Chic, sleek, and thoroughly modern, contemporary design is one of our favorite ways to combine the bold with the simple. In this post we’re laying out the basics of the style, from its origins to its defining characteristics, and sharing products we think you’ll love.
Modern vs. Contemporary Style
This of-the-moment style is often referred to as either “modern” or “contemporary.” Sometimes a distinction is made between the two, but it’s not uncommon to see the terms used interchangeably. So what is the difference between modern and contemporary design? Both modern and contemporary styles embrace the sleek, streamlined aesthetics of the 20th century and beyond, but there are subtle differences between the two.
Modern design, sometimes referred to as “mid-century modern,” is more evocative of the early to mid-1900s: think simple, functional pieces inspired by Scandinavian style and the Bauhaus movement. This style tends to incorporate bold, warm colors and geometric shapes; it may make you think of the space age and the Eisenhower administration.
Contemporary style, on the other hand, is a little less easily defined. While modern style evokes a specific design era, contemporary design is ever-changing, evolving and adapting as new trends emerge. Contemporary design also tends to value form over function, resulting in avant-garde silhouettes and striking accents. And while modern design loves to incorporate bright pops of color, contemporary spaces are typically more stark and monochromatic.
While these styles do have their share of differences, we’ll be using the terms relatively interchangeably in this article. Ultimately, both describe a look that’s sleek, modernistic, and defined by its use of shape and contrast.
The Elements of Modern Style
Modern & Contemporary Color Schemes
While we’ve mentioned that this style can incorporate color in a variety of ways, almost all modern spaces tend to use a darker palette contrasted with light neutrals or pops of brightness. Black, white, and gray are commonly used to make a stark, dramatic statement, and look even more striking when accented with bright primary colors or bold jewel tones.
Go for a fully black-and-white look if you want to keep things simple and clean, or use pops of color to brighten up the space.
Modern Shapes & Silhouettes
Contemporary style is defined by its use of clean, dramatic lines and geometric shapes. Whether you prefer sleek and straight lines or curvy retro styles, look for distinct pieces that make a visual statement. Mid-century sling chairs, chic tuxedo sofas, and thin, streamlined legs are hallmark features of this design style.
Materials, Fabrics & Finishes
Modern design allows you to incorporate lots of different materials, from velvet and leather to Lucite and Formica. Seating is often upholstered, either with leather or fabric. Velvet upholstery adds a touch of contemporary luxe and glamour, while leather and leather-look materials provide sleekness and sheen.
Metals play a major role in contemporary design, with the ultra-shiny look taking preference over matte or rusticated finishes. Chrome or polished gold finishes are perfect for adding space-age shine to your contemporary space. Additionally, clear plastic, acrylic, or Lucite accents are great for achieving the modern look. Try a desk or table with a transparent top, or a set of see-through chairs or stools.
If you’re ready to bring the contemporary look into your own home, you’ll need to start with your furnishings. We’ll show you some of our favorite pieces from the living room, bedroom, office, and outdoors to provide ideas and inspiration as you embark on your style journey.
Contemporary Living Room Furniture
Modern Sofas & Loveseats
Contemporary sofas are all about clean lines and slim profiles. Thin, visible legs are another hallmark of modern sofas, typically tapered, splayed, or sharp and angular. Try a design with shiny chrome legs for an ultra-modern feel.
Contemporary Living Room Chairs
Accent chairs are a great opportunity to make a statement in your modern space. Look for curvy designs, metallic bases, and don’t be afraid to play around with color, fabric, and texture.
Coffee & Side Tables
While modern sofas and accent chairs offer a major pop of personality, contemporary accent tables are a little more subdued. Look for pieces that boast the space-age silhouettes modern furniture is known for, but keep the colors neutral. Black, white, clear, and metallic finishes are perfect for the contemporary color scheme.
Modern Office Furniture
Modern & Contemporary Desks
Smarten up your office space with a sleek contemporary desk. The clean and simple designs of modern style are perfect for the office, providing ample desktop space with space-saving silhouettes. Choose a desk with splayed wooden legs for a more mid-century feel, or go ’60s-style mod with a rounded profile.
Office & Desk Chairs
Use your desk chair to make an ultra-modern statement in your home office. Shiny chrome bases, ribbed upholstery, and playful modern colors provide the perfect opportunity to mix business with pleasure.
Shelves & Bookcases
Make the most of modular, geometric designs with a contemporary bookcase or shelving unit. Open cubbies, tiered shelves, and asymmetrical designs put a modern, playful spin on the traditional bookshelf.
Contemporary Bedroom Furniture
Modern Style Beds
When shopping for a contemporary-style bed, think platforms, platforms, platforms. Platform bases give your bed a clean, tucked-in look, and provide the clean, sharp lines modern style is known for. To add some extra flair, try a tufted or panoramic headboard.
Contemporary Dressers & Chests
Rarely will you see a knob or rounded drawer pull on a modern-style dresser. Contemporary dressers and chests will typically boast super-slim profiles, often without any external hardware to be found. We love the look of high-gloss pieces in neutral shades such as white, black, and gray.
The modular nature of contemporary design is perfect for nightstands, lending itself to plenty of stacked drawers or open shelving. Look for styles with open space beneath the legs to keep the design from feeling boxy or clunky.
Modern Outdoor Furniture & Décor
Contemporary Conversation Sets
While you’re less likely to see materials such as Formica and suede in an outdoor space, contemporary design principles can still apply to patio furniture. When it comes to shapes and silhouettes, clean lines, high legs, and geometric detailing provide the modern style you love – even when paired with natural materials like wicker and teak.
Outdoor Dining Sets
When it comes to modern outdoor dining, look for clean lines, monochromatic finishes, and long, slim legs. We love the look of an all-black or white-on-white dining set, or sets that contrasts dark and light shades.
Finish off your outdoor space with a set of chic, modern planters. Stick with outdoor-approved materials such as concrete, ceramic, or terra cotta, but look for angular, geometric designs that are unmistakably mod.
Modern Art & Wall Décor
Wall décor is one of the most important things to consider when defining your modern aesthetic. Contemporary wall art is typically incorporated through the use of single oversized art pieces rather than through gallery walls or superfluous wall hangings.
Choose an oversized canvas or a large diptych or triptych to make a dramatic statement without cluttering the space. In modern design less is often more, and one eye-catching centerpiece will be more effective than multiple pieces fighting for attention.
Contemporary Style Inspiration
If you feel like you’ve got a firm grasp on the styles and principles of contemporary design, you might be ready to start making over your own home. Here we’ll share a few of our favorite modern looks and spaces to help you get inspired.
Bright upholstered chairs provide the perfect pop of color in this sleek modern living room. A white coffee table with sharp, clean lines is textbook contemporary, and the monochromatic color scheme is perfectly in line with the style’s stark-but-bold look.
We love the use of color in this contemporary bedroom. The contrast between the moody blue accent wall and the sleek white furniture perfectly embodies the bold simplicity of contemporary design, and the bright pops of yellow only make the space more striking.
OK – we know we advised against gallery walls when talking about wall décor, but this black-and-white living space offers a master class in breaking the rules.
Evenly spaced and equally sized, these framed prints provide the same cohesion and symmetry of a single statement piece, and their adherence to the black-and-white color scheme keeps the gallery wall from looking too eclectic or bohemian.
Now that you’ve seen some of our favorite products and spaces, it’s time to start adding contemporary style to your own home. Browse Hayneedle’s curated idea gallery for more modern inspiration, or shop the site by style to find the perfect piece for your space.