Modern vs. Contemporary Design: What’s the Difference?
The differences between contemporary and modern design. You might think these two styles are synonymous—both describing design that is au courant—but the reality is these styles have several distinctions. The best part is, once you understand these differences you'll find it much easier to conceive a plan for your own interiors (and impress your more design-savvy friends). Here's everything you need to know.
Modern design refers to the specific time period from the early to mid-twentieth century. The style is a precursor to contemporary design, with key figures including Le Corbusier, Charles and Ray Eames, and Florence Knoll. The inception of modern design happened at the peak of the modern art movement, informed by Scandinavian and German Bauhaus design. The distinct style focused on simple form and function, which are valued as equals under this style. Think earthy palettes, natural materials like wood, leather, and stone, and streamlined silhouettes.
From modern came mid-century modern (which was developed in, you guessed it, the 50s and 60s), although in the interior design world the term "modern" often encompasses both.
The modern style is the design and décor of the modernism movement, which began in the very late 1800s. Birthed by the German Bauhaus schools of design and the Scandinavian design emphasis on simplicity and function, the modern décor style is very old. In general terms, modern décor is linked to the beginning through the middle of the 20th century—the 1900s through the 1950s.
The modern style eventually morphed into mid-century modern (the 1950s and '60s) and postmodernism (1970s and '80s). While mid-century modern looks a lot like modern design with splashes of bright color added strategically, postmodernism doesn't. Postmodernism is bold, breaks all rules of tradition, and has a certain whimsy and irony about it. It is more about the form than the function, which is the exact opposite of the practical features found in classic modern design.
What is referred to as contemporary style became popular in the 1970s, about the same time as postmodernism's rise in popularity. It was originally a blend of styles before it became recognizable on its own. Contemporary design borrowed elements from modernism and postmodernism. It also gathered ideas from many other styles such as art deco, deconstructivism, futurism, and more.
And yet, "contemporary" style is always changing. As each decade passes, the décor trends of the day will be always be considered contemporary. It is not necessarily tied to a specific period of time in the same way that the modern style is. Instead, it is an ever-evolving style that reflects what is happening today.
Unlike modern design, contemporary design doesn't refer to a specific period of time—it's constantly evolving to reflect the popular styles of present day design. It borrows qualities from modernism, minimalism, Art Deco, and other global styles, without hyper-focusing on any one in particular. Though contemporary design is, by nature, fairly ambiguous, there are a few qualities that help define the contemporary style. Neutral palettes, stark minimalism, clean lines, and organic silhouettes are some of the prominent characteristics. You can expect to see materials including nickel, steel, and chrome, combined with natural textures
like hemp or jute.
MODERN vs. CONTEMPORARY : Key Differences
Contemporary is, by definition, what's happening in design at this very moment in time. This definition makes it more fluid and hard to pin down. Modern design, on the other hand, has a distinguishable aesthetic that emphasizes crisp lines, warm neutrals, and balance.
MODERN vs. CONTEMPORARY : The Similarities
There are similar characteristics to be found in both styles as well. This is likely where much of the confusion stems from when trying to distinguish them. Both styles tend to favor simple, uncluttered spaces with smooth, clean lines and artistic flair. This imparts a comfortable and calming feeling in a room that is very inviting.
Neither style prefers ornate designs or heavy elements. Contemporary spaces can, however, bend this rule frequently as the trends change. In both styles, sofas, chairs, and ottomans have exposed legs. They each tend to gravitate toward reflective surfaces such as exposed metals and glass. You will also find plenty of exposed wood in both styles, from structural beams to raw wood end tables with metal bases.
Both design styles have three general elements in common, which make them good design styles to mix and match into your own signature look. The three shared elements are: