Defining the difficult to define
This is a question that I always struggle to answer as a designer. The good answer is that my style is whatever my client’s style is. Now of course, I have my own style, though I do my very best to use my style and my knowledge to interpret and design based on my client’s style. Mostly, the real answer is that I have no idea how to put my style in words. Because putting your style into words is so definitive, and style should be more open, interpretive, and should be able to evolve.
Let’s look at some common ways of describing design style, and see how limiting they can be.
“Traditional” ⎯ This evokes boring, stuffy, and no imagination, though that's not necessarily true at all. There are beautiful designs that are classic, which I think is the better way to describe traditional design.
“Transitional” ⎯ Does anyone know what this means? I don’t. I think it means: "I'm mostly traditional, but I don't want to call myself traditional because I'm cooler than that." I can’t conjure an image of a transitional design in my mind, so that's no good.
“Ecclectic” ⎯ This also kind of means nothing, doesn’t it? It’s like saying: “I like everything, and I think I can put anything together and make it work.” At least you can form some imagery in your mind when you hear it.
“Shabby chic” ⎯ This clearly means something. Faux vintage. Faux distressed. Florals. Lacey trims. Over. It.
“Modern” ⎯ I think this means unadorned, simple, and lots of white. I think it can also mean anything anybody wants it to mean.
“Contemporary” ⎯ See “Modern” above. “Contemporary” and “modern” are not actually the same, but they also don’t mean enough to be different, so they get used interchangeably.
So if these words are so hard to define, why do we need to use them? And if we don’t use them, how do we know what our style is? How can we describe what we are going for to our clients if we’re designers, or what we want from our designer if we're clients.
The editors of Domino: The Book of Decorating share some great advice. They suggest attaching words that describe common threads of your style, like “classic and neutral but also a little bohemian” and “theatrical, unconventional yet spare and modern.” The key here is that you don’t have to pick one definitive word to describe your style, which is only fair. Who wants to be pinned down by one word, when style is so much more complicated than that? Better yet, avoid words altogether and just let pictures communicate what you like. The picture will probably communicate more than your words can.
Here’s a picture of living room that I designed. It reflects my style, because I was the client. Based on this picture, I would describe this room, and thus my style, as “rustic, bright, clean, fun, classic, eclectic.” That's the closest I can come to defining my style. For now.