Modern vs Contemporary Design Style: What's the Difference

Learn what differentiates modern from contemporary style

Modern, Bright And Airy Scandinavian Design Living Room
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For most people, the design terms modern and contemporary sound like they mean the same thing—and a dictionary definition supports this interpretation, since the words are considered synonyms. But for home designers and interior decorating professionals, the terms modern and contemporary refer to two distinct design styles.

These two decorating styles share some common characteristics, but there are differences. Time is the biggest factor in distinguishing them, though. Where modern design is firmly rooted in the early to mid-1900s, contemporary design involves the trends of the here and now.

What Is Modern Style?

The modern style is the design and decor 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 decor style is very old. In general terms, modern decor 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 60's) and postmodernism (1970s and 80's). 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 Contemporary Style?

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 decor 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.

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.

When to Choose Modern Over Contemporary Style

Because modern style focuses on the design elements common to the years from 1900 to 1950, it is best for a homeowner who enjoys the aesthetics of that era, with its preference for highly functional elements and warm, natural colors. And it works best for someone who likes to hone a single design theme.

The contemporary design style is best suited for homeowners who like to stay abreast of the current trends in decor and ornament, who are willing (and have the budget) to change with the times. And it's best for those who like the stark contrasts and curved lines that are so often found in contemporary design. Contemporary style is for those who find form and ornament more important than function.

Modern Style
  • Style tends to be strict

  • Decor pieces are functional

  • Color palette tends toward naturals, neutrals

  • Favors strong lines

  • Adapts to latest trends

  • Roots are in 1900s to 1950s

Contemporary Style
  • Style has many variations

  • Decor pieces are ornamental

  • Color pallet tends toward contrast, with lots of blacks and whites

  • Often features curves

  • Always focuses on the here and now