Modern vs. Contemporary Design: Defining the Differences Between the Two Styles

Mid-century Modern and Contemporary Style are Not One and the Same 

Never use modern and contemporary in the same sentence to describe the style of a room. We should say that a space is modern or contemporary. While both of these terms are routinely used interchangeably to refer to new, updated, and trending designs, they actually refer to two completely different styles of interiors, architecture, and even time periods. Our San Antonio-based interior designers and architects define mid-century modern and contemporary design, explain the similarities between the two looks, and reveal the number one difference between the two styles.      

What is Mid-century Modern Style?

Mid-century modern is an American design movement that occurred between 1945 and 1969. It celebrated connections with nature and function, and it used clean lines and bold geometric forms, creating an enduring impression in the design world. Mid-century modern style is rooted in the Modernist movement of the time, taking inspiration from Scandinavian and Bauhaus design. When residential homes began to expand into the American suburbs, it allowed for new construction opportunities that prioritized family life and focused on function as much as aesthetics. Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Donald Wexler led the movement with new designs featuring post and beam construction, butterfly rooflines, and glass expanses.  

Mid-century Modern Exterior from Design Dudes Life

Defining Elements of Mid-Century Modern Design  

Emphasis on Nature  

While mid-century modern homes embraced the use of new materials like steel, the designs still emphasized nature. Earthy color palettes featured avocado green, harvest gold, rust, and turquoise, taking inspiration from the landscape. Natural materials like wood and stone were celebrated with paneling and stacked stone fireplace features. 

Celebration of Function 

A boom of suburban construction allowed architects and interior designers to focus on spaces that functioned for the new American family. Homes were designed with more open-concept plans made for entertaining and indoor-outdoor connections. Interiors were simplified with streamlined furniture. 

Mid-century Post and Beam Construction

Use of Geometric Forms

Mid-century designs broke the traditional mold and utilized geometric forms seen in angular lines, clerestory windows, flat rooflines, and exciting patterns, like starbursts. 

Mid-century Living Room

What is Contemporary Style? 

While the mid-century modern style occurred in the past, contemporary design is happening right now. The contemporary style rose to popularity in the 1970s when the Modern era came to a close and Postmodernism’s influence began to take over. Contemporary design initially focused on blending different looks, borrowing from both the Modernist and Postmodern movements, before it was recognized as its own style. Unlike modern design, which is tied to an era, contemporary style continually evolves with present-day trends, taking inspiration from styles throughout history and global influences. 

Contemporary Living Room

Defining Elements of Contemporary Design 

Use of Clean Lines 

While contemporary design draws from ever-changing influences, it is driven by key design elements like clean lines. Contemporary architecture often features simplistic structures with flat roofs, breakaway glass walls, corner windows, and solid glass window panes. 

Lack of Ornamentation 

Contemporary designs take a minimalist approach, allowing one to focus on the architecture of the structure and hone in on interior focal points placed with intention. 

Focus on Materials and Textures 

The contemporary style uses neutral color palettes and creates a layered room by highlighting materials like metal, wood, and stone rather than bright colors. Variation is achieved through textural differences. 

Contemporary Home Exterior

The Similarities Between Mid-century Modern and Contemporary Design 

While mid-century modern and contemporary design are distinctly different, both styles do share similarities. Neither look favors ornate detailing but instead uses clean lines, simple accents, and uncluttered spaces that are easy to live in and be enjoyed. Function prevails. 

Since contemporary design focuses on the latest trend and collecting a range of styles in one clean space, modern style can occasionally play a role in contemporary schemes. Classic modern pieces like the Eames Lounge Chair or Barcelona Chair can blend beautifully in contemporary interiors.  

The #1 Difference Between Mid-century Modern and Contemporary Design 

The number one difference between modern and contemporary style is timing. Modern style refers to the designs of the Modernist period, which took place during the mid-1900s. Mid-century modern design will always be rooted in the same architectural elements developed in the period and the interior furnishings, which have now earned the title of vintage. 

On the other hand, contemporary design is happening right now and will continue to change every year with new trends, architectural developments, and inspiration from around the world. Contemporary-style house plans also tend to feature larger spaces and more expensive materials than mid-century homes, as the style also reflects the country’s current financial state. Families have more money now than they did during the mid-century, and it has become increasingly popular to show off one’s status. 

Contemporary Interior Design by Amity Worrel

Why are We Still Drawn to the Vintage Appeal of Mid-century Style? 

While the mid-century design era has come to a close, that hasn’t stopped us from recreating the style. We are just as obsessed as ever with this airy, easy, and functional aesthetic. After the Modernist period came to a close in the 60s, a new interest was sparked during the 80s through the revival of iconic mid-century structures like The Barcelona Pavilion. In the 2010s, pop culture reinvigorated mid-century design once again with the beautifully designed sets of shows like Mad Men and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Mid-century design is back! The style’s emphasis on indoor-outdoor living, entertaining, and easy maintenance fits with many of the ideals today’s homeowners are looking to reflect in their spaces. This nostalgic style continues to look to the future.  

Mad Men Set Design

What Trends Can We Expect in Contemporary Design? 

When it comes to contemporary design, always expect the new and unexpected. While this style will always be grounded in clean lines and minimalist forms, there is always a new influence that will reshape the look year after year. Contemporary homeowners have learned to embrace the now, and it’s really quite fun.  

What is your favorite design style? 

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