What is California modern interior design? Interior designers on how to introduce the style's laid-back sophistication

It's the perfect style for a scheme that exudes relaxed elegance

California modern interior design
(Image credit: Dmar Interiors/Charlotte Lea/Janette Mallory Interiors/Shelby Bourne Photo)

If modern, neutral spaces working in tangent with the outside sound like the perfect style, California modern interior design is probably your ideal aesthetic. Using a balance of elevated design with unfussy style, this aesthetic is a lesson in curated, lived-in style.

This California-inspired interior design style is a popular choice both in and outside of the Golden State. Embracing cohesion between indoor and outdoor spaces, this aesthetic champions relaxed living, but rather than the more rustic, coastal style typical of other design styles, California modern calls for a more contemporary approach.

So, whether you reside on the Californian coast and want to embrace your surroundings or you live elsewhere and simply want to infuse your space with a modern yet relaxed atmosphere, we've asked interior designers to explain how to achieve the California modern style, wherever you are in the world.

What is California modern interior design?

A California modern living room with neutral walls, a white sofa, and exposed wooden ceiling beams

(Image credit: Dmar Interiors/Shelby Bourne)

California modern interior design has a distinct style that separates it from other aesthetics inspired by the state. It's less coastal and rustic and more elevated and stylized. 'California modern design is clean and contemporary while maintaining livability. They are tailored and polished without being fussy or precious,' explains Mollie Ranize, lead interior designer and founder at Dmar Interiors.

While this style of interior embraces the Californian landscapes, it also benefits from timeless aesthetics and vintage pieces. 'California modern design is an architectural and interior design style that embodies the casual, relaxed lifestyle and diverse landscapes of California. It blends elements of mid-century modern design mixed with the true essence of the California lifestyle,' says interior designer Janette Mallory.

'Characterized by open floor plans, ample natural light, and a seamless integration between indoor and outdoor living spaces, this design philosophy emphasizes simplicity, sustainability, and comfort,' she adds.

A California moder living room with glass bifold doors leading to the garden

(Image credit: Dmar Interiors/Evan Bracken)

While the visual elements are key to creating a California modern scheme, the atmosphere and mood you create are just as important. 'California modern design is not only about a way to style a space but also a lifestyle. It's walking into a space and wanting to kick off your shoes and stay a while,' says Mollie.

'It's welcoming and comfortable but still impressive. It keeps your eye moving with many refined details, but not in an intimidating way. It's a desire for indoor-outdoor experiences and visual connections, and it's equally as desirable for entertaining as it is for day-to-day living for a family,' she explains.

What's the difference between California modern and California casual?

California casual living room with sleek finishes and luxe upholstery

(Image credit: Dmar Interiors/Charlotte Lea)

This isn't the only interior design style centered around California, and with so many similarities to California casual style, how can you decipher the two when curating your home?

'California modern is a bit more polished than California Casual – it's more minimal with a clean geometric aesthetic and gives you the opportunity to have a laid-back vibe with more refined edges. It's a bit more contemporary and sophisticated in shapes and finishes – California Casual uses many of the same colors and materials but with more traditional shapes,' explains Mollie.

'You can mix in things like velvets and steel, rather than keeping everything more relaxed with just fabrics like linens and cotton blends. You can also work in ebony woods and darker stones for a bit more drama,' she adds.

California modern bathroom

(Image credit: Dmar Interiors/Molly Rose Photo)

The main area of difference between the two styles is the shapes and furniture used. While California casual calls for informal, slouchy furniture and lighter finishes, California modern leans toward clean lines and gives space for darker woods and sleeker finishes.

'I like to focus on the seamless blend of modernist principles with the warmth and openness of California's landscape. It emphasizes clean lines, minimalism, and a connection to the outdoors. This style often incorporates large windows to let in natural light, open floor plans to enhance the sense of space, and a mix of natural materials like wood and stone to bring warmth and texture,' explains Janette.

'The furniture is sleek and functional, with a nod to mid-century modern design elements. The overall effect is one of refined simplicity, where every piece is carefully chosen to balance form and function,' she adds.

How to decorate with California modern interior design

1. Opt for a neutral base with earthy hues

A California modern living room with warm neutral walls and a gray sofa. Earthy colors have been introduced through the decor, and natural materials create a more relaxed atmosphere

(Image credit: Janette Mallory Interiors)

The colors that characterize California modern design are probably what you'd expect – warm neutrals form the base, with pops of earth hues and ocean-inspired colors adding interest to the scheme.

'California modern design lends itself to any neutral, but also welcomes colors from nature in both subtle and broad strokes. So an earthy, colorful pillow scheme with olive greens and rusts can be just as strong as a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling built-ins in a saturated color like navy blue,' says Mollie.

The earth tones that feel at home in California modern design lean more towards brown and beige features than the more saturated hues that fall into the earthy palette. 'In the affluent areas of Santa Monica, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, and Malibu, the California modern color palette emphasizes neutrals like whites, off-whites, and grays, complemented by earthy tones such as browns, beiges, and muted greens,' explains Janette.

While the neutral base is important to creating an authentic California modern space, the accent colors are key to adding depth and personality to the space. At the moment, a few hues are proving popular in this interior style. 'Typically, one or two accent colors are incorporated, with sage green and terracotta being popular choices lately,' adds Kailee Blalock & Taylor Troia, founders of House of Hive Design Co.

2. Pair natural woods with sleek finishes

A California modern kitchen with wooden cabinetry and marble countertops. The hardware used in the space is sleek and modern, a perfect contrast with the more rustic, paired-back cabinets

(Image credit: Janette Mallory Interiors)

To create a more modern look, pair natural woods with sleek finishes such as metal, marble, or deeper-toned woods. 'In the realm of California modern design, the harmonious blend of materials and textures is key to creating spaces that are both elegant and connected to nature,' explains Janette. 

'Natural wood is a cornerstone, with lighter varieties like oak and walnut gracing floors, furniture, and architectural details, infusing warmth and organic texture. Stone surfaces, including marble, granite, and slate, offer cool, natural elegance to countertops and floors, standing in beautiful contrast to wood's warmth,' she adds.

There are plenty of ways to introduce this mix of materials in a stylized way. A kitchen is a great place to start, where a seamless blend of contrasting materials is easier to achieve. 'You will always find various shades of wood tones, and a nice balanced mix of metals on cabinetry hardware, plumbing, and light fixtures,' says Mollie.

3. Soften the space with textiles and lighting

A California modern style bedroom featuring a soft upholstered headboard and a rustic wooden chest of drawers

(Image credit: Dmar Interiors/Charlotte Lea)

While there is much emphasis on the blend of materials that create the California modern style, it's important to introduce elements that can soften the scheme, reintroducing that sense of coziness California style is renowned for.

'We love to infuse the California modern style into design schemes by starting with upholstery items that have soft edges and colors, another is with playful and interesting light fixtures. These can make or break a space,' explains Mollie.

'Both of these things help keep a space from being too serious or buttoned up. If you have the opportunity to design the space in addition to furnishing and styling, make sure to maximize views and natural light. Nothing beats the natural sequence of daylight when leaning into the California modern style,' she adds.

4. Allow as much natural light as possible into your home

California modern home entryway with large glass door to let in plenty of natural light

(Image credit: Janette Mallory Interiors)

On the topic of natural light, no California modern home is complete without cohesion between inside and out. This could be maximizing views of the surrounding scenery, creating a natural flow between your living room and outdoor space, or making the most of the natural light that filters into your home.

'One of my favorite ways to infuse California modern style into a design scheme centers on maximizing natural light and fostering a strong indoor-outdoor connection, which are quintessential elements of this style. For most of my projects, I prioritize installing large windows to let natural light flood the house, illuminating the space with warmth and openness,' says Janette.

'Starting with a palette of neutral colors on walls and floors sets a serene backdrop that reflects natural light, enhancing the sense of space and openness. Incorporating large floor-to-ceiling windows or glass sliding doors not only invites ample natural light but also erases the boundaries between the interior and the lush, natural landscapes or carefully curated outdoor living areas, bringing the outdoors in,' she adds.

5. Decorate with vintage and antique pieces

A California modern living room with a white sofa, warm neutral walls and vintage art displayed on the wall

(Image credit: Janette Mallory Interiors)

To create a welcoming and relaxing atmosphere (something that is crucial to California modern style), your space needs to feel lived-in and unfussy. White sleek polished finishes introduce a sense of sophistication, decorating with antique and vintage decor can create that balance of more rustic, informal style.

'I take great joy in curating a selection of antiques from around the world to mix into this California modern design, each piece carefully chosen to infuse my clients' homes with a touch of mid-century modern elegance,' explains Janette.

Whether you add an antique side table in a living room, vintage wall decor in a hallway, or an aged light fixture above an island, injecting something with a bit of age and ware will instantly give your scheme more character.

6. Make sure to include ocean cues

A California modern bathroom with a navy blue feature wall, a wooden side table and a rattan light fixture

(Image credit: Dmar Interiors/Shelby Bourne Photo)

No California modern scheme is complete without a nod to the ocean – after all, it is one of the main things we associate with California. However, it's important to do this in a way that feels subtle and elegant. Where coastal decor might embrace more obvious cues, California modern calls for something less obvious.

Accessorizing with pieces inspired by the natural beauty of California, from oceanic blues to desert hues, alongside minimalist decorative elements that have a handcrafted feel, can tie the whole space together,' says Janette. Color is an easy but effective way to introduce ocean cues to a scheme, without leaning too coastal.

If you want to introduce ocean-inspired decor pieces into your scheme, make sure to balance them out with something more contemporary. For example, a living room might feature a marble side table topped with a lamp with a more rustic lampshade. 'A mix of textures abounds here! Jute, macrame, reclaimed wood, and seagrass are all perfectly at home in this aesthetic,' adds Kathy.

7. Introduce mid-century modern style

A California modern bedroom with mid-century modern furniutre

(Image credit: Dmar Interiors/Evan Bracken)

Perhaps an unexpected pairing, but mid-century modern is a key element in California modern interior design. Introducing vintage furniture and decor in the style can really tie the scheme together, and help to balance the more relaxed elements of the space with something more modular.

'California modern design is equal parts modern sophistication and boho beach comfort. I like to think of this design style as a mixture between the clean lines often associated with mid-century modernism and the earthy and coastal elements of California's surf and music culture,' says Kathy.

'I take pleasure in sourcing unique pieces for my clients, focusing on items from the 18th and 19th centuries that introduce a distinct, one-of-a-kind ambiance to their homes. Whether it's artwork, furniture, antiques, or vessels, integrating mid-century modern choices is a fantastic way to infuse the California modern aesthetic into any space,' adds Janette.

While California modern interior design hasn't been around as long as some other styles, it certainly feels like a timeless aesthetic. Pairing laid-back living with elevated finishes, it's the perfect middle ground between modern and rustic style.

Molly Malsom
Content Editor

Molly joined the Homes & Gardens interiors team at the start of 2024 as a content editor. Her undergraduate degree was in Magazine Journalism and Production, which she studied at the University of Gloucestershire. Before joining Homes & Gardens, she worked for two interiors titles across both print and digital channels, writing about a range of topics from room design ideas and decorating trends to the best places to source pre-loved homeware.