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Unraveling the Differences: Modernism Vs. Contemporary Interior Design

Interior design is a dynamic art form, constantly evolving and changing with the times. It's a reflection of our culture, our values, and our aspirations. In this vast landscape of design styles, two styles that often get confused are modernist and contemporary.

When discussing design, the term "modern" can often be ambiguous, leaving the reader to question whether they are referring to modernist or contemporary styles.

Designers know that the words “modern” and “contemporary” can be used interchangeably in some contexts, but when it comes to design, there are important distinctions. Despite their similarities, these two styles have distinct characteristics and philosophies that set them apart.

Contemporary Living Room
Contemporary Living Room

The distinction between these two styles is crucial, as they embody different characteristics and principles. While modernist design refers to the bold and avant-garde aesthetic of the mid-20th century, contemporary design encompasses the current trends and influences of today.

To truly grasp the essence of modern design, one must delve into the nuances and understand which era they are referring to. So, the next time you use the word "modern" in a design context, ask yourself, do you mean modernist or contemporary?

In this article, I will delve into the differences between these two design styles, understand their key features, and explore how to incorporate them into your home.

Understanding Modernism Interior Design

Modernist interior design, as the name suggests, is rooted in the modernist movement, which began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement was a radical departure from traditional design, prioritising function over form and rejecting ornate details in favour of simplicity and minimalism.

Modernist design is characterised by its simplicity, clean lines, and a neutral colour palette. It embraces the use of natural materials like wood, leather, and stone, often combined with industrial elements like steel and glass. The focus is on creating functional, uncluttered spaces that are aesthetically pleasing but devoid of unnecessary ornamentation.

leather sofa and fireplace in modernist design

Modernist design is also often associated with open floor plans and large windows, allowing for plenty of natural light. The furniture used in modernist design is typically streamlined and geometric, with a focus on comfort and usability.

Understanding Contemporary Interior Design

Contemporary interior design, on the other hand, is a style that is quite literally 'of the moment.' It is fluid, constantly adapting to reflect current trends, technologies, and societal values. Unlike modernist design, which is tied to a specific time period, contemporary design is ever-evolving, making it a more flexible style.

Contemporary design embraces a more diverse range of materials and colours compared to modernist design. You'll often find bold, contrasting colours and innovative materials like acrylics and plastics used in contemporary spaces. There's also a greater emphasis on individuality and uniqueness, with designers often incorporating custom-made pieces and artwork into their designs.

contemporary interior

However, just like modernist design, contemporary design also values simplicity and function. The lines are clean and the forms are often geometric, but there's a greater willingness to experiment with shapes and patterns.

Key Features of Modernist Interior Design

Modernist interior design can be identified by several key features. The first is simplicity, evident in everything from the colour palette to the lines of the furniture. Modernist spaces often feature a neutral colour scheme that includes shades of white, black, and grey, with occasional pops of primary colours.

Another defining feature of modernist design is its focus on function. Every piece of furniture and every design element serves a purpose, contributing to the overall functionality of the space. There's no room for unnecessary clutter or ostentatious ornamentation.

antique dining set

Finally, modernist design values honesty in materials. This means that the natural characteristics of materials like wood, stone, and metal are celebrated rather than hidden. This honesty extends to the architecture of the space, with structural elements often left exposed.

Key Features of Contemporary Interior Design

Contemporary interior design, while also valuing simplicity and function, is more flexible and diverse in its approach. One of its key features is its adaptability. Contemporary design is always changing, always evolving to reflect the latest trends and technologies.

This adaptability is also evident in the use of materials. Contemporary design isn't afraid to experiment with new, innovative materials, often combining them in unique and unexpected ways.

orange room

Another key feature of contemporary design is its emphasis on individuality. Contemporary spaces often feature unique, custom-made pieces and artworks that reflect the personality of the homeowner. There's also a greater willingness to play with colour, with contemporary spaces often featuring bold, contrasting colour schemes.

Modernist vs. Contemporary: The Major Differences

While modernist and contemporary design share many similarities, there are key differences that set them apart. The first is their relationship with time. Modernist design is rooted in a specific time period (the 20th century), and its principles and characteristics are firmly established. Contemporary design, on the other hand, is always changing, always adapting to reflect the tastes and trends of the present time.

Another significant difference is their approach to materials and colours. Modernist design values natural materials and a neutral colour scheme, while contemporary design embraces a wider range of materials and is more adventurous with colour.

Finally, while both styles value simplicity and function, contemporary design places a greater emphasis on individuality and uniqueness.

The Role of Architecture in Modernist and Contemporary Design

Architecture plays a significant role in both modernist and contemporary design. Modernist architecture refers to the architectural style that emerged in the early 20th century, characterised by its emphasis on simplicity, functionality, and the use of new materials and construction techniques. It rejects the ornate and decorative elements of previous architectural styles, instead focusing on clean lines, open spaces, and the integration of form and function.

Modernist architecture is often associated with influential architects such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who championed the principles of "form follows function" and "less is more." The movement sought to create buildings that were sleek, efficient, and in harmony with the modern age.

In modernist design, architecture is celebrated for its structural honesty. There's an appreciation for the beauty of natural materials and the craftsmanship that goes into construction.

Some famous examples of architecture that embody this style are:

  • Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright: Fallingwater is a masterpiece of modernistic architecture. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, it seamlessly integrates with its natural surroundings and showcases the principles of organic architecture.

  • Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier: Villa Savoye is a prime example of modernistic architecture that exemplifies the principles of the International Style. Its clean lines, open floor plan, and emphasis on functionality make it an enduring symbol of modern design.

Villa Savoye
Villa Savoye

In contemporary design, architecture is seen as a canvas for experimentation. There's a willingness to push boundaries and explore new forms and technologies. A good example is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by Frank Gehry, an iconic example of contemporary architecture. Its distinctive curvilinear form and titanium cladding make it a visual spectacle that represents the innovative spirit of contemporary design.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

In both styles, there's a strong connection between the interior and exterior of a building, with the design of the interior often reflecting the architectural style of the building.

How to Incorporate Modernist Design in Your Home

Incorporating modernist design into your home isn't as daunting as it may seem. Start by decluttering your space, removing unnecessary items and creating a clean, functional environment. Choose furniture with clean lines and geometric forms, and stick to a neutral colour palette.

Embrace the use of natural materials, like wood and stone, and don't be afraid to mix in industrial elements like steel and glass. Remember, the key to modernist design is simplicity and function.

Note: The modernist style is not the same as mid-century modern. While both styles fall under the broader category of modern design, they have distinct characteristics and historical contexts. As discussed, modernist style refers to the architectural and design movement that emerged in the early 20th century, emphasising simplicity, functionality, and the use of new materials and construction techniques.

On the other hand, mid-century modern design specifically refers to the aesthetic that emerged after World War II, characterised by functionality, sleekness, and a retro touch of color. It incorporates wood and metal materials and allows for some flashy decor and artwork. So, while they share some similarities, modernist style and mid-century modern design are distinct in their historical origins and specific design elements.

How to Incorporate Contemporary Design in Your Home

To incorporate contemporary design into your home, it's important to embrace individuality and showcase your unique personality. Opt for unique, custom-made pieces that truly reflect your personal style. Don't be afraid to experiment with bold and contrasting colours, as well as innovative materials, to create a visually striking and dynamic space.

One of the key aspects of contemporary design is its flexibility and ever-changing nature. Unlike other design styles that may be more rigid or tied to specific trends, contemporary design allows you the freedom to let your space evolve with you. This means that you don't have to feel bound to a particular style or trend. Instead, you can let your design choices be influenced by your own tastes, experiences, and the changing world around you. Contemporary design is not limited to a specific set of rules or aesthetics, but rather is a reflection of the individual and their cultural background.

contemporary living room

Incorporating contemporary design into your home can be an exciting and creative process. By embracing individuality, experimenting with colours and materials, and allowing your space to evolve with you, you can create a truly unique and personalised interior that reflects your own style and experiences.

Avoid the Mix Up between Modernist and Contemporary Design

If you feel like you have to choose between modernist and contemporary design, it ultimately comes down to personal preference. If you prefer clean lines, functional spaces, and a neutral colour palette, then modernist design might be the right choice for you. If you value individuality, flexibility, and a willingness to experiment, then you might be more drawn to contemporary design.

Now you understand the distinctions between modernist and contemporary interior design, you can avoid any confusion surrounding the term "modern" when discussing design styles or architectural streams.

Regardless of any design style you choose (the world is your oyster), remember that good design is about creating a space that reflects your personality, meets your needs, and brings you joy.

So, whether you're drawn to the timeless simplicity of modernist design, the dynamic adaptability of contemporary design or something totally different, trust your instincts and create a space that truly feels like home.


Would you like to learn more about Interior Design? Or perhaps become an interior designer yourself? Follow my footsteps and study Interior Design with The Interior Design Institute where I could be your personal tutor. Click here to read more and receive a discount.

industrial style home office



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I am Marieke, a Dutch Australian interior designer, business executive, tutor, content creator and social media influencer.


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