Modern vs. Contemporary design - What's the difference?

Updated: Mar 29

People usually get confused between modern and contemporary design. They are often used interchangeably but are actually quite different.

So what is the difference?

Modern design is its own distinct style with characteristics like clean lines, monochromatic colour palettes, minimalism, and natural light and materials. It emerged in the early twentieth century and still inspires designers today.

Contemporary design is sophisticated, simplistic, subtle, minimalistic and focuses on colour and texture in a room. Contemporary interiors tend to showcase the space in a room rather than the things.

Modern design:

Modern design is based on modernism; a movement that is distinguished by functionality, simple forms and abstract thinking. Modern design has German and Scandinavian roots. The modern principal of form follows function was influenced by Bauhaus, a German school of design, in the early twentieth century.

Some characteristics of modern design include:

  • Earthy colours

  • Natural materials (wood or exposed brick)

  • Monochrome palettes

  • Clean lines

  • Floor-to-ceiling windows

  • Balance and symmetry

  • Open living spaces

  • Flat roofs

One of the most well-known modern buildings is The Fallingwater House in Pennsylvania, USA. It was originally created as a weekend getaway for the Kaufmann family but underwent several renovations and was eventually converted into a museum in 2002.

Image 1: The Fallingwater House Exterior, Pennsylvania, USA.

Notice all the modern characteristics in the design of this house; the monochrome colour palettes, use of natural elements like stone cladding, the flat roof and even the clean lines.

Image 2: The Fallingwater House Interior, Pennsylvania, USA.

Inside the house you can also see the floor-to-ceiling windows, natural elements like the stone flooring and cladding of the pillars.

Modern style focuses on functionality, neutral colours and clean lines. Decorations are kept to a minimum and used to create balance and symmetry. The floor plan is kept open and rooms are divided by using furniture pieces instead of walls. Here are a few more examples of modern interior design:

Contemporary design:

Contemporary design is constantly changing. It is influenced by movements like minimalism and Art Deco but is the style of the present because it reflects whatever the current trends are. Modernism has influenced contemporary design the most, which is why the two are often confused.

Characteristics of contemporary design are:

  • Strong contrasts

  • Neutral palettes

  • Mix of materials

  • Curved lines

  • Sustainable materials

  • Open layouts

  • Uncluttered look

A very popular contemporary building is The Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. The architect, Frank Owen Gehry is among the most well-known architects of the twentieth century. He is most famous for his unusual and bold shapes and styles.

Image 1: The Louis Vuitton Foundation Exterior, Paris, France.

The Louis Vuitton Foundation is an art museum and cultural centre and one of Frank Gehry's best-known works. Other famous works of his are the Guggenheim Museum and Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Image 2: The Louis Vuitton Foundation Interior, Paris, France.

Notice the difference between this building and the Fallingwater House. They are very different in shape, colour and form. Contemporary design has a few modern qualities but is much more out of the box thinking and plays around with shapes and textures and most of all, form.

Here area a few more examples of contemporary interior design:

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