Modern vs Contemporary Decor: What's the Difference?

The terms "modern" and "contemporary" are often used interchangeably to describe present-day trends. However, in the interior design world, these two terms refer to two different things. Modern design refers to a specific era with a defined style, while contemporary design describes current style trends, which are constantly evolving. 

What is modern décor?

Modern decor emerged between the 1940s and 1970s. After the Second World War, Western homes became less ornamental and more functional. Modern design choices rebelled against the ornate and intricate styles of the Victorian and Art Deco styles that were previously popular, and instead embraced simple, streamlined designs influenced by Scandinavian and German interiors.

A fusion of technology and nature

Technology also played a significant role in allowing this style to become widespread, as it allowed modern furnishings to be more accessible for the average home. Designers embraced new materials like plywood, vinyl, fibreglass, and plastic, allowing for the creation of innovative designs that could be mass-produced.

During the late 1950s, heightened concern over air pollution led to a significant focus on environmental issues among the general population. This is reflected in the décor styles of the time, which saw greater influences from nature within the home.

Earthy accents offered a warm, welcoming contrast to the angular furnishings that might have otherwise seemed cold and clinical. Natural fabrics were a popular choice, with textured materials like chenille and linen (or a man made lookalike) used for upholstered furniture, blankets, cushions, and more. Many mid-century modern furnishings were made using warm toned woods like teak, oak, or walnut. Terracotta pots were also used within the home, adding a sense of the outdoors into indoor spaces. 

Natural colours paired with bold accents

The colours of the modern decor style fall into two categories: warm, earthy neutrals, and bold, punchy colours. These two sides this style's palette reflect the way it interwove earthy, relaxed themes with the optimism and excitement of a new technological era. Colours you can expect to find in a mid-century modern colour palette include:

  • Terracotta
  • Beige
  • Cream
  • Mustard yellow
  • Tangerine
  • White
  • Mahogany
  • Burnt orange
  • Steel blue
  • Ultramarine
  • Salmon pink

 

Geometric shapes 

A key influence for this interior design style is the Bauhaus movement of 1919-1933. This was a German art style that combined individual artistry with mass production, featuring geometric shapes, bold colours, and abstract designs.

Elements from Bauhaus were integrated into rugs, wallpapers, and art pieces, as well as the silhouettes of furniture. 

Straight lines and organic curves

Modern décor is typically restrained, featuring minimal accents and detailing. Rectangular or square shapes were popular choices for tables, sofas, and desks, creating smooth surfaces and sharp angles for a streamlined look. To soften a space, organic curves were often added as minor details, such as rounded chair backrests or curved fronts on panelled cabinets. 

Airy, elevated furniture

An important feature of this style is its open and spacious feel. To achieve this look, furniture was elevated using supporting legs (typically made from wood). Raising both hard and soft furnishings a few inches off the floor allowed for a less cluttered appearance and created the illusion of more room.

What is contemporary décor?

Unlike modern décor, which is a static style, contemporary décor is constantly evolving and reflects present-day design trends. It draws upon a wide range of influences, such as interior design styles from previous eras, art, technology, and prominent emerging cultural ideologies.

Since it is always changing, a contemporary décor style can be difficult to define. However, there are some hallmarks that can be considered characteristic of this style in 2024:

  1. Smooth, curved soft furnishings combined with sleek lines in hard furnishings and table/chair legs
  2. Metals, glass, marble, plastic, stone, steel, concrete, and ceramic are particularly favoured. However, contemporary décor typically combines a wide array of both natural and manmade materials.
  3. Cool-toned neutrals like grey, ivory, and white are common wall colours, and sandstone and light earthy clay colours are gaining popularity. Forest greens and dusty blues are popular choices for accent colours.
  4. Soft furnishings like sofas tend to be reasonably close to the ground, with no visible supporting legs.
  5. Minimalism has been the preferred style among most designers in recent years, but there has is now a growing interest in maximalism.

Modern vs Contemporary Décor

Although contemporary design can include modern elements, it is a separate style, distinct from modern design. Learning the differences between these styles can help you pick pieces better aligned with the style you'd like to create in your own home. Here are some of the most important characteristics to look out for when deciding whether a piece is modern or contemporary:

Symmetry vs asymmetry  

A key visual difference can be found in the silhouettes used in each of these styles. Modern design is usually highly symmetrical and well-balanced. Even when incorporating organic shapes, like the round details seen in bentwood or curved dining chair backings, the overall look remains symmetrical and orderly. 

In contrast, contemporary design features a range of asymmetrical shapes. The soft, curved asymmetry in this style is seen in trendy options like oblong tables and curved sofas.  

Hard vs soft shapes

Contemporary décor often includes curved shapes - a departure from the exclusively angular forms of modern décor. Cylinders, spheres, and bean shapes are common silhouettes in contemporary décor, often seen in large statement pieces like coffee tables, nightstands, footstools, or seats. 

 

In modern décor, soft, curved shapes tend to be incorporated as design elements in otherwise sharp, rectangular objects, like the curved front of a dining chair seat.

 

 

Warm vs cool tones 

Modern décor tends towards warm tones for furnishings and wall paint, while contemporary décor usually uses cooler tones. However, there is a recent trend towards warmer earthy clay tones like sandstone.

 

Modern décor is a static style 

Modern design is time-bound to the 1940s - 1970s and it is a static, well-defined style. In contrast, contemporary interior design is based on what is popular in the present moment, meaning that it is always subtly changing as cultural and aesthetic preferences shift.

Similarities between modern and contemporary interior design

Since contemporary décor is a melting pot of bygone interior design trends and new ideas, there is some overlap between today's interior design styles and a mid century modern style.  

Streamlined, fuss-free designs

Modern and contemporary furniture both tend to be highly streamlined, with minimal ornamentation. In part, this is due to the capabilities of mass production, as highly decorative designs require more complex manufacturing methods or individual artisanship to achieve. The simplicity of these styles mean that they are highly versatile, and can easily fit into many interior styles and spaces.

Embracing nature

Interior design trends tend to reflect culture, mirroring the attitudes and concerns of the population. Just as the 1950s saw a surge of interest in the environment due to pollution, today there is a spotlight is on climate change and plastic waste. Many people feel a need to protect and cherish nature, and this is reflected in their design choices. 

Leafy indoor houseplants such as monstera deliciosa and fiddle leaf figs were common in mid century modern homes. Today, there is a comparable fascination with lush, tropical houseplants, and these options continue to be trendy.

Earthy colour palettes 

Earth tones were a popular choice for colour palettes in the mid century modern style, and they remain popular today - they are just expressed a little differently. Modern design favoured warm terracotta and mustard yellow hues, while a contemporary style leans towards more muted earthy tones like sandstone and forest green.

No sharp asymmetry

While contemporary design includes some soft, curved asymmetry, it shares similarities with modern design by avoiding sharp asymmetrical shapes like trapezoids or kites.

Is "modern" the same as "mid-century modern"?

Modern and contemporary are synonyms, which can cause some confusion about what these words mean in the interior design world.

As style influences from the mid 20th century rise in popularity again, many people are using the term "mid-century modern" to describe what was previously known as "modern" décor.

This differentiation makes it easier to determine if it's the 1940s to 1970s style era, or contemporary décor in general that's being discussed.