What’s the big difference between modern and contemporary design? Aren’t they just  different words that basically mean the same thing…?

You can be forgiven for thinking so as these two styles both describe the sleek look of today, BUT they actually have their own distinct traits.   So to help us all out I am going to attempt to explain the difference, however grey it may seem…

“Modern design” refers to the specific time period between the early to mid-twentieth century. (In Interior Design we also refer to this as Mid-Century Modern)

I don’t want to give you a whole history lesson here but this period of time is very iconic in Art, Architecture and Design.     Briefly, this was the peak of art and design informed by “ Scandi and German Bauhaus” design, creating a distinct style focused on simple form and function.   It is also the era where the iconic furniture which we call the “Modern Classics” (Barcelona Chair, Eames chair, Panton chair) were born.   We see replicas of these all the time in contemporary design.

Molded plywood and plastic is very popular in modern furniture , as well as polished metal. Furniture is very open and raised off the floor allowing for an airy feeling. Walls are often white adding to the expansive feeling. Modern interiors generally have bare floors and if area rugs are used, they are typically wool, and neutral in colour. We sometimes refer to modern interiors as retro these days…



“Contemporary design” doesn’t refer to a specific period of time – it’s constantly changing to reflect the popular styles of present day design. “Current” we could say…

It borrows qualities from modernism  (the reason why this is all very grey), minimalism, and other global styles (right now Boho, Scandi etc), without hyper-focusing on any one in particular.     I would say open plan spaces, large amounts of glazing (windows, stacker doors etc) double volume areas and clean lines are all hallmarks of contemporary design.    Comfort and sustainability are key values that are important in a contemporary home.



“Less is more” could easily be the motto for both contemporary and modern design. Each style of space is typically simple and uncluttered, opting for smooth lines – you can forget about seeing anything heavy or ornate in either. Both styles are calming and neutral with a focus on textures. Think reflective surfaces, exposed woods, metals, and glass.

So the main differences between modern and contemporary design?

Contemporary is by definition what’s going on in design at this very moment in time, which makes it more fluid and hard to pin down.    In ten years from now, something else will be considered “contemporary”.

Modern design, on the other hand, has a very distinguishable aesthetic that emphasizes crisp lines, warm neutrals, warm timbers.

I think part of the confusion is that right now, many elements of mid-century modern design (Like the light fittings –  which I just L-O-V-E!) are very popular and are being incorporated into contemporary designs.