What’s the Difference Between Modern and Contemporary Furniture Styles?

It seems like today everything has a label, if not multiple labels and names. You might ask yourself if it’s worth the time investing in learning all these terms and names. Everyone has their thing, and it can be a lot of fun to learn all about the things that interest you. Whether you want […]

It seems like today everything has a label, if not multiple labels and names. You might ask yourself if it’s worth the time investing in learning all these terms and names. Everyone has their thing, and it can be a lot of fun to learn all about the things that interest you. Whether you want to order a “beer” at your local pub or you want to enjoy a mug of local IPA while debating its “hoppiness” or discussing the complexity, finish, and texture of your glass of wine or simply order “red” or “white,” it doesn’t hurt to know more about the things you care about. I mean, there is a difference, after all. Chicago pizza versus Texas or New York, you better know what you’re ordering.

Most importantly, it can make your experiences with those things more enjoyable. Knowledge is power, after all, and the more you know, the better you can decide what works best for you.

Contemporary vs. Modern Furniture

At first glance, “contemporary” and “modern” would seem to be interchangeable. They both mean basically the same thing, and without specific knowledge of the world of furniture design, there’s no reason the average buyer would know the difference. This is where a little background knowledge might prove useful; however, as you consider what styles or features best suit you and your surroundings.
If nothing else, you can talk a good game around your friends who still won’t shut up about sushi.
In terms of home furnishings, “modern design” refers to a specific style popular in the early-to-mid 20th century. A hundred years from now, this style and this time period will still be “modern design,” in the same way that “Renaissance” (literally, the “rebirth” of art and knowledge) art and literature will still refer to works from the 14th – 17th centuries no matter how many times art and knowledge have been “reborn” since.

“Modern design” prioritizes the balance of form and function. It leans heavily on natural materials like wood and leather, and earthy colors, although you’ll see some chrome or stainless steel in certain pieces. It shies away from anything sharp or loud, although it will sometimes incorporate bold colors by way of accenting clean lines or natural curves. “Modern design” loves smooth transitions, subtle shapes, and a mojo that lets you sigh and collapse comfortably into its welcoming arms. It says, “Welcome home, dear – how was your day?” like it means it every time.

It may be helpful in understanding the style to now that it was a backlash of sorts against what was perceived as the overly busy and impractical designs of the Renaissance and Gothic eras. You’ve probably been in museums – or even homes – in which you encounter endless pieces of furniture which are fascinating to look at, but which you can’t imagine sitting on or otherwise actually using. Every wall is covered and every shelf full; every item is busy and packed with history and meaning. “Modern design” was an effort to reverse that. It was a movement with the audacity to suggest that perhaps chairs should be sat in and tables sat at and that the people using the room were more important than the room itself.
They were crazy times, the first half of the 20th century.

“Contemporary design,” on the other hand, is not a static term. It has a specific set of associations right this very moment. Still, in 25 years, it will likely mean something very different depending on how styles have evolved, and continue to change thereafter. In this case, “contemporary” means what it sounds like – the trends and styles of the moment, whatever the moment might be.

If you watch those home design shows on cable television, you probably see this style more than any other. It currently involves a love of minimalism (an extension of one of the ideals of “modern design”) and modern materials like glass and various metallics (nickel, chrome, and steel are currently quite popular). In some parts of the country, you’ll see an emphasis on polished concrete or porcelain – an effort towards elegance based on stripping away traditional flourishes. Still, these are tendencies and not absolutes, and contemporary design will often include wood and other natural materials. You’ll no doubt catch a few smug references to the incorporation of hemp and jute and periodically encounter some bizarre use of bamboo, or other plant-based material, you’d have never guessed could be shaped into whatever it’s become.

The overall look is often monochromatic (very few colors). Contemporary designers trend towards blacks, whites, and grays, with periodic outbreaks of hot accents of orange or indigo just to keep things from feeling too settled. Rather than a natural balance of form and function, the priority seems to be creating an almost paradoxical combination of Spartan features with a sense of luxury and indulgence.
Keep in mind, however, that changes like these are evolutionary and not revolutionary – there are few hard boundaries, and combinations of different elements are the norm rather than the exception.

It’s A Sassy Little End Table With Just A Hint of Modernism

Let’s take a step back and understand why we’d throw around these sorts of terms and categories and what they mean in practical terms for ordinary people who are just looking for a cool coffee table or reading chair.

Knowing a little about what “modern design” involves or what “contemporary design” might look like doesn’t dictate what you can or can’t purchase for your home or combine with your existing furniture. Honestly, the boundaries aren’t even always that clear. Just like with art, music, movies, or books, it can be helpful to understand some of the terminology, but these aren’t mathematical equations or science experiments. This is furniture.

Your local book store may have different sections for “dystopian fiction” and “horror stories,” but that doesn’t mean all dystopian fiction is the same or that some horror novels aren’t also Gothic romances or murder mysteries or dark comedies as well. More importantly, it doesn’t mean you can’t like something from the “Travel” or “Philosophy” section just because you came in thinking you wanted to read a nice graphic novel. The categories and descriptions are merely tools to help you think about what you’re buying and what you want to be part of your world – not rules, not limits, not things you can get “right” or “wrong.”

You may find it helpful to know what to look for should you choose to combine “modern design” pieces in part or all of your home. Sometimes it’s not until we’ve taken a cooking class or two that we can accurately predict whether combining certain ingredients will actually taste like we want it to taste. A little knowledge and research can make shopping more productive, as you can better describe what you’re looking for to salespeople or more effectively narrow your Google searches.

How Different Are They?

As noted above, home furnishing styles over the past century have evolved organically and inconsistently. There’s been no guiding plan or rule book. Efforts to categorize can be useful in considering personal preferences or coherent design, but any descriptors must allow fuzzy boundaries.

Both “modern” and “contemporary” design tends to favor openness and a degree of minimalism. If you watch home design shows at all, you’ve probably noticed how often the first step in remodeling any residence is to knock out half of the walls and talk about “open design.” It’s all the rage and has been for some time. It makes you wonder why there are walls to begin with instead of warehouses with windows!
They also share a love of sleek, smooth design. While the materials and shapes may vary, you won’t see a prevalence of busy details or baroque features in either modern or contemporary styles. It’s almost as if the more complicated our lives and world become, the more we strive for simplicity and clarity in our personal surroundings.

How Do I Know What To Buy?

Now that you hopefully have a slightly better working knowledge of design trends over the past century, you may feel better prepared to replace a piece or two or redesign an entire room in your own home. Or, you may feel like you have just enough information to be confused more thoroughly than you were able to be before.

Relax. There won’t be a test.

In the end, what you do with your home is, of course, entirely up to you. There are some practical considerations you should take into account before shopping seriously. A few measurements and notes about what’s currently where are easy to take and make any trip more productive. You’re welcome to “eyeball it,” but let’s be honest about the odds THAT’S a great idea.

Of course, it matters whether your furniture “goes” together, and whether your choices make sense. But what matters, even more, is how you feel sitting in, at, or on each piece. How well do they function as whatever you need them to be? What do you experience when you look at them or use them? Do they express something about who you are or want to be? About how you’d like to surround yourself when in your most intimate moments or when entertaining the masses?

If there were “right” and “wrong” answers to furnishing and design, we’d have far fewer stores and at least one fewer cable channel dedicated to designing and remodeling. But it doesn’t work that way – thank goodness.

There may, however, be “right” and “wrong” answers for you – and that’s something it’s impossible to fully anticipate or resolve without walking among your options, discussing your hopes and needs with a trusted companion or helpful sales associate, and then trusting yourself to know. It’s not that it need be particularly mystical, but in the end, it is uniquely personal.

That is, in fact, the whole point.

We’d love to talk “modern” or “contemporary” or anything else you like, should you wish. Then, we’ll let you wander and be surprised what you discover you love, hate, or need a little time to consider. We’ll even help you find fancy words to describe it before you follow your gut either way.

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