends replacing it with an upholstered piece in linen, with a contrasting welt.

Furniture placement is key. In a traditional setting, it's requisite to crowd a lot of pieces on one wall. "Contemporary placement should be airy, clean and proportionate," says Wasserman. Think about your dining room. A table and credenza may be all you need.

Walls and molding

When it comes to walls, there are 50 shades of white, at least. While you might paint the ceiling with decorator white, choose your wall whites with tints of gray, green, blue, taupe, yellow or gold, says Wasserman. "They're more similar than different," she says. And that's the point.

Continuity is crucial. "Paint moldings, baseboards, doors the same color as your wall," says Wasserman. Sameness is a keystone of the modern look. "It quiets everything."

Cappa recommends ridding the home of stained moldings and doors. "They're so passe," she says. Ditto for your bookcases, for which she suggests linen white paint.

Wallpaper is fine, too. Wasserman recommends focusing on texture rather than color. Grasscloth often works. "It should be all one color," she says. "No pattern. And err on lighter colors."

Go monochrome

One of the hallmarks of the traditional style is the preponderance of busy patterns all thrown together: damask curtains, paisley bed linens, chintz pillows, Aubusson carpets.

The contemporary home is monochromatic, with variations of similar solid colors throughout the entire house -- from footboards to backsplashes. Rooms flow together into a seamless whole without each making an individual statement.

"There's a similarity in tonality, value and shape," says Wasserman.

Punchy pillows

One of the least pricey and easiest ways to go contemporary is to switch your pillows. Modern materials include screened velvet, fur or a simple pattern. Pillows are also a vehicle for adding interest or color to a neutral modern room. To Singer's gray-toned rooms, she'll add an eye-poping fuchsia or turquoise pillow for balance while avoiding old-fashioned jewel tones such as burgundy. Reduce the number of bed pillows. Along with pillows for your head, you'll only need three Eurosquares (for a king-size bed) and one accent pillow, says Mabley.

Hang modern art

Hanging a single piece of modern art, a contemporary abstract with bursts of color, can update a room instantly. Wasserman, who doubles as an art dealer, says that a traditional frame -- big, gilded, multitiered -- overpowers the artwork. On the contrary, a contemporary frame almost disappears. It exists to support and protect the art, not add a decorative element. Think thin wood painted neutral or white. Of course, a poster with a current feel works well too. But the good news is that, even if you're counting your pennies, there's plenty of budget-friendly art available by emerging artists.

Natural materials

Wood is one of the components that imparts warmth to contemporary spaces. Not dark, curvaceous, carved woods, but muted bleached-out woods with clean lines.

Singer says that stone is a great way to add natural surfaces, such as in tabletops. She also uses it sparingly, in a piece of sculpture or pair of bookends. "I include concrete when I say 'stone,' " she says.

Lucite has been embraced by the contemporary movement for its modern edge and open feel. "I hear people saying, 'My grandmother had Lucite. I didn't like it then, but I like it now,' " says Allison Julius, owner of Maison 24, a home decor shop in Bridgehampton and Manhattan that features Lucite furnishings and sculptures.

Window treatments

"The biggest thing you can do is to get rid of ruffles," says Austin. And frankly, any other trim, including those on bed skirts, pillows and, of course, curtains. No heavy swags, and forget about patterns. Monotone fabrics are the way to go. That doesn't mean plain. Choose textiles that are lustrous and luxurious. "I use a lot of metallic blinds," says Singer.

Floor coverings

"We don't use pile carpets anymore," says Cappa. Instead, she and partner Francine Piazza line floors with sisal rugs or looped woolen rugs made to resemble sisal. Singer works with the occasional dramatic shag rug or carpets with geometric patterns.


Classic bell-shaped shades are dated. The name of the game with today's shades is drum shaped. "If you've got a pleated or ruffled shade, replace it with linen or paper," says Cappa.