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Modern vs. Contemporary Design Style In Homes

DECEMBER 3, 2019
Photo credit: Tony Vu for One Kings Lane

Bright open rooms. Streamlined furniture. A crisp and composed vibe. It describes a familiar aesthetic, and you've likely seen and heard people refer to these spaces as modern and contemporary in style. But what does that mean? And which is it?

While these terms are used almost interchangeably today, they are, by interior design definition, far from similar in meaning. So, what's the difference between modern and contemporary design? Read on to find out! Along the way, see how some of our favorite contemporary and modern designers have brought the two different styles to life in their interiors—and get inspired. 

Curious to find out what your design style is? Take our Style Quiz!



marie ducheyne modern contemporary officeInterior by Decorist Elite designer Marie DuCheyne. Photo by Vivian Johnson.

There are more than a few differences between the two styles, but here's a simple breakdown for starters. 

Modern design refers to the past, in particular, the period between the 1920s to the '70s. Form and function informed the furniture and interiors, which often featured bold lines, warm woods, and primary hues. It also embraced lots of symmetry and a sense of balanced comfort. 

Contemporary design refers to the now and the future. It changes as our idea of design changes. But ultimately, what underscores the style at this moment are the cool hues, the updated materials and finishes, and the cutting-edge shapes that make it on-trend and ever-evolving. 



modern living room by christopher kennedy
Interior by Decorist Celebrity designer Christopher Kennedy. Photo courtesy of Kennedy.

Modern design is specific to the early and mid-20th-century, with influences spanning across Scandinavian, German Bauhaus, and even Art Deco styles. During the 1950s and '60s, it gave rise to the Mid-Century Modern movement, which emphasized form follows function and the notion of simple, well-designed furniture for the home. It was an era championed by such icons as Charles and Ray Eames, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Eero Saarinen, and Florence Knoll. It was then that the style gained prominence, and it has since become the aesthetic that people associate most closely with this style.

In this desert oasis living room in Palm Springs, California, designer Christopher Kennedy succinctly captures the modern interior design aesthetic with its assemblage of functional furniture featuring simple (and perfectly retro) forms. These include Mid-Century dining chairs and a wood-top table by Saarinen as well as Danish-inspired upholstered seating. 


contemporary living room by erinn valencich
Interior by Decorist Celebrity designer Erinn Valencich. Photo courtesy of Valencich.

Contemporary design, on the other hand, is informed by modernism and is not specific to any period or era in time. It speaks to of-the-moment designs and pieces that signal the future. It's a look that combines a range of influences, from Art Deco to minimalism to global style. But for the most part, you'll recognize this style by its sleek look, neutral tones, and organic elements. In short, it's a look that's always changing with the times. 

Designer Erinn Valencich deftly brings the contemporary aesthetic to life in this bright living room. With its modular wraparound sectional in white leather, lacquered wood coffee table, and gold-finished chair, there's a mix of streamlined and cutting-edge pieces that add bold appeal but still keeps the room feeling minimal. 



modern dining room by found and collected design
Interior by Decorist Elite designer Sarah Ramirez of Found + Collected Design. Photo courtesy of Ramirez.

At the height of the Mid-Century era, many furniture pieces had an industrial edge. That was most apparent in the materials used to construct those pieces, which included natural woods (particularly walnut and plywood), leather, and stone, as well as chrome, acrylic, and molded plastic.

These were used to make many of the iconic chairs that are now some of the most recognizable designs, such as the DAW molded-plastic Eames chairs that pop in this dining room by designer Sarah Ramirez of Found + Collected Design


contemporary dining room by lauren nelsonInterior by Decorist Celebrity designer Lauren Nelson. Photo courtesy of Nelson.

With contemporary furniture designs, while there are some crossovers, you'll often find a mix of polished woods, sleek metals, such as steel and chrome, along with natural-fibers. And more and more, we even see designs made from materials with serious heft, like travertine, plaster, and even concrete.

Additionally, these materials are also often enhanced with stunning finishes or manipulated into striking forms. Think marble-cube tables, lacquered wood cabinets, galvanized steel pendants, or these sculptural white chairs with cutouts that add bold visual impact in this dining space by designer Lauren Nelson.  



modern reading nook by martin raffone
Interior by Decorist Celebrity designer Martin Raffone. Photo by Richard Powers for Elle Decor.

The modern design palette consists mostly of earthy tones and vibrant primary colors, such as red, blue, and yellow. They're colors that perfectly complement the aesthetic, tieing back to creations during the art movement of the early and mid-20th-century, such as the paintings of Piet Mondrian and the iconic chairs by Gerrit Rietveld.

Designer Martin Raffone showcases the impact of this palette masterfully in this reading nook. By pulling in a pair of Rietveld zigzag chairs in natural wood to go alongside a gallery wall of vivid-colored prints, he brings bold contrast to this space and sets a lively and eclectic scene.  


contemporary living room vignette by courtney aleksa
Interior by Decorist Elite designer Courtney Aleksa. Photo courtesy of Aleksa.

Meanwhile, the contemporary palette leans simple, sleek, and often even stark. Bright white tones, shades of gray, and black notes are usually the foundational hues in these spaces. 

Case in point: The white-lacquer cabinet that designer Courtney Aleksa chose as the anchor piece in this living room vignette is both a streamlined showpiece that doubles as a blank canvas for eye-catching accents in high-contrast shades, polished materials, and metallics.



modern bedroom by found and collected design
Interior by Decorist Elite designer Sarah Ramirez of Found + Collected Design. Photo courtesy of Ramirez.

Finally, a decided difference between the two styles is that modern interiors often exude an earthiness that comes from its warm neutral palette, natural materials, wood tones, and clean-lined yet vintage-style designs.

These spaces have a way of conveying a sense of everyday ease and comfort even if the furnishings are streamlined or have captivating forms—as in this cozy retreat, designed by Sarah Ramirez of Found + Collected Design, with its Mid-Century-style bed and bench.


contemporary bedroom by elena calabreseInterior by Decorist Celebrity designer Elena Calabrese. Photo courtesy of Calabrese.

Contemporary spaces, in contrast, often have a less-is-more vibe. It doesn't necessarily mean they are stark and minimal; they have an airier look. And even with minimal furniture and decor, these spaces still exude a feeling of crisp comfort, as in this light-filled bedroom by designer Elena Calabrese.


If you've been thinking about style makeover, we can help! Check out our roster of Contemporary Designers and Modern Designers, and see how you can start collaborating with them today!


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