Q&A Day: What’s the difference between modern and contemporary decorating? Part 1

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 decorating 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.

The descriptive terms modern and contemporary are often used interchangeably, but the definitions of each are actually distinct. This can cause some confusion when people want to define their style or search for furniture or other household items. Today, I’ll define modern design and tomorrow I’ll tackle the term contemporary.

In the realm of interior decorating and design, modern refers to a style of architecture and furniture that emerged in the mid-century, reaching a peak the in 1950s. In this regard, modern is a static term. True modern art and furniture were made in the mid-century decades. When someone says they like “modern” furniture, this is often what they are referring to. Here is a picture of a truly modern interior:

Photo from Ameublement et Decoration Modernes, 1961

In the early part of the century into the 1950s, art and design broke with tradition, hence the term modern was coined. The art, furniture, and architecture of the time were in stark contrast to the ornate and deco looks of earlier eras. Modern design is characterized by long, low furniture and natural materials like teak wood, leather, and linen upholstery. The lines are generally straight and un-embellished. Often, the furniture is raised off the floor on legs which contributes to an open, airy atmosphere.

Materials like molded plywood, clear and white plastics, and metal are also common in modern design. In a truly modern interior, most of the furnishings are neutral tones of brown, white, cream, and gray. Walls are generally white. Floors are bare wood or, sometimes, rubber, cork, or cement. Rugs would be made from wool and would also be neutral in tone.

Photo by Supagroova on Flickr.

Color exists in modern interiors in small, isolated doses–generally in the form of an oversized painting or sculpture. Some of the furniture might also be colorful, but only if the rest of the space is relatively blank. The most common color “pops” in modern design are primary colors–pure red, blue, and yellow. Orange is also a common accent color. Decorative objects are kept to a minimum and would include books, wooden boxes, or ceramic pottery.

In many regards, modern design may have emerged as a way to showcase modern art. Generally large in scale and bold in color, modern paintings and sculptures need relatively neutral, blank spaces in order to really stand out and shine. They would get lost and look cluttered in more traditional interiors.

Photo by back_garage on Flickr.


Photo by jmayzurk on Flickr.

The term modern is further complicated because many of the most iconic and well-loved modern furniture pieces are still made in reproduction today. Modern design is also still a popular style, so we still see modern interiors quite frequently. Particularly in the past 10 years, modern design has enjoyed a new wave of popularity. And, even in contemporary interiors, modern pieces often make an appearance–more on that tomorrow.

In the meantime, for more images of true modern furniture, check out the photos at Look Modern online, or visit their beautiful showroom in person in Portland. For gorgeous modern interior rooms, check out Atomic Ranch. This wikipedia article is a good overview of modern furniture, with a nice list of iconic pieces.

Tomorrow I’ll explain what the term contemporary means in the world of interior decorating and clarify the relationship between modern and contemporary. Stay tuned…

Update: You can jump to part two by clicking here.

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8 Responses to Q&A Day: What’s the difference between modern and contemporary decorating? Part 1

  1. Rex says:

    Yes. More posts like this please.

  2. MM says:

    Thanks, Lindsay. I’ve always wondered about this! I remember my mom buying “danish modern” furniture because it wasn’t uphostered. She thought that would help my brother’s asthma. On her budget, tho, that meant vinyl not leather covering. And it was orange!

    • Lindsay says:

      I’m thinking it was probably modern for sure, and perhaps Danish “inspired.” But most likely not made in Denmark with orange vinyl! I don’t think the Danes mess around with too much vinyl, but us Americans sure do.

  3. Shawna says:

    I remember this post from D&R. I like your blog!

  4. NICOLE says:

    Really want to read part 2 about contemporary.. hope to see it soon… if it is posted i cant find it…. thanks..

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