Contemporary vs. Modern Design: Here Are the Key Differences

Color, contrast, and curves are just some of the ways to identify these two popular—and often confused—decorating styles.

open spacious living room fireplace
Photo: Hector Sanchez

Although the words modern and contemporary are often used interchangeably, when it comes to interior design, they represent distinct decorating styles. However, modern and contemporary designs have a number of similarities. “Certain elements of modern style have become very popular again, which makes the difference between them less defined,” says Mary Best, the designer behind Mary Best Designs. “With so much resemblance, it makes it complicated to differentiate the two.”

To better understand contemporary vs. modern decorating, get to know their backgrounds, core elements, and key differences. 

brown midcentury modern living room

Ed Gohlich

What Is Modern Design?

“Modern decorating is referring to a style of design generally considered to be from the early 1900s to the 1960s,” says Best. Modern design followed ornate and highly decorative interiors, like Victorian style, from the period prior. The modern period produced, and was influenced by, minimalist design, like the German Bauhaus and Scandinavian movements. Midcentury modern is a popular, recognizable style from the era. 

“Modern design is very distinguishable with strong lines, warm woods, and neutral color palettes,” says Best. Modern decor emphasizes simplicity and function in both its overall design and the shapes and construction of its individual elements. 

high contrast modern kitchen with small dog
Dane Tashima

What Is Contemporary Design?

Contemporary design originated after modern design, around the 1970s. But while the concept may have emerged then, a time period cannot be applied to contemporary style in the same way as modern style. “Contemporary design is what is current now,” says Best. “It’s ever-changing.” Contemporary decor is a fluid style that cannot be concretely defined because it’s influenced by and inclusive of design trends. It is, literally, the decorating style that’s happening now. 

Today, influences include modern lines, global design, and environmentalism, to name a few, but contemporary style is overall quite restrained. Utilizing sleek lines and neutral colors, contemporary style is often characterized as stark, and it does currently look quite similar to modern style. “The color palette has more contrast and there is a greater emphasis on minimalism with more open space,” says Best. 

neutral area rug in modern farmhouse living room

James Nathan Schroder

How Are Modern and Contemporary Designs Different?

Modern and contemporary decorating styles have strong similarities. They both emphasize clean lines and uncluttered spaces, and feature a neutral color palette as the foundation. Although they can look alike, the differences are key to the styles. 

Modern Focuses on Function

“Modern design values function. Contemporary design favors form,” says Best. Modern style prioritizes practicality and simplicity, in everything from furniture to a room's layout. There are no frivolous decor elements, quirky shapes, or impractical uses of space. Modern decorating is functional.

On the other hand, design elements of contemporary decorating have the license to be more sculptural. Although these spaces are inherently uncluttered, there are more decorative choices, such as light fixtures in eye-catching shapes. 

Contemporary Creates Contrast

Both modern and contemporary spaces rely on neutral color palettes. Contemporary decorating embraces light and dark neutrals in cool shades. A signature of contemporary style is contrast, which is often achieved by pairing colors like white and black, and by incorporating asymmetrical decor or creating eye-catching focal points. These contrasts are bold and energizing. 

Modern design uses an earthy color palette that is lighter and warmer compared to contemporary style. Unlike the contrasts featured in contemporary style, modern decor is plain and subdued. Balance is achieved through symmetry, monochrome palettes—warm white walls are common—and a lack of pattern. 

Contemporary Is Curvier

According to Best, both modern and contemporary decorating have sleek lines, but contemporary elements are “more fluid and curvy.” Slim, straight lines lean into modern style’s simplicity. Contemporary can get a little funkier, with more shapes and softer edges. A low-slung, overstuffed sofa would be at home in a contemporary living room, while a slim, leggy loveseat with an upholstered, sleek profile sits confidently in a modern setting.

Modern Is More Clearly Defined 

Modern is a specific decorating style with set parameters that comes from a roughly defined time period. You can follow a set of design expectations to create a midcentury modern space, for example. In 50 years, those characteristics will be the same. But fluidity is central to contemporary style, and design trends influence how it looks. There is no single historical origin or set of design rules to observe. In 50 years, contemporary spaces will not look the same as they do today–in fact, in just five years you could refresh and revamp the accent colors, patterns, or even furniture used in a contemporary room to be more, well, contemporary.

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