Modern vs Contemporary Design Styles

Modern living room interior with gas fire
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You might think that the design terms "modern" and "contemporary" mean the same thing. After all, isn't all contemporary decor modern? If you were to go by the dictionary's definition of these two words, that certainly could be true. In design and art, however, modern and contemporary become two distinct 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.

The Roots of Modern Design

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 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 modern design.

The Roots of Contemporary Design

What is referred to as contemporary style became popular in the 1970s, about the same time of 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.

Modern vs. Contemporary

There are quite a few differences between these two design styles. A modern space tends to follow a strict style format while contemporary has many variations in its interiors.

  • Modern in its true form is rarely viewed as stark or cold, while some contemporary interiors, including those that follow minimalist trends, celebrate a bold starkness.
  • Modern pieces of decor tend to have a function, whereas contemporary pieces may concentrate more on the form itself.
  • The color palette of modern design leans toward naturals or neutrals that have a warm, inviting feel. Contemporary often enjoys stark contrast with plenty of blacks and whites, though it has no problems swinging from one extreme to the other on the color scale.
  • Modern design favors strong lines, while the contemporary style loves curves.

Since the contemporary design style is forever adapting to the latest trends, it picks up many elements that may not be found in modern design. This includes things like expansive windows and morphing the natural world into the interior space.

Additionally, both modern and contemporary styles do enjoy geometric elements, but they tend to go about it in different ways. It may be a geometric light fixture in brilliant gold hanging from the ceiling in a modern room. Whereas in a contemporary one, it would be more large-scale sculptural features, such as a series of showstopping exposed beams against a stark white ceiling.

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.