Modern vs. Contemporary Interior Design Style
Can you spot the difference between modern and contemporary interior design? Mixing
up these beautiful styles is easy to do. But after reading our ultimate guide below, you’ll
be able to tell them apart like a pro. In fact, confidently creating delightful modern or
contemporary spaces will come a little more naturally.
Keep in mind your style can be a combination of two or more styles. With an interior
design quiz, you can help a designer pinpoint which look will fit you and your home.
‘Contemporary’ and ‘modern’ are often used interchangeably but, although there are
similarities, they are two distinct design styles from different periods. First, there was
modernism, then came contemporary interior design. The latter is still forming at
present. But in time, we will also look back on contemporary design as a style of a
Without further ado, let’s jump right into the basics of modern and contemporary
interior design from our pros to help you accomplish your ideal design.
MODERN INTERIOR DESIGN
What is Modernism? A Modern Interior Design
Modern interior design refers to a sleek and uncluttered style that began in the late 19
century. In its purest form, modernism reflects a fuss-free approach to life. As a result,
designers kept décor minimal while emphasizing industrial materials. In addition,
patterns are also few and far between. Modern interior design focusses on block colors,
which include primary hues.
Pinning modern interior design to one definition is challenging as it spanned for more
than a century. But its essence is rooted in clean lines. Real modernism has simplicity in
every aspect of its design. After all, the founding modernist movement rejected what
was artificial. And as a result, homes and public spaces were no longer filled with over
History of Modern Interior Design Ideas
Modernism sprouted in the late 1800s as a reaction to overly ornate and artificial
interiors, architecture and art. Meanwhile, by the 1930s, this movement that valued
function above form truly bloomed. No-nonsense industrial materials took the lead in a
time where society clung to the artificial.
Consequently, the industrial boom and growing cities created a need for simplified
forms and keeping costs low. Luckily, new reinforced concrete and steel made
construction cost-effective. Thanks to these revolutionary materials, architects could
create buildings with large windows, flat roofs, and new shapes – even cylindrical and
taller than ever before!
Constantly updated, modern interior design has seen many interpretations from the late
1800s up until the end of the 20 century. The Arts and Crafts movement kicked off the
modern era. Which then continued to be updated and reinterpreted until finally waning
in the 1970s with the rise of post-modernism. Colorful pops from more eclectic Art
Deco, De Stijl, and Bauhaus art movements also helped shape modern design’s distinct,
Today, a steady stream of modern elements still features in architecture and
contemporary interior design. Read on for the essentials of a perfectly balanced
8 Elements That Make a Modern Interior Design
You can tell a modern interior by its well-defined lines, precise color palette, and
moderate use of décor. Here are the 8 elements of a truly modern interior.
1. Modern Art
Artist revolutionized how people think about their environment. Besides, its thanks to
artists like Édouard Manet that modernism took shape. That’s why art is essential to
modern interior design. In these logic-driven spaces, prints and sculptures are
expressive with bold color use and unexpected forms.
Abstract art, a favorite in modern homes, was a drastic turn from traditional idealism of
the 19 century. But other iconic modernist pieces, like Vincent van Gogh’s Starry
Night, Henri Matisse’s fauvist Woman with a Hat or Pablo Picasso’s Boy with a Pipe,
also suit a modern home.
Showcase your favorite modern artwork by placing it on a feature wall, as the focal
point or as part of a limited series on an expansive wall.
2. Glass, Concrete and Steel
Successful modern interior design shows off the concrete, steel, and glass
craftsmanship. This means the framework of furniture is often celebrated and left
exposed. Therefore, designers make no effort to cover up what truly makes an object. At
times, furnishings can look machine-like because of the lack of ornamentation. It’s
because of modernism’s guiding philosophy “form follows function”. In this, the form is
simplified to serve its function first and foremost.
3. Abstract Forms
Because of a focus on function instead of appearance, designs can seem abstract,
especially if compared to more luxurious furniture. Whatever you see in an authentic
modern design is what is necessary to fulfill the most basic functional purpose.
4. Neutral Walls
After the embellishment of the Victorian period, modernist chose the stillness of neutral
walls instead. Greys, whites, and even soft pastels make the perfect backdrop for a
modern design. But for the more adventurous, especially those who appreciate De Stijl,
can opt for block primary colors – blue, red, and yellow.
5. Clean Lines
Thanks to industrial progress at the time, materials like concrete and steel were easily
accessible. And designers took full advantage. With these new materials, straight lines
triumphed. Architects and interior designers enjoyed balancing the opposing vertical
and horizontal lines of columns, steps, and furniture.
6. No Clutter
One thing is clear when you look at modern interior design ideas: clutter is not welcome.
This means accessories and decoration are few and far between. Not only do designers
keep décor to a minimum in modern homes, but they also balance empty and occupied
spaces. We’d expect nothing less from the origins of minimalism’s “less is more”.
7. Pop of Primary Colors
Pops of bold red, blue or yellow are characteristically modern. Earlier influences from
Bauhaus and De Stijl art movements brought lively hues into the understated style.
That’s why it’s not uncommon to see artwork or accent pieces in vivid contrasting
8. Large Windows
Thanks to reinforced materials, architects could make windows larger than ever before.
As a result, many buildings of the modern era have big windowpanes, and little to no
window dressing, letting in much needed natural light.
5 Creatives Who Shaped Modern Interior Design Ideas
Creatives, designers, and architects championed modern ideals. Here are five influential
modernists who helped shaped the world as we know it today.
1. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)
As an architect, interior designer, and writer, Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most
prolific and well-known icons of modernism. After all, the honesty of materials and
craftsmanship is evident in all his designs and buildings. His prairie style open-plan
architecture was an antidote to the closed-in spaces of the Victorian era.
2. Grete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897–2000)
While working on projects to create affordable housing, Grete Schütte-Lihotzky came
up with the Frankfurt Kitchen – a predecessor of the fitted kitchen we know and love
today. Her efficient design simplified living by making domestic spaces, like the kitchen,
3. Marcel Breuer (1902–1981)
The Hungarian-born Marcel Breuer was greatly influenced by the De Stijl movement
while studying at Bauhaus. His radical designs, focusing on the logical, mechanical, and
least artistic form of furniture, ensured his rise to the master of the furniture workshop
at only 23.
4. Erich Mendelsohn (1887–1953)
As an expressionist architect, Erich Mendelsohn’s incorporated dynamic functionalism
in his designs. His buildings are streamlined modern Art Deco creations, concerned
with function above all else.
5. Naum Gabo (1890–1977)
As one of the fathers of contemporary sculpture, Naum Gabo’s stereometric method
replaced the traditional idea of how objects occupy any given area. He used intersecting
planes to cut the physical and visual mass of a sculpture drastically. The result is
futuristic in its angular logic.
CONTEMPORARY INTERIOR DESIGN
What Is Contemporary Design?
Simply put, contemporary interior design refers to styles that are presently relevant and
new. The move from stark modern lines began during the late 20 century. Yes,
modern elements feature in contemporary designs, but innovation and a sense of fun
set it apart from its predecessors. The softer edges and elaborate sculptural touches
make contemporary interior design styles unique.
Today, many beautiful trends make up contemporary interior design, but some of these
styles include eclectic, Scandinavian, minimalism, coastal, industrial, and glam.
History of Contemporary Interior Design
Just like any other style, contemporary design is a result of the current technological
advancement. Most noteworthy influences include the digital revolution, information
age, and environmentalism. Globalization also has a profound impact on contemporary
design. Now, more than ever, interiors are a mix of various styles from the world over.
In fact, Scandinavian design, with roots in modernism, feature heavily in present-day
Even before the break of the new millennium, contemporary interior design ideas were
growing. During the 1970s, at the same time as post-modernism, this contemporary
design took shape. With influences like Art Deco, futurism and deconstructivism, it was
a bold step into the unknown. Yet, we still cannot pin this young style to one specific
esthetic as every day brings another spin on current trends.
8 Elements That Make a Contemporary Interior Design
Spotting a contemporary design can be tricky as it borrows from many other styles. It is
continually evolving, but these 8 elements can help you tell contemporary from a crowd.
1. Sculptural Light
Lighting design is one of the great feats of the 21 century. Now feature lighting can
carry as much weight in a contemporary room as a beautiful sofa or artwork.
Contemporary designers have taken the humble light to unseen heights. They
transformed a merely functional element into something beautiful – something that
deserves the attention of a well-crafted sculpture.
2. Highlighting Construction
Exposed materials, especially in construction, are key to contemporary home interior
design. Modernism’s bare structures influenced present-day designers to take it one
step further. At times, the structure of a building is also left exposed.
If you can see steel pillars, wooden beams, brick, or concrete of a building, it is certainly
a contemporary one. Furniture designers and artists also use these materials to push the
boundary between sculpture, art, and functional furniture.
Form is even more simplified, compact, and efficient because of technological
advancement. Minimalism is in full swing in contemporary design. Still, unlike its
predecessor, the function of an object could be to look good. Yet, as forms are
simplified, the interior, on the whole, could be minimal or even maximalist.
4. Updated Materials
Innovative and more environmentally friendly materials give contemporary design a
visual edge. Concrete, glass, and metal still feature like in modernism, but there are also
many additional materials. Bamboo, cork, recycled plastics and glass, aluminum, and
clay all feature in the new world of interiors.
5. Traveler’s Flare
As any part of the world becomes more accessible, styles are mixing and blending to
create something new. As a result, contemporary interior design always showcases an
additional influence. Be it from past or present, or from Asia, South America, or beyond.
6. New Neutral
Unlike the neutrals of the modern homes, the colors in the contemporary interior are
earthy and naturally neutral. This means that tones resemble those found in nature.
Think stone grey, sandy browns, charcoal black, and cloudy whites. Color pops are also
more natural with leafy greens or rich jewel tones adding the oomph to a space.
7. Contemporary Art
Artists have often been the catalysts for change in the design world. With each passing
style, art is gaining prominence. In contemporary home interiors, artwork is reveled
and often placed on its own. A feature wall or as a standalone statue in an entryway is
commonly incorporated. Additionally, the art of our time extends to functional objects.
Though they are not overly ornate, items grow more esthetically pleasing.
8. Open Plan
Open spaces, with less division, is the way to go. Consequently, contemporary home
interiors are all about improving living. And a well-demarcated home with fewer walls
can do just that.
5 Creatives Who are Shaping Contemporary Design
Because contemporary interior design is not static, interior designers are forever
updating and perfecting their style. Today, innovative designers push the boundaries of
interiors, but we can be sure that there’s more still to come.
1. Fernando Mastrangelo
Brooklyn-based artist Fernando Mastrangelo creates without boundary. His
experimental works include furniture, architecture, interiors, sculpture, and painting.
Certainly, Mastrangelo shows just how sculptural functional pieces can be.
2. Lily Kwong
Contemporary design reconnects humans to nature. And through landscape design, Lily
Kwong highlights the versatility of botany and horticulture in constructed spaces. Her
designs revive the urban sphere with living masterpieces.
3. Jorgen Hovelskov
Championing furniture design in the present day is Jorgen Hovelskov. His ‘Harp Chair’
is a modern marvel in the contemporary world. Its simplicity is as harmonious as a
4. John Pawson
Essentially minimalist, John Pawson’s interiors follow in modern interior design’s
footsteps. For instance, each element of his designs is carefully considered and veers off
from what is merely comfy or ornamental. The result is perfectly balanced, minimal, and
welcoming above all.
5. Zaha Hadid
Known as “Queen of the curve”, Zaha Hadid is one of the most experimental architects
of the 21 century. Above all, she’s the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture
Prize. Her broad range of design includes the London Aquatics Center, the Broad Art
Museum in the US, and Galaxy SOHO in China.
Modernism and Contemporary Interior Design:
Differences & Similarities
Modern and contemporary interior design have many similarities but also key
differences that make them easy to tell apart. Here are their traits that overlap and
Because modernism greatly influenced contemporary design, interiors from the two
centuries have a few elements in common. These include:
- Clean and crisp lines in architecture and furniture design
- Open spaces, combined living areas
- Form follows function
- Neutral color palettes
- Even though modern and contemporary interior design styles are closely related, they
have distinct differences, which include:
Modern design spanned from the late 1800s to the end of the 20 century.
Whereas the contemporary style began during the late 1900s and is still ongoing.
2. Material focus
Modern design makes use of dark or cherry woods, chrome, acrylic, leather and
concrete. On the other hand, contemporary design features light wood, ecofriendly building material and recycled glass, plastic and wood.
Straight vertical and horizontal lines characterize modern architecture. Although
vertical and horizontal lines are important in contemporary styles, forms are more
fluid and often curved.
Lighting design is big – even artsy – now, while a century ago, lights were modest
Now that you are able to tell modern and contemporary interiors from the other, you’re
ready to get started. If you’d still like a design expert’s advice, Schedule A Free
Interior Design Consultation to make your modern or contemporary masterpiece
come to life.