The Difference Between Contemporary and Modern Design

The Difference Between Contemporary and Modern Design

In architecture, contemporary and modern design are two distinctive designs. Each form of design has its own unique features. The two terms are frequently used interchangeably, but that does a disservice to each. Modern architecture, first seen at the turn of the century, is a very defined style. Contemporary design borrows features from modern design, but contemporary architecture is always changing to incorporate new ideas. 

Modern architectural design has changed little, except to incorporate the new building products and construction techniques. Modern home design, at its inception, was a stark contrast to the ornate building styles of the time. At its core, modern architecture is a minimalist approach using open space and natural light. Modern home design can seem stark at first glance, but the use of natural materials, and blurring the lines between the outside and inside give this design a natural warmth. 

Modern design remains true to the hallmark straight lines and clean look that has defined the style since the early 1900s. In contrast, contemporary design is harder to define as it changes with the popularity of the time. In the recent move back to simplicity and a more minimalist approach, the two styles can currently have some overlap. The difference is that contemporary design is relying on the current trend of minimalism to define the elements of design. 

Modern design also uses natural tones and colors with the liberal use of white to open up spaces. Contemporary design often incorporates the use of bold colors to accent or define areas. Bold or bright colors are used sparingly or not at all in modern design. 

Contemporary architecture borrows from various designs of the past to create a new, but ever-changing, use of space. The trend of environmentally friendly building products combined with the latest technology to create “smart” spaces is a hallmark of contemporary design trends. Contemporary design uses eco-friendly building practices and a focus on energy efficiency and the use of clean energy. At the heart of contemporary design is the fluid response to whatever is trending at the moment. The design’s response to trends keeps it changing, in stark contrast to the modern design that is very well defined. 

Contemporary design borrows elements from modern design but does not strictly adhere to the principles of modern design. For a building to be genuinely modern in design, it will contain most, if not all, of these features:

  • Clean, straight lines
  • Extensive use of windows or sheets of glass
  • Minimalist approach to the overall design, with no extra additions such as trim around cabinetry, columns or moldings. 
  • Function over form, meaning that every aspect of the modern building has a function
  • A connection to the outdoors
  • Fewer interior walls allowing one space to flow into another
  • Steel, concrete, glass, and wood are the primary and often the only visual elements in modern architecture 

Modern design has simplicity at its core. Contemporary design often incorporates complex design elements that can be beautiful but do not adhere to the strict function over form tenant of modern design. Modern design also offers the flexibility of space. With open floor plans and limited dividers between spaces, modern design lets the owner customize how the space best fits their needs. In contemporary design, although openness is often seen, space tends to have an assigned role.

In contemporary design, there is often a mixture of the clean lines of the modern style combined with contemporary features such as elaborate light fixtures, rugs, and other touches for pure aesthetic purpose. Contemporary design is also mindful of its place in a world driven by technology and often includes technology as part of the overall design. Pure modern design focuses more on giving people a break from the chaos of modern life, instead of embracing it in the home design. 

When distinguishing between the two styles, remember that contemporary, by definition, means at the moment. By its nature, contemporary design will be continually evolving. In contrast, modern design is a distinctly classic, simplistic design born from a specific era in history. 

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