What is the Difference Between Modern and Contemporary Furniture?

interior design

In most contexts, when we talk about something being modern, we are saying that it is up-to-date, and representative of the present as opposed to the past. In art and literature and interior design, however, the word modern is actually used as a label for a specific period of creative expression which – loosely speaking – lasted from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. So, in the context of talking about culture and philosophy, modern isn’t very modern at all.

The word contemporary, on the other hand, has a meaning which is fairly consistent regardless of its usage: something which exists or occurs in the present or at the same time as something else.
So, if this was written in the 1950s, the modernist movement would be contemporary, but now that we’re in the 2020s, contemporary still refers to things and events of now, whereas modern refers to things and events from a specific period of time in our past.

Now that we have that cleared up, let’s take a look at how these words can be applied to furniture. The furnishings of our homes vary – like many things – according to our aesthetic and practical tastes. At the moment, the contemporary interior design trends share a lot of common ground with the modernist ones, but that’s not to say there aren’t significant differences too. Here’s a breakdown of the main attributes of each.

The Modernist Movement: A Revolution of Style

As with any revolution, the modernist movement was abandonment of the stylistic conventions which had come before it. Through the Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and Victorian eras, there had been a continued celebration of ornate, complicated design. As a reaction to this – and fuelled by the industrial age’s innovations in mass production – the modernist aesthetic was minimal, simple and clean.
Fashion moves fast. While this may always have been true, the first half of the 20th century lent the truth whole new layer of meaning, paving the way for the world of fashion we know today. Whilst being as nuanced and complicated as any time – and therefore difficult to generalise about – the modernist interior design movement is often broken up into 2 main sub-categories: Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern.
Both of these share many attributes, such as their focus on function over aesthetics, but there are important differences too.

Art Deco: Key Features

• Heavy use of geometric shapes and simple lines.
• Sparse, subtle designs
• Basic patterns used to create rhythm
• Glass, chrome and metallic materials routinely used
• Block colours – neutral or bold – or monochrome

Mid-Century Modern: Key Features

• Natural shapes with organic curves and lines
• Minimal, warm designs
• Repetition used to create harmony
• Wood is the favoured material
• Neutral and natural tones, accented with splashes of bold colour

The Contemporary Movement: The Ever-Changing Tastes of Now

As opposed to the post-modernist movement, which took modernism’s abandoning of previous norms one step further and started to challenge the conventions of form altogether, the contemporary movement instead built on the modernist approach, adding to the foundational modernist notions of simplicity and space, whilst incorporating other stylistic influences along the way.
The central tenet of contemporary design is the implementation of current fashionable trends into your interior design plans. Whether it’s the physical layout of a room or the furniture you choose to put in it, the idea is to make decisions based on this notion of being in tune with the current moment. One of the over-arching attributes of the times we are living through is our push towards urbanisation; a push that can be seen in all aspects of present-day designs trends.

There are so many tributaries of influence in the contemporary design movement – ones which are in a constant state of change and growth – that it can be hard to pin down, making it easily one of the most flexible and diverse. Despite this vast pool of influence, however, there are some unifying traits worth bearing in mind if the contemporary design aesthetic has a place in your plans…


Instead of modernism’s preference for natural materials like wood and leather and stone, contemporary designs often make use of metals, concrete and glass. There is a satisfying permanence to the use of these materials in our homes and the crisp, clean lines of modernism can reach their logical end-point when reinforced with these industrial components.


Neutral colour palettes are again preferred to vibrant ones, but the earthly tones of modernism are swapped out for ones more representative of our digital age: blacks and whites and greys. Similar to the modern approach, brighter colours are used to provide contrast, but they needn’t be restricted to the bold palettes of art deco.

Shapes and Lines

While still adhering to the simplicity of the modern movement, contemporary furniture is more evocative of the natural world, using organic forms and shapes as their inspiration.

Fitted Furniture

One of the key innovations of the contemporary school is its use of awkward architectural areas in a home that would historically have been deemed unusable. Clever inclusion of bespoke and fitted furniture can transform a dead space into a practical one with very little effort.

Aesthetics as Function

In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of the link between our lived spaces and our overall well being and broader experience of life. Contemporary design incorporates this idea that aesthetically-pleasing environments are happy and productive ones. If you had your eyes on a particular table or sofa, but weren’t sure how it might fit in with your intended theme, contemporary design allows you to fully embrace a thing’s superficial appeal without getting too hung up on its utility.


Novelty encourages engagement. When there is more about a space that keeps you interested, you are more likely to interact with it and feel part of the environment. This idea of counterpoint can be achieved with any aspect of a piece of furniture, from its shape and size to materials used.

What Might the Contemporary of Tomorrow Look Like?

As we have seen, the modern movement would have been contemporary when those who were a part of it were living through it. A moment in history is a static thing; it can no longer be changed. The word now, on the other hand, changes every time we say it.