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Modern vs Contemporary Designs

30 March 2022

Essential Modern and Contemporary Design Styles

Many people use the terms “contemporary design” and “modern design” as if they are one and the same. While there are some similarities, they don’t mean the same thing. There are, in fact, several key differences between the two approaches. There are also several noteworthy similarities which deserve further exploration.

What is Modern Design

The term “modern design” is not merely a description of design that reflects today. In fact, it refers to a specific period’s design movement. That is “Modernism” or “The Modernist Movement”. It traces its roots to the late 19th century and early 20th century and the artistic explosion of the period, right through to the end of the Second World War. Some design historians urge caution as the movement spans almost an entire century, but generally agree these principles.

What is Modern Design

Modern Style Includes

It is defined by a lack of clutter in its approach to furniture and furnishings, including natural tones and colours, with strong defining lines. Palettes are typically muted not just natural tones but understated with it. Essentially this is a no-nonsense approach to interior design. Furniture shapes are strong, sleek and no nonsense. Typically, pieces with legs (like tables and dining chairs) have tapered legs. Modern style is punctuated with a “low cost” approach. However, there is nothing cheap about such designs. A period of industrial expansion and post-war recovery simply meant cost-effectiveness.

What is Modern Design


  1. Place modern art pieces at strategic locations in your home, especially useful to create focal points
  2. More artistic flourish in the form of abstract shapes – though to be truly modernist, use those with clean defined lines
  3. Neutral colours on the walls. This is a stark contrast from the highly decorative and coloured walls of the Victorians
  4. Where you use colour, it is as the occasional pop, not throughout
  5. No clutter! Strip down the amount of ornamentation, or at the very least remove those that don’t serve a specific function within the space
  6. If your budget can stretch and you are due replacements, larger windows will create a bright and airy interior

What is Contemporary Design

Contemporary design does not describe a specific movement or period. Instead, it is a more general description that refers to what is popular now and will be or may be in the future. This means it is always changing. What may have been contemporary in the 1990s may seem a little outdated today even if today just seems a natural evolution from them. Similarly, on trend in the 2020s may not be in the 2040s.

Contemporary Design

Contemporary Style Includes

Also defined by a lack of clutter, colours are much less natural and to some eyes considered “harsher.” Colours are stark, plain whites and blacks with clean and simple lines to create a more open approach to living spaces. Furniture is low slung, adding to this vibe. However, this is not brutalist in nature. The use of chunky design and quirky shapes take away from the severity of that modernist approach.

Contemporary Style


  1. Contemporary is all about the lighting – it is one of its greatest indicators. Embellish a room with beautiful lighting pieces that will draw the eye just as much as the sofa or any other focal piece
  2. Blending minimalism with natural material use, exposed structure is another key feature. Show your wooden and metal beams with pride
  3. Remember: minimalism as much as possible
  4. Contemporary goes beyond minimalism though with open plan living for brighter and airier living environments
  5. Environmental consciousness is also a theme here: cork, bamboo, and recycled materials
  6. The “new neutral” takes environmental presentation to the next level. Here, natural colours include stone, sand, charcoal, and cloud white


Both modern and contemporary styles are minimal. However, the most important thing to remember is that modern design is almost entirely about function. Arguably, it is also about spatial accessibility. Contemporary design follows some of these trends, but it is less restrained and more fluid. Using bright colours and few quirky additions along with sleeker materials, it adds a dash of playfulness.

Other similarities:

  • Openness of space for bright airiness
  • Minimalist in terms of décor and decoration
  • Neutral colours throughout
  • Form follows function

Interested in interior design? Find out more about studying interior design in your own time, at your own pace with the Professional Design Institute.