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Today's styles can live with some traditional elements

A suburbanite who moves back to the city frequently faces a difficult design problem: how to maintain the modern, easygoing look of their former residence in an old-fashioned interior full of charming details. How this dilemma is resolved depends a great deal on individual tastes. But whatever one's preferences, it isn't easy to integrate a streamlined look with Old World styling.

One approach is simply to strive for a minimalist arrangement. That means removing most of the ornamentation from doors and window frames as well as tearing out the original millwork and other embellishments. The newly smooth surfaces can then be sleekly painted or refinished.

That solution, however, strikes some renovators as far too heavy-handed. What, they might ask, is the purpose of moving into a century-old urban townhouse if its interior is made to resemble that of a suburban split-level?

Those who are less preservation-minded might argue that there's nothing noble about pretending to live in another century, with all its unnecessary doodads. Frequently, too, one may find that the elaborate detailing in an old home can be restored only at considerable expense.

Fortunately, there are ways to balance those concerns.

In the photograph, original millwork co-exists attractively with newly installed surfaces. Here, sensitive design has produced a space that combines contemporary convenience with historic elegance.

In order to create a home office adjacent to a traditional but tattered parlor, old paneling was taken from the walls of the living room, where it had a gloomy effect, and was then refitted and refinished for this space. But there was still the task of uniting two unequally detailed room segments.

Light-colored wall-to-wall carpeting throughout the space helps to harmonize it. The contemporary floor covering, with its velvet-like texture, also gives the old house a more modern look.

The decorative wood transom installed between the two sections serves as another bridge or transition device. That piece was particularly well-chosen to complement the architecture of the home.

Once the framework is established, it's possible to be fairly eclectic in furniture selection. Traditional and contemporary pieces can mix comfortably against a surrounding that combines the old with the new.

In this case, however, a distinctly contemporary direction was followed. That's fine, as long as the large elements and major accessories have simple lines. An old-fashioned space, with its tall ceilings and windows and finely crafted ornamentation, can easily accommodate today's styles. As this model demonstrates, it isn't necessary to destroy the past in order to make room for the present.

Decorator clinic

Question: It's time to replace our bookcase/headboard and dormitory-style dresser with some new bedroom furniture. There's enough space to include a canopy bed and a few traditional pieces. My husband thinks the result will be too prissy. Can you suggest a compromise?

Answer: I don't like to get involved in attempts to reconcile conflicting tastes, particularly when a couple disagrees on the styling of their bedroom. Still, I can offer a few suggestions that may help you arrive at a mutually satisfactory decision.

Maybe your husband will accept the type of bed you have in mind if the canopy is eliminated. Nothing prissy about a sturdy four-poster. Remind him of the old cowboy movies where John Wayne announces his entrance by flinging his hat across the room and onto a bed post.

Try to achieve a romantic look that avoids being stereotypically feminine. The overall effect will owe a lot to the choice of bed.

A four-poster in a bedroom of the Delamater House on the grounds of the Beekman Arms Inn in Rhinebeck, N.Y., is Regency in its inspiration and dramatic in its proportions. This particular four-poster looks a lot like a Napoleonic campaign bed. That's the kind of piece that was designed to have its post staked in the ground to support a tent-like canopy. It was also easy to dismantle so that a general might be assured of nightly comfort as a campaign progressed.

The bedroom there couldn't be confused with a military barracks. Its crisp and welcoming atmosphere is mainly due to the design and coloring of the wall coverings and fabrics, all of which come from the Brunschwig & Fils "Cottage Orne" collection.

Cottage Orne was built in County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1817 and still possesses its original architectural charm. Once the trysting place of the Earl of Glengall and his mysterious lover, it has the fantasy look of a nobleman's rustic retreat. The cottage is currently being restored by Sybil Connolly, who has collaborated with Brunschwig & Fils in producing the memorable fabric collection that bears the name of this historic site.

All these designs have a 19th-century flavor. Small-scaled and informal, the fabrics are readily adaptable to any setting that seeks to convey a hint of romance.

Good luck in striking a compromise with your husband. Perhaps he'll be persuaded when you show him this article.

Rita St. Clair is a writer for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.