When you're describing design styles, you may be using the words "modern" and "contemporary" interchangeably—and you wouldn't be alone. Though they're actually quite different, the words themselves have similar definitions, so you'd think the design styles would, too. But you (and everyone else) would be wrong. Though it might be one of the most commonly used design words, modern design is probably one of the most mis-defined design styles, so we're going to set the record straight. This is what modern design actually is.
Modern Design Refers To A Distinct Time Period; Contemporary Is Ever-Evolving.
Modern design is a designated time period, from the early to mid-20th century. It originated at the turn of the century, with roots in both German and Scandinavian design, and really gained popularity throughout the first half of the century. Both mid-century modern (popular in the '40s-'60s), and post-modern design evolved from modern design. "Modernism was the future in the early midcentury. It harnessed the capability of machinery to offer affordable housing and furniture solutions to the masses. This informed architecture, interiors, furnishings, and art," says Los Angeles based interior designer, Natalie Myers.
Contemporary design, on the other hand, refers to the style of the present day. It's difficult to pin down and define, because contemporary design is constantly evolving. It's a reflection of the now, and will likely look very different 50 years from now than it does today.
"What may be considered contemporary now could be a fleeting trend, or may make a lasting impression that will transcend this era," says interior designer Katie Hodges.
Lines Are Clean And Decor Is Minimal.
Preceding modern design were Gothic, Renaissance, and Victorian styles, incorporating heavy textures, ornamentation, and plenty of dark and dramatic elements. Modern design rejected these, in favor of clean, straight lines, uncluttered spaces, and an overall lack of fussiness. Basically, form follows function. "I think everything in your house should have raison d’etre. If you don’t know why it’s there, get rid of it," says potter, designer, and author Jonathan Adler.
Neutral Is The Name Of The Game.
White, beiges, and even some shades of black are the main color palette for modern design, but it can incorporate color as an accent, so long as it leans towards earthy. Modern design has a large emphasis on natural materials, so keeping things in a more natural color palette is key. When a bold color is used, it's never to cover an entire wall, but rather is used sparingly to provide a focal point and help break up neutrals. "Clean lines over curves. Neutral colors and natural materials over bold hues and synthetic materials and patterns," says Myers.
Modern Design Favors Open-Concept Floor Plans.
Basically, you want as few walls as possible. Furniture, instead, should differentiate spaces, like a kitchen counter providing a visual distinction from a living or dining room. Abundant natural light is also necessary to help a space feel more airy and open, so windows are kept unadorned.
Furniture Comes From Natural Materials.
The modern design era ushered in new materials from which to construct furniture. Instead of sculpting out of wood, there was steel, molded plywood, and plastic. It's all about striking a balance between pure function and aesthetics. It needs to be practical, but still appealing. One of the big markers of modern design was the Wassily chair, a seamless, tubular steel chair developed in 1925 that radically changed the approach to furniture design.
The Eames chair, one of the defining pieces of the era and the one you most likely know by name, was made of molded plywood and leather in 1956, as part of a goal to develop furniture that was both affordable and able to be mass-produced. It was inspired by the English club chair.
Finally, the tulip chair, which remains one of the most popular modern furniture pieces today, was a departure from anything that came before it, with a chair featuring only one leg in the center, made of fiberglass-reinforced resin. You may associate both of these more with mid-century modern design specifically, which hey, is a branch of the modern family, so you're right on that count.
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