Twice in the last couple weeks someone has asked me about the difference between Modern and Contemporary design style, so I thought you might be curious too. It’s a perfectly reasonable question - - those two words seem to mean the same thing. But yes, there's definitely a difference between them when it comes to style.
So here’s the short definition:
“Modern” in design-speak refers to a specific style that was created in the 1920’s through the 1950’s and remained popular into the ‘70s. Technically it’s called “Mid-Century Modern” and it’s a defined style, just like Victorian or Southwestern or French Country are styles.
You can recognize Mid-Century Modern by its clean, architectural and asymmetrical lines; simple, almost geometrical decor without a hint of fussiness; the use of natural materials like leather and wood; and molded plastic and plywood furniture.
Interiors were wide open, walls were frequently white and color was used in bright pops. (Kind of opposite to what’s popular lately with color on the walls and white accents.)
Here are a few photos that illustrate Mid-Centry Modern:
A cute little exterior rendering of a 50's era house with an asymmetrical roofline from Garlinghouse.
These are the Womb chair and the Grasshopper, two iconic, 50's chairs by Eero Saarinen, a Finnish American architect and industrial designer who, incidentally, also designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. (You can catch an interesting documentary about Saarinen and his futuristic work on PBS.)
This table was designed in 1948 by sculptor Isamu Noguchi and has been reproduced for Design Within Reach, a contemporary (there's that word again!) furniture store.
Photo: Carlos Pacheco
Here's a pretty faithful reproduction of a Mid-Century Modern interior found in an AirBnB rental. (The woman with the pink streak in her hair isn't very "Modern," by the way, and it also cracked me up that they left her in the photo.)
Well, so what’s Contemporary mean then?
Contemporary isn't the name of a particular style like Mid-Century Modern is. "Contemporary" is used to describe whatever’s being created or trending right now, whatever people are gushing over at the moment.
(SIDE NOTE: there are definitely a couple looks that have caught on in the last few years to the point that they can be defined as a style - - looks that I call Rustic Industrial and then Farmhouse, or “Chip and Joanna,” named after the Fixer Upper reality show couple who have created their own design empire. And I could be bribed into talking about both of those styles in another post!)
At any rate, contemporary style is always changing because the times change and people's tastes change. So "Contemporary" tends to be eclectic, and borrows from different eras. And this helps explain why the two terms are confusing - - because the Modern style has become very popular again: the open floor plans, the very clean lines, the natural materials and even the retro, 50’s furniture you can see at stores like Design Within Reach, Crate and Barrel and Joybird.
Here comes some contemporary
This is a contemporary room with some Mid-Century influences like the black leather and wood-tone Eames chair and ottoman, plus the molded dining chairs in the background:
Photo: Ron Frazier
And here are some chairs that show what goes around comes around. Remember that Saarinen Womb chair from the 50's? This red one is a recent reproduction from Design Within Reach.
Photo: Jeremy Noble
And this green one is Mr. Saarinen's Tulip chair that can be found on sites all over the interwebs:
And now I'm going to toot my own horn a little. This is a Contemporary room I did for the Street of Dreams a couple years ago that has some Modern touches like the railings, white walls and pops of color, but with more relaxed furniture. (If those concrete coffee tables hadn't been so heavy, I'd might have taken them home with me!)
Here's another room I'd call Contemporary because you can see the sofa looks Mid-Century and the fireplace and ceiling lines look Art Deco. It's a room that says "now," but actually borrows styles from a few different eras.
It's no wonder it gets confusing sometimes!
Photo: Ines Hegedus-Garcia
So, is it clear as mud now? The difference between Modern and Contemporary? No worries. There will be NO QUIZ.
But do you have a favorite? Or would you chuck both of them for Pottery Barn?!
Leave your comments and questions below. I’d love to know what you think.