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Modern vs. Contemporary Interior Design: Your Ultimate Guide

Can you spot the difference between modern and contemporary interior design? Mixing up these beautiful styles is easy to do. But after reading our ultimate guide below, you’ll be able to tell them apart like...

Can you spot the difference between modern and contemporary interior design? Mixing up these beautiful styles is easy to do. But after reading our ultimate guide below, you’ll be able to tell them apart like a pro. We’re putting modern vs contemporary interior design head to head, to help you confidently create delightful spaces in either style.

Modern vs Contemporary Interior Design

'Contemporary' and 'modern' are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct design styles from different periods. First, there was modernism, and then came contemporary interior design. They may share similarities, but in time, we will also look back on contemporary design as a style of a certain age.

Keep in mind that your style can be a combination of two or more styles. With an interior design quiz, you can help a designer pinpoint which look will fit you and your home.

Without further ado, let’s jump right into the basics of modern vs contemporary interior design from our pros to help you accomplish your ideal design.

Modern Interior Design

What is Modernism? A Modern Interior Design Definition

Modern interior design refers to a sleek and uncluttered style that began in the late 19th century. In its purest form, modernism reflects a fuss-free approach to life. As a result, designers kept décor minimal while emphasizing industrial materials. Modern interior design focuses on block colors, which include primary hues.

Pinning modern interior design to one definition is challenging as it spanned for more than a century. But its essence is rooted in clean lines. Real modernism has simplicity in every aspect of its design. After all, the founding modernist movement rejected what was artificial. And as a result, homes and public spaces were no longer filled with over embellishments.

History of Modern Interior Design Ideas

Modernism sprouted in the late 1800s as a reaction to overly ornate and artificial interiors, architecture, and art. By the 1930s, this movement flourished, emphasizing function above form. The industrial boom and growing cities created a need for simplified forms and cost-effective construction materials. This led to the use of reinforced concrete and steel, enabling architects to create buildings with large windows and new shapes.

Constantly evolving, modern interior design has seen many interpretations from the late 1800s up until the end of the 20th century. The Arts and Crafts movement kicked off the modern era, and influences from Art Deco, De Stijl, and Bauhaus art movements shaped its distinct appearance.

Today, modern elements still feature in architecture and contemporary interior design. Read on for the essentials of a perfectly balanced modernist wonder.

8 Elements That Make a Modern Interior Design

You can spot a modern interior by its well-defined lines, precise color palette, and moderate use of décor. Here are the 8 elements of a truly modern interior.

1. Modern Art

Artists revolutionized how people think about their environment. Besides, it's thanks to artists like Édouard Manet that modernism took shape. That’s why art is essential to modern interior design. In these logic-driven spaces, prints and sculptures are expressive with bold color use and unexpected forms.

2. Glass, Concrete, and Steel

Successful modern interior design shows off the craftsmanship of concrete, steel, and glass. The framework of furniture is often celebrated and left exposed, emphasizing the true nature of these materials. Furnishings can look machine-like due to the lack of ornamentation, following the philosophy of "form follows function."

3. Abstract Forms

Designs in authentic modern style can seem abstract, especially when compared to more luxurious furniture. Whatever you see in a modern design is what is necessary to fulfill its functional purpose.

4. Neutral Walls

After the embellishment of the Victorian period, modernist homes chose the stillness of neutral walls. Greys, whites, and soft pastels make the perfect backdrop for a modern design.

5. Clean Lines

Thanks to industrial progress, materials like concrete and steel were easily accessible, and designers took full advantage. Straight lines triumphed, balancing the opposing vertical and horizontal lines of columns, steps, and furniture.

6. No Clutter

One thing is clear in modern interior design ideas: clutter is not welcome. Few accessories and minimal decoration are key, balancing empty and occupied spaces.

7. Pop of Primary Colors

Bold red, blue, or yellow are characteristically modern. Art movements like Bauhaus and De Stijl brought lively hues into the understated style.

8. Large Windows

Reinforced materials allowed architects to create buildings with big windowpanes, letting in much-needed natural light.

5 Creatives Who Shaped Modern Interior Design Ideas

Modern ideals were championed by creatives, designers, and architects. Here are five influential modernists who helped shape the world as we know it today.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

As an architect, interior designer, and writer, Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most prolific icons of modernism. His prairie style open-plan architecture was an antidote to the closed-in spaces of the Victorian era.

Grete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000)

While working on projects to create affordable housing, Grete Schütte-Lihotzky came up with the Frankfurt Kitchen—a predecessor of the fitted kitchen we know and love today. Her efficient design simplified living by making domestic spaces more user-friendly.

Marcel Breuer (1902-1981)

Hungarian-born Marcel Breuer was greatly influenced by the De Stijl movement while studying at Bauhaus. His radical designs simplified furniture to its most mechanical and least artistic form, earning him recognition as the master of the furniture workshop at only 23.

Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953)

As an expressionist architect, Erich Mendelsohn incorporated dynamic functionalism in his designs. His buildings are streamlined modern Art Deco creations, concerned with function above all else.

Naum Gabo (1890-1977)

As one of the fathers of contemporary sculpture, Naum Gabo drastically reduced the physical and visual mass of a sculpture using intersecting planes. The result is futuristic in its angular logic.

Contemporary Interior Design

What Is Contemporary Design?

Simply put, contemporary design refers to styles that are presently relevant and new. The move from stark modern lines began during the late 20th century. Contemporary design features softer edges and elaborate sculptural touches, setting it apart from its predecessors. It encompasses styles like eclectic, Scandinavian, minimalism, coastal, industrial, and glam.

History of Contemporary Interior Design

Contemporary design is a result of current technological advancements. Influences include the digital revolution, information age, and environmentalism. Globalization has also had a profound impact, as contemporary interiors are a mix of various styles from around the world.

During the 1970s, contemporary design took shape alongside post-modernism. Influences like Art Deco, futurism, deconstructivism, and Scandinavian design shaped this young and ever-evolving style.

8 Elements That Make a Contemporary Interior Design

Spotting a contemporary design can be tricky as it borrows from many other styles. Here are 8 elements that can help you identify a contemporary interior:

1. Sculptural Light

Lighting design is elevated in contemporary spaces. Lights are transformed into beautiful sculptures and serve as focal points in the room.

2. Highlighting Construction

Exposed materials, especially in construction, are key to contemporary design. Steel pillars, wooden beams, and other structural elements are often left exposed, blurring the line between sculpture, art, and functional furniture.

3. Minimalism

Form is even more simplified, compact, and efficient in contemporary design. While minimalist, contemporary interiors can sometimes be maximalist, striking the right balance between simplicity and abundance.

4. Updated Materials

Contemporary design embraces innovative and environmentally friendly materials, such as bamboo, cork, recycled plastics and glass, aluminum, and clay.

5. Traveler’s Flare

Contemporary interiors showcase various influences from around the world, incorporating styles from different cultures and regions.

6. New Neutral

Contemporary color palettes are earthy, resembling tones found in nature. Stone grey, sandy browns, charcoal black, and cloudy whites dominate, with pops of leafy greens or rich jewel tones.

7. Contemporary Art

Artwork is given prominence in contemporary interiors, often displayed on feature walls or as standalone sculptures. Functional objects also exhibit artistic qualities.

8. Open Plan

Contemporary homes feature open spaces with fewer walls, creating a well-demarcated home that encourages fluid movement.

5 Creatives Who are Shaping Contemporary Design Styles

Contemporary interior designers are constantly updating and perfecting their style. Here are five innovative designers who push the boundaries of contemporary design:

Fernando Mastrangelo

Brooklyn-based artist Fernando Mastrangelo creates experimental works across various mediums, including furniture, architecture, interiors, sculpture, and painting.

Lily Kwong

Through landscape design, Lily Kwong highlights the versatility of botany and horticulture in constructed spaces, reviving the urban sphere with living masterpieces.

Jorgen Hovelskov

Jorgen Hovelskov champions furniture design in the present day, creating modern marvels like the 'Harp Chair.'

John Pawson

John Pawson follows in the footsteps of modern interior design with his minimalist, carefully considered designs that are perfectly balanced and inviting.

Zaha Hadid

Known as the "Queen of the curve," Zaha Hadid is one of the most experimental architects of the 21st century. Her designs range from the London Aquatics Center to the Broad Art Museum and Galaxy SOHO.

Similarities & Differences Between Modern vs Contemporary Interior Design

When comparing modern and contemporary interior design, you'll find both similarities and differences that make them distinct. They share traits like minimalism, clean lines, open spaces, functional forms, and neutral color palettes. However, key differences separate them:

  • Age: Modern design spanned from the late 1800s to the end of the 20th century, while contemporary design began during the late 1900s and is still ongoing.
  • Material focus: Modern design emphasizes dark woods, chrome, acrylic, leather, and concrete, while contemporary design features light wood, eco-friendly materials, and recycled glass, plastic, and wood.
  • Architecture: Modern architecture features straight vertical and horizontal lines, while contemporary architecture incorporates more fluid and curved forms.
  • Lighting: Contemporary lighting design is more artistic and expressive, whereas modern lighting was more modest and task-oriented.

Now that you can distinguish between modern and contemporary interiors, you're ready to create your dream space. If you'd like expert advice, schedule a free interior design consultation to bring your modern or contemporary masterpiece to life.