Modern and contemporary tend to be used interchangeably when the average shopper discusses furniture and design. But if you’ve ever received a sharp glance from a furniture dealer after one of those comments, you know those terms are actually describing two separate styles. The difference between contemporary and modern is sometimes quite drastic, but other times it can be difficult to distinguish which is which. 

Modern design is actually fairly old, and began in the late 1800s. It began in German and Scandinavian design schools which emphasized simplicity and function. Modern design came to the United States with the Europeans who fled the continent at the beginning of World War II. The modern style eventually morphed into Midcentury Modern, which is generally what is thought of when we hear “modern” furniture today. Modern design celebrates a specific style from a specific time period, and does not change. 

Contemporary style describes what is popular now, and is therefore fluid and constantly changing. Contemporary design can be very eclectic for that reason, because it tends to borrow pieces and styles from all different eras. It doesn’t have to be something that is “designed” right now. Currently, contemporary interior design could feature modern furniture and art with tradition moldings and millwork. Contemporary design cannot be pinned down to one specific look, so what is described as “contemporary” today, will be “vintage” 20 years from now.

Modern furniture has a very distinct look. Midcentury Modern was created in the 1920s-1950s, and is recognizable for its clean, unadorned interiors. It uses a mix of natural materials such as wood and leather, with plastic and polished metal. Furniture is very open and raised off the floor allowing for an airy feeling. Modern homes have walls are often painted white, with bare floors and perhaps a neutral area rug. Pops of color were used in moderation, especially orange, blue, red and yellow.

mid century design

Today's updated contemporary design is a blend of comfortable, livable elements that create a sophisticated, fresh look and feel. Metals like stainless steel, nickel and chrome are very popular in contemporary furniture design. A combination of fabric textures, such as velvet, silk, linen or wool on throw pillows or curtains offset the industrial metal and make the home more comfortable.

The interior décor is made to match the architectural design of the home. Right now, a contemporary home might have large windows, unique or odd shapes, creative exteriors, and open floor plan, and could even blend in with the surrounding landscape. Natural elements are currently popular, with simple finishing details and clean lines. As being environmentally-conscious gains in popularity, sustainable materials would be considered “contemporary” at the moment. Homes with smart elements, like smart alarm systems, thermostats, solar panels, or integrated tech in the walls, are also contemporary.

A modern home features lots of glass, steel and concrete. Designers chose to showcase the industrial materials used to build the home, instead of covering them with ornate materials. These designs were meant to speak for themselves, making their own statement through their structure and functionality. When you think of homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, you’re imagining a modern home. Look for features like flat roofs and boxy styles, or bold, angular roof lines with vaulted ceilings. 

frank lloyd wright

Modern homes are currently having a resurgence, hence the confusion with the contemporary v. modern phrasing. Restorations of modern homes are noted architectural endeavors, and buyers are seeking new homes built to replicate this style. Decades after it was the prevailing architectural mode of expression, Modernism is perhaps even more popular than in its post-World War II heyday. Blame the popularity of the TV show Mad Men.

However, these contemporary-modern homes have a few distinct changes you wouldn’t have found in 1955. Today’s homeowners look for larger living spaces, and more closet space. They want spaces that are more livable and practical, as opposed to a work of art that feels like living in a museum. Materials common during the time, such as steel framing, are no longer practical and can be very expensive to reproduce. The signature large windows now need to be double-glazed, so they are also more costly. There are also stricter building codes and environmental restrictions, which restrict certain modern home elements. 

It is difficult to say which of these design styles are more popular, as contemporary furniture tends to incorporate modern styles. And modern furniture was once described as contemporary! Current contemporary style has many similarities to modern style, as both favor simple, uncluttered spaces with smooth, clean lines and artistic flair. Neither style prefers ornate designs or heavy elements, though recently Contemporary spaces are starting to bend this rule more frequently.

modern design

The confusion of modern vs. contemporary continues, as there is no standard across art forms, such as fine art and fashion. Though there is a fairly clear set of rules when it comes to furniture and home design, there is not a discernable difference when it comes to fashion. “Modern” and “Contemporary” are used interchangeably to describe clothes that are trendy.

The art world has its own definition of “Modern.” Modern Art is from Impressionists (say, around 1880) up until the 1970s. And Contemporary Art, like design, is art from the 1970s up until this very minute. Consider a piece of furniture or fashion that may be described as art. A mid-century modern piece of furniture, is also considered modern art. Though a chair designed in 1980 could be considered contemporary art, but it would merely be furniture from the 80s. The line is constantly blurred in the definition of modern vs. contemporary. Across the board, “Contemporary” seems to describe what is new and trending to us at the moment.  

So, modern design can be contemporary, but contemporary design is not necessarily modern. Confused? Furniture and design trends will continue to come and go, as what we consider “fashionable” changes. If you’re looking for something timeless, modern furniture and interior design seem to be a lasting style. But who’s to say what we’ll be buying five, ten, or twenty years down the road.