Design Definitions: Modern vs. Contemporary

Two words that often come up when talking about style, furniture, or design are “contemporary” and “modern.”  In a non-decorating context, we think of the words as synonymous, but in the design world they seem to mean very different things.  We decided to poke around and try to figure out what, precisely, contemporary and modern mean in the design context.  First, definitions of the words:

Contemporary: adj. belonging to or occurring in the present.

Modern: adj. of or relating to the present or recent times as opposed to the remote past.

Sounds the same, right?  But add on the word “style” to either word, and they evolve to mean something very different.

First, “modern style”:  modern style references a specific movement characterized by clean lines and minimalism.  “Modern” emerged in the 1920s-1950s (according to dubious, but numerous, internet sources), so the word in this context doesn’t mean ‘relating to the present,’ but is a specific and static design style.  In other words it’s the style of a design, not how recently it emerged, that designates something like the Panton Chair (cir. 1960) as modern.  Perhaps the most recognizable iteration of modern style is mid-century modern style, which is, confusingly, quite popular in contemporary interiors (as in, right now).  Here are some examples of ‘modern style’ rooms:

At its most broad, ‘contemporary style’ seems to mean a style that focuses on design trends from the second half of the 20th century.  Contemporary decor incorporates neutral colors, with lots of brown, taupe, cream, and white, as well as stainless steel, nickel, and chrome.  Pattern is eschewed in favor of tone-on-tone solids and furnishings are ultra linear.  We found that most often ‘contemporary style’ is defined by what it’s not: traditional (another design definition post in the making!).

Here are some spaces that illustrate contemporary style:

Red House West||Modern vs. Contemporary

This is from ‘Better Homes and Gardens,’ where contemporary style is described as being “defined by clean lines with a casual atmosphere, open spaces, neutral colors, and elements and materials inspired by nature.”

Red House West || Design Definitions

Going through this exercise has shed light for us on the difference between modern and contemporary decor, and the ways in which the styles overlap and intersect.  What do you think? Have we cleared it up or further confounded you?

6 responses on “Design Definitions: Modern vs. Contemporary

  1. Laura (PA Pict)

    I’m a big fan of modern style. I actually wrote my design study paper for art and design at school on modern chairs. I’m particularly drawn to the 1950s interior design, perhaps because my Grandad’s house was full of post-war utility furniture which aped the lines of modern style.

  2. y2knina

    I grew up during the period when modern was transitioning into contemporary. I love the period. I think over the years I have been attempting to recreate my (very happy) childhood home. I think I like the combination of contemporary (but not too contemporary) spaces with modern furnishings best. Of the illustrative examples you’ve selected, I heart #2 & #3.

    Interesting post! (As usual.)

  3. Carol Crump Bryner

    I’ve always thought of the “modern style” as being called “retro.” I imagine Laura and Rob (Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke) relaxing on their modern sofa – Laura in her capri pants and Dick leaning back onto one of the triangle pillows.

    I think you did clear it up a bit, but to tell the truth, both styles look uncomfortable to me. I might be more of a lover of eclecticism – a bit from this era, a bit from that, and a dog or cat lounging on the overstuffed couch.

  4. Anne On

    MODERNISM covered many different areas of art, so it’s hard to say exactly when it begins and ends. Roughly it starts in the late 19th century and finishes at the end of WWII, especially for interior decorating. That means the end of Victorian style through Art Deco. (Think William Morris, Frank Lloyd Wright, arts and crafts style – all modern.) That’s why furniture design from the 1950s is “mid century” modern, because it happens outside of this time period. The next movement was Post-Modernism, whose best example is the Memphis style. Now post-modernism is ending, which is really exciting. We are on the brink of something new!

    I think we mix up contemporary and modern because so much literature was written during the modern era BEFORE it was labeled, so they were writing about their contemporary times. Or not – just a theory.

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