Contemporary vs Modern Furniture: Difference Explained
When performing your first interior design, you might face a problem that it’s all too common among all clients that visit our store: should I go with contemporary or modern furniture design? First, you need to know how to tell the two apart.
Contemporary vs modern furniture: what are the differences between them? Generally, the two differ in time period and in scope. Specifically, modern furniture comes from the 20th century modernist tradition, while contemporary furniture reflects the current design vogue and can incorporate elements of various design traditions.
Understanding the particulars of each furniture style can help you get your home’s interior just like you wanted it.
Coming up, we’ll cover the main characteristics of each style to help you do the same.
Modern Furniture: Main Characteristics
With its focus on lines, minimalism, and warmth, modern furniture became one of the most recognizable design forms of the twentieth century.
The style grew from the modernist design movement originating in the late 1800s and early 1900s, peaking in the early 20th century, and ultimately seeing a revival during the 1950s.
Let’s take a look at the main characteristics of modern furniture:
- Function Over Form
Modern furniture, like the rebellious design movement it pulls from, emphasizes simplicity and functionality.
As such, the furniture rejects intricate designs and elaborate craftsmanship in favor of pieces that emphasize the function of the furniture. This draws from the minimalist nature of the modernist tradition—in short, nothing exists that shouldn’t exist, giving modern furniture a “clean” and efficient feel.
Much of this is accomplished through the use of straight lines and edges, a staple of modern furniture.
- Natural Composition
Typically, furniture from the modernist tradition is constructed from natural materials such as wood, leather, and linen.
Many pieces also incorporate metal into their designs, helping modern furniture present a visually “lighter” and less cluttered appearance when compared to more traditional styles.
Exposed light woods, aluminum, stainless steel, nickel, and plastics are all commonly found in modern furniture.
- Neutral Colors
Characteristic of modern furniture is the neutral palette that helps give the furniture its distinctive modern vibe.
Dark neutrals such as dark brown, black, navy blue, charcoal gray, and deep gold are commonly found in modern furniture pieces, as well as lighter neutrals such as white.
What Is a Contemporary Furniture Style?
Building on the modern tradition, contemporary furniture shares many of the elements of its chronological predecessor, as well as ideas from a variety of other design styles.
Began in the latter half of the 20th century, contemporary design is all about the incorporation of current design trends, making it a practically flexible style that is constantly evolving.
For this reason, as opposed with other furniture styles (including modernism), contemporary furniture sees an incredible amount of variability over time, though there do exist some basic stipulations that make up the unchanging undercurrent of contemporary design:
- Neutral Palettes
Like modern furniture, contemporary furniture makes use of a neutral color palette. Beige and whites are common in contemporary furniture pieces, as well as bold colors that help a room “pop.”
- Natural Construction
Building on the modern tradition, contemporary furniture design involves natural materials, including woods, fabrics, and metals.
The style emphasizes straight and clean lines, as well as exposed metals and woods that help tie a room together while maintaining an efficient look.
- Open Spaces
Contemporary furniture design further draws from modern styles in that open spaces are important.
This means contemporary furniture is not excessively clunky or space consuming. Rather, pieces are designed to make rooms appear larger and—that’s right—more functional.
This minimalism often causes confusion between modern and contemporary styles, though there are some key differences between the two philosophies, as we’ll see in the next section.
Contemporary vs Modern Furniture: What Makes Them Different?
As demonstrated, modern and contemporary furniture styles share many similarities. Both styles, for instance, stress minimalism, open spaces, natural construction, and neutral color schemes, as well as the use of straight lines in furniture construction.
Despite this, there are some key differences between the two styles that help designers and homeowners distinguish between the two and settle on a preference for their current project.
Let’s take a look at a few:
- Static vs Evolving
Perhaps the biggest difference between modern and contemporary furniture design is the time period in which the two took (or, in the case of contemporary styles, are taking) place.
While modernism refers to an artistic movement that occurred at a set time during the 20th century, contemporary design designates a movement of constantly evolving artistic trends that pull on the current vogue to remain relevant.
Or, in other words, the principles of modern furniture will never change, while the principles of contemporary furniture are constantly being reworked to stay up to date with the current age.
- Artistic Scope
It only follows, then, that contemporary design, as a movement, incorporates a broader range of artistic elements than does modern design.
- Though contemporary furniture draws its biggest inspiration from the modernist movement, Art Deco, minimalism, and a host of global styles also influence and shape contemporary design.
- Modern furniture, for its part, represents a period-relevant rejection of the popular styles of the early 20th century and of the centuries prior.
Put simply, the core of modern furniture design (and modernism itself) is less ambiguous and more focused, targeted on the reduction of the visual clutter commonly found in furniture, as well as an increase in overall functionality.
What Is Modern Furniture Made of?
As we’ve touched on briefly, modern furniture is largely constructed of a few popular materials.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at the use of each material in the crafting of this famous furniture style:
Modern furniture tends to use natural woods, often lighter in color and generally straight and “clean” in their edging and angles. Materials such as plywood are also used to add artistic flair.
Prioritizing comfort over elegance, modern furniture uses fabrics such as linen and leather to create sofas, chairs, and upholstery that is comfortable and stylish (if little adorned).
- Polished Metal
Modern furniture also boasts polished metals such as aluminum, nickel, and stainless steel. These metals are typically artfully exposed on larger pieces such as chairs and tables or constitute the entire craftsmanship of light fixtures and other accessories.
Plastic emerged as a favorite material for modern designers during the mid-century modern period, along with other materials such as fiberglass.
Modern Furniture History
Modern furniture, with its striking metals and simple woods, is as much a technical product of its time as it is an artistic one.
- The Influence of The Industrial Revolution
The success of the Industrial Revolution introduced designers with cheaper and more functional materials with which to construct their designs, which, coupled with the growing modernist and minimalist movements of the time, created the perfect environment from which modern furniture design would ultimately spring.
- Shift Towards Lighter Furniture
As the 20th century moved into one of its most illustrious decades, designers of the 1920s began to openly reject the ornate, expensive, and often less-than-functional designs that constituted luxury furniture.
In contrast with these prior styles, designers began to fashion furniture that was light (in both color and weight), open, and to the point. Accordingly, modern furniture saw more economic construction and lower price tags, an endeavor aided by the advent of mass production.
- The German School
The movement itself grew from two prominent and emerging schools of German thought: the Werkbund and the Bauhaus traditions, both of which sought to make furniture more affordable and available to ordinary people.
After seeing its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, when designers such as Marcel Breuer and Eileen Gray produced their most famous pieces, the art form saw a revival in the 1950s that’s now currently referred to as “mid-century modern.”
Over time, this art form gradually gave way to others, both broadly and in the realm of furniture design, with the contemporary style being its most notable successor.
Perhaps no two furniture styles are confused as often as contemporary and modern. Though the two styles share many similarities, they present important differences that can help you design your home.
If you are looking to update your home’s interior with one of these popular styles, it’s important to know the difference between the two. This guide covers the main characteristics of each style, as well as the crucial differences between contemporary and modern furniture.
Almost ready to design your room? Be sure to make this your ultimate contemporary and modern furniture design reference.