The Basics of Decorating in Contemporary Style

New, Modern, Up-to-Date

Contemporary Living Room
Caiaimage/Martin Barraud/Getty Images

In home decorating, if you enjoy things that are modern and like to keep current with the styles of the moment, you are a follower of contemporary style. While it's sometimes thought that "modern" interiors are cold and minimalist, in today's homes, contemporary interiors are comfortable and welcoming without being cluttered and dark. Today's contemporary style is equally appropriate for offices and stores, loft apartments and traditional homes.

Fundamentally, a contemporary style of decorating is defined by simplicity, subtle sophistication, deliberate use of texture, and clean lines. Interiors tend to showcase space rather than things. By focusing on color, space, and shape, contemporary interiors are sleek and fresh. To achieve the look of a contemporary home, it's important to stick to some basic rules.

Uses of Color

Neutrals, black, and white are the main colors in contemporary style interiors. Black is often used to ground and define a contemporary style room. The palette is often punched up and accented with bright and bold color that play against neutrals. With walls painted in a basic neutral, you have a wonderful backdrop for bold colored accessories. If the walls and windows are painted in pastels, the trims should be neutral. If a wall is a bright, bold color, neutrals should be used everywhere else.

Line and Space

The most obvious and distinctive element of a contemporary style interior design is line. Whether straight vertical or horizontal lines or curved shapes, strong visible lines are evident in any contemporary-style home. Line is found in architectural details, use of bold color blocks, high ceilings, bare windows, and geometric shapes in wall art and sculpture.

The bare space on walls, between pieces of furniture and above in upper areas, becomes as important as the areas filled with objects. In contemporary interiors, less is more. Each piece stands out as individual and unique.

Take advantage of structural elements. Air ducts may hang from a ceiling, broken bricks provide texture and stability, and exposed plumbing pipes are perfectly acceptable in a contemporary-style interior. To draw the eye, paint these structural details in bold contrasting colors, or, to diminish their importance, blend them with the walls.

Contemporary-Style Furniture

Furniture pieces should make a bold statement but at the same time be simple and uncluttered, without curves or decoration. Smooth, clean, geometric shapes are essential. Upholstered furniture often wears black, white, or other neutral tones, using the natural fibers found in wool, cotton, linen, silk, jute to add textural appeal. Pillows in clean geometric shapes add a shot of color and texture.

Use a basic background and shout out with your favorite color on a furniture piece that stands out. Less is more! Sofas, chairs, and ottomans often have exposed legs. Beds and chairs usually omit skirts, trim, fringes, or tassels. Don't use ruffles, excessive carved details, fringe, or floral prints. Abolish cute and small—go basic, bare, bold, and structural.

Flooring

Floors in a contemporary style home should be bare and smooth, using wood, tile, or vinyl. If you must use carpet for sound control or warmth, choose commercial grades. Add color and texture with plain or geometric-patterned area rugs.

Lighting Considerations and Art

Track lighting and recessed lighting help to wash a wall in light. In both home renovations and new construction, consider installing cove lighting or indirect light. Include color and metallic elements on the light fixtures.

Use spotlights or can lighting directed at a painting, poster, or print. These will help to draw the eye to the pieces you want to focus on. Contemporary style sculptures or framed art can be placed at eye level by placing them on a structural column or pedestal.

Frames in high-gloss or matte black, natural wood, or metal finishes are great for artwork. If you must put several pieces together, hang them close together so they create the feeling of one large piece. Don't clutter contemporary-style rooms with collections or too many pieces. In contemporary interiors, open space is often just as important as the pieces you put in the space.

Other Design Elements

Generous use of metal, stone, and opaque or clear glass works well in a room decorated in a contemporary style. To soften and warm up space, use heavily textured fabrics in plain colors for window treatments, pillows, or rugs.

Colorful, fussy prints should be avoided since they confuse the plain space that is key to a contemporary-style home. Two-tone prints work well. Think about a zebra print pillow on a black leather chair, a large leopard-print pillow thrown on a plain floor, or a bold, heavily textured striped rug to anchor solid colored, sleek furniture.

In contemporary rooms, plants and flowers should be large and dramatic in simple containers. Large blooms with interesting leaves work better than small arrangements. If space allows, place upward-focused lights around a large plant on the floor. Keep the arrangements neat with rocks or bark chips arranged over the soil in the pots.

Keep dinnerware contemporary, too. There are a number of geometric shapes, bold colors, and interesting styles available. Bring in texture with silverware, napkins, placemats, and centerpieces.