HomeLink Magazine Winter 2015: Modern vs Contemporary

Modern vs. Contemporary
By: Valerie Stafford, Rumor Design + Re-Design

What’s the difference between modern and contemporary interior design?

Although modern design began with the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century following the introduction of factories and mass production, typically when we think of modern design, we remember pioneers such as Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier in the early twentieth century. By the mid-twentieth century we find modern design is ubiquitous in our homes and offices.

Properly sized furniture and carefully placed lighting, helps keep the multi-purpose room functional without feeling overcrowded.

From the beginning of the modern movement, applied decoration was not as important as the amazing clean lines and precision achieved with the machine. The structure was celebrated and many times the structure was exposed to show off the innovative connections. Another important innovation was reinforced concrete, which also revolutionized the building process. However, the simplicity of the form and austere spaces often translated into very sterile and cold environments. Fortunately, at this point in modern design we are able to use these elements in moderation and soften the look by combining concrete, steel and glass with reclaimed woods, fabrics and textural components that were missing during the Mid-century Modern era.

Though Modern will always refer to the post industrial revolution era, Contemporary is now. Contemporary, which means “characteristic of the present,” is always changing and constantly in flux, as compared to Modern design which refers to a specific style, the same way Baroque or Mission are examples of different styles. What we consider contemporary today, in twenty years will be very different. Constantly changing with us through time, it is a moving target, but it is what we make of interior design today. Contemporary design may make use of a number of different components that feel current and may incorporate trendy or popular elements. It is not edgy or wild, as that would be too progressive. Contemporary is a subtle blend of styles and typically a neutral look that can be accented with personal touches. Depending on where you live and what your personal tastes are, you might find a Mid-century Modern piece of furniture and incorporate it into a more traditional space and call it Contemporary.

One way to work with Modern in a Contemporary design is to refer to the classic rule that form must follow function. Our lives function differently than they did sixty or seventy years ago. In our open floor plans we use our kitchens as part of our community space. While Modern structural elements like large expansive windows (often found in our mountain homes) help soak in the views, they create design challenges when considering light control and privacy. Consequently, Modern design is often more planning intensive. To make everything look seamless requires significant behind-the-scenes steps to incorporate, for example, power shades that fit into a soffit above the windows so they literally disappear when not in use, requires planning during the framing and drywall stages.

There are many ways to keep the function of today, while keeping the design intentions central. The raw materials, connections, seams and joints were exposed in Modern designed buildings and furniture pieces. Today’s technology is compact and hidden and allows us to seamlessly integrate style and function, but a balance must be achieved.

The biggest lesson to take away from the Modern era when approaching any project, is that no matter the style, functionality is paramount. When a home or office flows and it truly functions, one will enjoy the space for years to come. The layers of décor, paint color and pillow styles can change over time with contemporary tastes, but the Modern layout and design principle will continue to be the starting point of choice as we move into the future. Achieving that particular level of flow and function is where design professionals can help. There are many details to consider when creating a timeless space, like proper layout (i.e. thoughtfully locating a pantry, laundry room or powder bath), proper placement and convenience of lighting or appliances in a kitchen or bath layout and even making an educated selection for the type of light bulb used in a fixture. Once the surfaces are selected and skillfully applied, a blank timeless canvas emerges. The modern canvas becomes the perfect backdrop to infuse contemporary color, furniture and eclectic artworks that relate to the personality of the inhabitants, thus replacing the sterile version of modern with a more human version.