Terminology Matters: Modern vs Contemporary

By Roberta Sbarbaro, Partner Coordinator IAHSP®Europe


The two design terms share some common characteristics and some differences.
Modern design today isn’t too far from its original roots. Modernism movement began in the very late 1800s.
Then it transformed itself into mid-century modern (1950s and ’60s) and postmodernism (1970s and ’80s).
The first one looks a lot like modern design with dashes of bright colours, while postmodernism doesn’t.
The German Bauhaus school of design and the Scandinavian design gave modernism simplicity and function.
Decorative parts are strictly connected to functional design.
Colour palette cling to neutral and earthy hues. Natural materials are predominant; wood, leather, teak, linen or stone. Clean and unadorned.
Contemporary style doesn’t derive from a movement. It was originally a blend of styles. It borrowed elements from modernism and postmodernism. But also brings together ideas from many other styles (art deco, deconstructivism, futurism, minimalism), without hyper-focusing on any one in particular.
It’s an ever-evolving style, reflecting what ‘s happening today. It is therefore a little hard to define.
You can expect to see materials including nickel, steel, and chrome, combined with natural textures like hemp or jute. Contemporary style usually shows off delicate, curved edges instead of the stronger and sharper lines of modern furniture. This style focuses more on contrasting colours and blacks and whites.
Sustainability is huge for contemporary design.
Both styles tend to prefer simple, neat spaces. Neither like heavy elements. In both, sofas, chairs, and ottomans have exposed legs. Again, both favour exposed wood, from structural beams to raw wood end tables with metal bases.
“Less is more” could easily be the motto for both modern and contemporary design.
(Pics from Pinterest)