As I was planning my family’s summer travel and the next leg of my cross-country road trip to discover all-American design styles, I couldn’t help but think about the marvelous and storied state of California. The California Casual interior-design style, as it’s come to be known, is indicative of the contemporary American West, and it has its roots in some of the classic styles that have graced the region through the decades.
California has a fantastic ability to reinvent itself, much like the people who flock there. The state has represented a story of American promise throughout history — a promise of gold and wealth, a far-off land of milk and honey, a gilded Hollywood dream, and a palm tree-lined haven of luxury. Today, that glistening California dream has a slight tarnish on it. Here in Texas, many residents push for an end to “Californication” as interlopers move in to crowd cities, raise latte prices, and paint the town in a palette of beachy neutrals. Middle-American politicians condemn the state for its taxes and progressive attitude. I, however, don’t share this sentiment. California, for me, is as easy to love as it seems to be easy for some to hate. Its relaxed spirit taps into the American desire for leisure, escape, and easy beauty. You can feel people craving its energy coast to coast.
California is a state of mind. And no matter their ZIP code, folks long for the captivating California Casual interior design style.
What is California’s Style?
California’s interior design is relaxed and laid-back. Its style combines coastal-inspired naturals, edgy patterns, and inviting furniture pieces that evoke an effortlessly chic look. This style is well-curated, combining a dash of the funky nonconformist alongside the low-key contemporary glamor of the Hollywood Hills. More than an aesthetic, California design is a lifestyle that invites you to loll around, dust the sand off your feet, and enjoy an unencumbered life in the sun.
Elements of the California Cool Style
Nonconformist Color Palettes
The California Casual style draws inspiration from the feeling of nonconformity – it defies definition. The base of the light and airy look is typically made up of creams, caramels, and terracottas, as well as muted sage, blues, and washed greens. However, quirky patterns and unexpected color palettes come in to challenge the viewer. Neutrals are contrasted with bright hues like chartreuse, cherry red, cerulean blue, or maroon to keep the audience guessing. At the end of the day, anything goes.
Because California’s color palette is sophisticated and unpredictable, it’s no surprise that the various textures it employs are equally unanticipated. California design layers textures to achieve visual interest, leaning into vegan leather paired with faux fur, printed linen, and colorful voile. The finish materials include highly textured plaster next to glassy reflective tile and polished brass or copper.
Bold and Organic Shapes
Drawing from the mid-century modern inspiration of the Hollywood Hills and Palm Springs, the California Casual style incorporates Regency curved lines and bold shapes. The furniture alternates from low profiles to comfort-forward shapelessness to highly ornamented and frilly organic shapes.
Taking a note from the free-spirited hippies of 1970s San Francisco, the California Casual style is anything but cold. Rather, it gains warmth through unique collections of curated objects displayed throughout the home, whether surfboards, dream catchers, or artisan pottery.
Oversized and Relaxed Furniture
Remember, California Casual is a lifestyle. As such, the furniture needs to be built around lounging and relaxation. Still maintaining clean lines, furniture pieces are oversized, plush, and inviting.
California Cool Style Inspiration
Modern California Cool design draws inspiration from four main styles that have been popular in the state through the decades.
Coastal bungalows of Santa Monica inspire relaxed beachside living, light coastal color palettes, and a casual approach.
Mid-century Modern Retreats
Mid-century modern Hollywood Hills glamor lends to clean lines, low-profile furniture, and vintage inspiration.
San Francisco boho sparks a fun and funky spirit through unique decor accents and an effortlessly curated approach.
The Spanish Mission style comes through in white plaster walls, terracotta accents, archways, and exposed hewn wood.
California is a State of Mind
While you can make a mood board around the physical elements that go into California Casual design, the style is more of a state of mind. Countless songs and chronicles try to capture the feeling behind California, such as Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. These pieces frame the state as a beautiful place with an accepting cast of characters and a laid-back atmosphere to simply enjoy life.
The key to getting this style right is in the approach. It will feel off if you come at it from a formal or stuffy perspective. Designers who nail this style time and time again include Californians Kelly Wearstler and Kathryn Ireland, who share a bold yet decidedly casual in their approach to living. While Thom Filicia and Beata Heuman aren’t Californian, their designs embody all the elements I think of as California Casual. It is a state of mind, after all.
California’s Hold Over American Ideals
How is it that a coastal state whose design style hinges on its geography has such a strong hold over the aesthetics and ideals of the entire country? You can find Midwestern teens mimicking the surfer look, having never set foot in the Pacific, and walk into Manhattan apartments outfitted with linen textiles and prints of lifeguard towers. More and more folks are decorating their homes in the California Casual style — no matter where they’re located.
Recently, I traveled to High Point Market to see the new spring furniture lines. I was struck by the number of new designs evoking a California sensibility. Gone are the days of tight seatbacks, upright postures, and stuffy formality! In their place sat pieces with loose back cushions, soft wrinkly fabrics, low-slung profiles, and overly plush upholstery — a welcomed sense of comfort. I imagined a surfer kicking off their shoes after a day at the beach and curling up in one of the many sectionals I admired. Like me, they’d love the unexpected color combinations of the upholstery that defy rules and set a bold young tone!
I also was struck by the large scale of the pieces. It’s rather bold and audacious to make a sofa so large it needs a massive vaulted room for it to live in. What a coup that we can expect folks to devote that much space to relaxing. However, I do love the fresh, young, casual vibe. Perhaps informality is a wise investment.
While the California Casual style works best in an environment like California, with its beautiful year-round weather, sunshine, and coastal breezes, that hasn’t stopped folks from trying to get a slice of the California life. Regardless of geographical location, we’re all California dreamin’ — many of us are, anyway. After all, who wouldn’t rather be lounging poolside in Beverly Hills?
“Go West, young man.” — Horace Greeley