This question has come up time and time again. So I thought I should clarify once and for all. Modern and Contemporary in interior design are not one in the same, as many people might think. Modern design refers to a period of time, it is a design style that was created in the 1920′s – 1950′s. It doesn’t change, it is a defined style, and will remain such for ever. Contemporary design is ever changing. It is of the moment. Contemporary design is a living, breathing entity (ok, not really, no need to be afraid of it).

Let me explain; the term “Modern” in interior design really refers to “Mid Century Modern”. It is recognizable by it’s clean, unadorned interiors. Use of natural materials such as wood, leather, teak and linen are prominent. Molded plywood and plastic is very popular in modern furniture, as well as polished metal. Furniture is very open and raised off the floor allowing for an airy feeling. Walls are often white adding to the expansive feeling. Modern interiors generally have bare floors and if area rugs are used, they are typically wool, and neutral in colour. Hints of colour were used in moderation. We generally refer to modern interiors as retro these days. Here are some examples of Modern Interior Design:


Modern Interior Design

Modern Interior Design



Modern Interior Design

Modern Interior Design



Modern Interior Design

Modern Interior Design


Ok, so what is “Contemporary Design” then? Well contemporary by definition means “existing, occurring, or living at the same time; belonging to the same time.” And that is exactly the same for the use of the term in interior design. Contemporary design refers to what is popular or used right now. Contemporary design can be very eclectic for that reason, because it is ever changing and borrows pieces and styles from all different eras. It doesn’t have to be something that is “designed” right now – for example; furniture and art from the modern era are often used in contemporary design, and tradition mouldings and millwork are incorporated in many cases.

Right now a contemporary home might incorporate large windows, unique or odd shapes, open plan and harmony with the surrounding landscape. The finishes would use a lot of natural elements such as fir or cedar and stone. The finishing details and furniture are in-ornate and use clean lines. Comfort and sustainability are key values that are important in a contemporary home. Around here we tend to refer to it as “West Coast Contemporary”. In twenty years from now, something else will be considered “contemporary”.

I think part of the confusion is that right now, many elements of mid-century modern design are very popular and are being incorporated into contemporary designs.  Here are some examples of Contemporary Interior Design:

Contemporary Interior Design

Contemporary Interior Design


Contemporary Interior Design

Contemporary Interior Design


Contemporary Interior Design

Contemporary Interior Design


I always welcome your comments, questions or feedback. If you don’t see a place to comment, click on “permalink” below then scroll down.


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19 Responses to Modern vs Contemporary – What’s The Difference?

  1. Michaela says:

    so if modern ONLY means midcentury to you, how is the last photo–the one full of midcentmod icons, as well as minimal accessories and and color pallete–considered contemporary? (iconic pieces: eileen grey side table, arclamp, tulip table, eames chairs, lucite coffee table)

  2. Michaela – Good eye. You are right to notice all the modern pieces in this space. But there are just as many contemporary pieces that would not have been found during the 50′s and 60′s (Mainly the upholstered pieces in the back ground, as well as the kitchen cabinets and appliances). Although it is heavy on the modern pieces, it would still ‘technically’ be considered a contemporary room – but I don’t believe design should be so strict, so you could easily call it either!

  3. Jazz says:

    I have often wounded what is the diffrance between the two. Now I know, every Infomational. Thanks!

  4. Tran Thanh says:

    Thanks a lot for your explanation! All seems so clear. However, design usually comes from inspiration so I think these differences may be a foundation for us to access these two styles.

  5. [...] consider mirrors to be the windows you get to customize. Large mirrors are a central theme of modern interior design, but a mirror can be found to suit any home's [...]

  6. tejal kor says:

    thanks for propagating ur knowledge with us….but m still little bit confused…

  7. hilda says:

    thank u so much…..i was getting pretty confused but, i get it now…….thanks again….i guess never too old to learn ……hil, 53 yrs old from cali…….

  8. Lloyd Gonsalves says:

    Thanks so much for clearing my doubts….I’m a student in Interior Designing.

  9. laurie says:

    I love your explanation. simple and straight to the ppoint. thank you!

  10. Leah, thank you for clarifying the difference between the two designs! We just moved to a new house and we decided to go Modern. We purchased most of our furniture at Theodore’s of Georgetown, Washington DC.Interesting enough our friends had asked me the same question the difference between Modern & Contemporary! Can you tell me if Theodores is Modern or Contemporary? I think its Contemporary except my sofa is modern because of the design and fabric I selected which black,charcoal & cream. Thank you

  11. Beautiful interiors, such fine styles and designs, pure elegance.These interiors should be everyone’s favourte.
    first one gets my attention more.

  12. Your article is very useful to me.. thanks for posting this.

  13. Ian says:

    Hi, I’m not an interior designer but I’m always involved in preserving interiors from technical services clutter so it’s interesting what you said because I find so many people talk about modern contemporary designs and its banded around as the catch phase for todays trend! It seems largely used incorrect, which is reminiscent of the late 80-90′s obsession with the word “Designer” tagged to everything. So I just thought it was a trend twist on contemporary! Thanks

  14. MJ says:

    My professor said contemporary doesnt use wood.

  15. Stacey says:

    Thank you for a concise and straightforward explanation, I appreciate your time.

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