Modern vs Contemporary Design

What’s the difference between Modern and Contemporary Design?

This question comes up often, especially when working with your design team on custom homes.

Both terms refer to time periods associated with specific interior and architectural design styles and are often used interchangeably. However, Modern and Contemporary design are two different things. Modern design, also called Mid-Century modern design, specifically describes the design style that was developed between the early 1930s and mid 1960s. Contemporary design, on the other hand, refers to the design style associated with the current time period. Depending on your definition of ‘current,’ that means Contemporary design is the style created and popularized in the last 20-50 years from today.

Still a bit murky on what makes Modern design different from Contemporary? Read on for definitions of Contemporary and Modern design.

A Brief History of Modern Design

The key is to remember that Modern design is, and forever will be, associated with the roughly 30 year range between the early 1930s and mid 1960s. This time period is also often called Mid-Century modern and is characterized by clean lines and a general lack of embellishment. It often uses natural materials, neutral colors, and bare floors.

black and white photo of a 50's living room

The Mid-Century Modern living room of a guest house designed by architect Philip Johnson in 1950 (courtesy The New York Times).

The term “Mid-Century modern” was first used in the mid-1950s, but did not gain widespread acceptance until the publication of Cara Greenberg’s book, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s. Its characteristics grew from the International and Bauhaus movements, and spawned counter movements like post-modernism.

Definition of Contemporary Design

Contemporary design, contrary to Modern design, changes decade to decade. For example, lava lamps were once considered a Contemporary interior design fixture. Now, we would call them “retro,” or “tacky.”

contemporary bathroom with tan tiling

An example of a Contemporary bathroom design (courtesy of Desvre)

Another source of confusion is that Contemporary design almost always features elements from other periods. To muddle things a bit further, many Mid-Century modern elements are present in Contemporary designs.

So what?

Similar to using renovating when you mean remodeling, telling a designer or builder you want your custom house in a Contemporary style when you really mean a Modern custom house can cause confusion.

If you’re looking for advice or consultation with your custom home construction project, we’re more than happy to help. Feel free to contact us through the site, explore our archive of insights, or check out our recent projects for inspiration and guidance.


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