Understanding the Modern Style of Decor

Form Follows Function

Modern living room interior

The Spruce / Marty Baldwin

The word “modern” is one of the most misused phrases in decorating. Often confused with contemporary style, today’s modern style is based on a design movement that was birthed around the turn of the 20th century. Modern style furnishings and decor celebrate natural materials, neutral or earthy colors, and the elimination of unnecessary detailing. While you may see a range of colors in contemporary styling, modern styles would have monochromatic colors.

History of the Modern Style of Decor

With roots in German and Scandinavian architecture and design, the modern style is simple and unadorned. It is connected to the age of machination and is often referred to as that of the 1920s to 1950s. The modern style movement continued to grow in popularity throughout the first half of the 20th century, and later derivatives of this style are known as midcentury modern and postmodern.

What Does Scandinavian Architecture Entail?

Scandinavian architecture and design involve bright, neutral colors; open spaces; and large windows all meant to maximize light in the space. There's also a focus on clean lines and natural materials to evoke a sense of simplicity and comfort.

One of the key beliefs behind the modern design movement is the idea that “form follows function.” In other words, the design of all furnishings and decorative objects should reflect its intended purpose, and if a furnishing, decor, or decorating detail does not have a practical purpose, then it can be eliminated.

Typical Characteristics of a Modern Space

This philosophy behind the modern style makes it a perfect decorating choice for those who like simple, uncluttered spaces with clean lines and a lack of fussy adornments. It goes well in the open floor plans that accompanied the development of this style.

If you're thinking of decorating a space in a modern style, here are a few things you should know:

  • Structural elements (such as concrete or beams) often left exposed
  • Emphasis on horizontal and vertical lines with fewer curves
  • Lack of fussiness or fluff
  • Low, horizontal furnishings with clean lines
  • Celebration of natural light and unadorned windows
  • Natural materials such as unpainted wood, metals, leather, and natural fibers
  • A neutral or “natural” color palette
  • Reflective surfaces such as steel, chrome, or glass
  • Natural woods and wood veneers
Frontal view of a coffee table and sofa in the modern decor style

The Spruce / Marty Baldwin

Modern vs. Contemporary Style

Contemporary style is not born out of a certain era. It changes as time evolves, and can incorporate modern elements. For example, in a few more decades, a new style will be called contemporary because it is what is in style. Contemporary furnishings have more distinctive forms and often can include curved furnishings.

Beginning in the 1990s, contemporary decor followed the minimalist trend and it can include stark contrasting colors with black and white, while modern is based on neutrals rather than being stark and cold. Contemporary pieces may be simply decorative, while modern pieces must have a function.

The battle to define modern style will probably continue, as it is widely debated. But at its root, the modern style reflects a certain era. That said, many people incorporate pieces of modern style into their homes and offices because of its simple, functional nature. As many people strive for simplicity in life—and there's an emphasis on decluttering—perhaps they will be drawn to the modern style because it does seem to simplify everything. That goes along with the design trend of open-concept spaces.

Split screen image showing the differences between modern and contemporary decor

The Spruce / Marty Baldwin

Article Sources
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  1. Migdol, Erin. What Is Modern Architecture, Anyway? Getty Center. 2020.