Q&A Day: What’s the difference between modern and contemporary decorating? Part 2

I’d love to receive questions from readers about any of the posts on this blog or other subjects I might be able to cover. You can always pose questions in the comments section of each post, or send me an email at urbandomesticity[at]gmail[dot]com.

This question was posed on a design message board I participate in:

What’s the difference between modern and contemporary decorating?

It generated some interesting responses, so I decided I’d share my thoughts in-depth here. Yesterday I addressed the term modern and offered some examples of true modern style. In summary, modern generally refers to styles developed in the mid-century. Natural materials, neutral expanses with pops of primary colors, and long, low lines are common in modern styles. You can click here to go back to the post on modern decorating.

So, what does contemporary mean?

The basic definition of contemporary is “of the moment.” Contemporary art, design, and interiors are “of the day.” They exist in the here-and-now. And, taking this further, they could only exist in the here-and-now because ten years ago some of the materials and pieces wouldn’t have been available. And in ten years from now, there will be new pieces that do not exist today. Yesterday’s contemporary is today’s vintage. And tomorrow’s contemporary is still unknown.

Whereas modern is a static term, contemporary is a dynamic, changing term.

There are fewer rules in contemporary interiors than in truly modern ones, because anything kinda goes. Of course there is still a difference between good contemporary design and bad contemporary design. And everyone has their personal taste. But in contemporary design, you are free to use color and pattern. You might combine a vintage mid-century modern credenza with brand new shelves from Ikea, ornate antique chairs, and a rug from India. (Which would also qualify as contemporary eclectic.)

Here are some pictures that represent contemporary styles. All six images are from now-defunct Domino, my all-time favorite decorating magazine.

The photo above features a few truly modern pieces, such as the coffee table and paper lamp. (Remember how I mentioned that modern pieces often show up in contemporary interiors?) However, the way the modern furniture is mixed with the new couch, blue walls, wicker stool, and ornate rug makes this look contemporary.

The interior above actual includes more formal, traditional furniture pieces. In this case, the white walls, open airy feel, and graphic layout of photos above the mantle keep the look contemporary rather than pure traditional.

Again, this interior features some traditional shapes and styles. The bright yellow, white brick wall, colorful artwork, and tailored bedskirt keep the look contemporary and fresh.

If you took away the zebra rub, ornate chandelier and decorative items this would be a rather modern interior. Those touches mixed in keep this look more contemporary, however. And certainly somewhat eclectic.

A few aspects of this bedroom are modern-inspired, such as the fluffy wool rug and hanging swing. The colors, patterns, and layers, however, keep it contemporary.

This serene space uses modern style neutrals, but the overall look is contemporary. Especially because there are no pops of bright color. All those cozy layers on the couch, the gorgeous drapes, and the black furniture qualify as contemporary touches. Some might call this style transitional as well.

Contemporary styles allow for more freedom and trends. Contemporary rooms are always-evolving, meaning good contemporary style changes slightly over the years to reflect changing tastes and the shifting lives of the people who inhabit the spaces. Good contemporary design is almost always a work-in-progress.

Because the tenets of contemporary design are more open-ended, it’s easier to incorporate new pieces and colors into the spaces over time. If you fall in love with an ornate headboard, for example, you could probably incorporate it into an existing contemporary space, but not into a modern one.

Other terms that come up when describing contemporary interiors are eclectic and transitional. Both eclectic and transitional have somewhat different meanings than pure contemporary, but they basically refer to similar looks and feels.

Whew! That was ALOT of information for two days of posts. I’m ready for the weekend! Were these posts helpful? Have I missed the mark? Do you define modern and contemporary differently? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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13 Responses to Q&A Day: What’s the difference between modern and contemporary decorating? Part 2

  1. That was the best explanation I’ve ever read.

    I work in a furniture store, and have never really had any training on what various style terms mean. I don’t know what French Country is; or Tuscon; or what exactly is meant by transitional; and, well… you get what I mean.
    Regarding modern and contemporary, I’ve always had a general feel for what they were, but you helped me define it.

    Thank you very much.

  2. Diane says:

    Yes, this was a very well written explanation! It helped me visualize what I had in my head, but made it a little clearer. I always tend to think of modern as “mid-century modern”, you hear that a lot on interior design shows. I can picture the 50’s-60’s in my head. Whereas contemporary seems fresher, just like you said it is the ‘here and now’. Maybe not so “funky” in a way, no pops of color, etc, but still clean lines. But I also know that many people refer to modern in the present tense when they want a modern kitchen or living room, almost “minimalistic” in a way. Thanks for your blog!

  3. Dana says:

    very well explained! Now can you explain the true meaning behind country and traditional. So many different styles with so many different explanations! Thanks for clearing all of this up for the public!

  4. Bobby Roche says:

    this really helped me alot i had them confused thinking “modern” was of the time of whats current now etc.. But now i know . Very very helpful . I look forward to learning more on other design styles

  5. Francisco says:

    Very well put together! That’s for the clarity between contemporary and modern!

  6. I have never seen any furniture I really liked described as “contemporary”. I always thought “vintage/modern/eclectic” was the term that described the style I see in your pictures above. I have always seen the word contemporary attached to the plain-jane, sleek furniture you see in model homes- lots of ebony wood, glass, and chrome- but no interesting design characteristics or details that exist in modern furniture, or the charm of vintage furniture or eclectic interiors. If you want an example of the look I am referring to, google the the term “contemporary furniture” and see what images pop up! Your take on contemporary is new to me…but I guess in your terms, I actually like contemporary more than modern!

  7. simply put, what does the term “claen lines mean”?

  8. D says:

    Wow!!! You explained both modern and contemporary styles so much better than my professor did in my Interior Design course at a well known university! I found your site through Googling my question, and now I’ll be sure to look into your site more often, and recommend it to others! Thanks for being here!!

  9. Alicia says:

    Wow I always thought modern & contemporary were the same, just that modern was really clean & monochromatic & contemporary was really clean but with a lot of color and funky shape furniture. I never thought that modern & mid century modern were the same, I just figured that since the furniture from the 50/ 60’s was mid century, the new versions (ex room&board) were just plain modern because they weren’t made during the mid-century era, whew anyway I am a fan of pics 1,3,5 where does that put me? I like your definition though it makes it easier unlike mine :^D

  10. Lucy says:

    “Yesterday’s contemporary is today’s vintage. And tomorrow’s contemporary is still unknown”

    This quote, was it just something you made up or did a designer say it.? Just asking because i am writing an essay on contemporary vs traditional and i thought it was very good.?

    • Lindsay says:

      Hi Lucy. I’m glad you like the article and the quote. Unless specifically noted, all the content on the blog represents my original ideas and writing; those are my words. Thanks for the positive feedback!

  11. chase says:

    Nice article and explanation. I’m still not sure how to describe my place to people though as it doesn’t exactly fit either. Everything’s sleek gloss white, chrome, and acrylic, very clean & minimalistic, and the furniture is of Scandinavian design. Every room has 1 or 2 pieces of a bright bold color, the rest is all white. I wouldn’t say modern cause it doesn’t look mid-century, more futuristic. Would you consider this ultra-modern? thx

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