Understanding "Modern" Style Decor

What is modern-style decorating?

A modern living room feels comfortable without feeling cluttered. Furniture and lighting is low, shelves are recessed, and woods and colors are kept natural. Photo © Paul Burns

The word “modern” is one of the most misused phrases in decorating. Often confused with contemporary style, today’s modern style is actually based on a design movement that was birthed around the turn of the 20th century.

The modern style movement continued to grow in popularity throughout the first half of the century, and later derivatives of this style are known as midcentury modern and postmodern.

With roots in German and Scandinavian architecture and design, the modern style is simple and unadorned.  In fact, it is connected to the age of machination and is often referred to of that of the 1920s to 1950s. Contemporary, on the other hand, 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.

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--think white-washed rooms, for instance.

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. Contemporary furnishings have more distinctive forms and often can include curved furnishings.

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. 

Typical Characteristics of a Modern Space

If you're thinking of decorating a space in 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--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

The battle to define modern style will probably continue, as it is widely debated if you do a little research online. But at its root, 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.