Modern and contemporary design styles are nothing new and are kind of just always in style. Although they are often used interchangeably…

Modern and contemporary are NOT the same thing. 

Yes they share a lot of similarities. Yes they both have a short history. But each has its own vibe and distinct characteristics that make them unique in their style. 

Hence, modern vs contemporary.  

Modern Interior Design   

Modern design kicked off in the mid-20th century and was influenced by the idea of making space more clean and crisp. Stripping down to the basics with a minimalist “less is more” approach and getting rid of anything unnecessary.

modern living room

Key features of this style include:

Clean Lines 

Modern design is famous for its sleek, straight lines and simple uncluttered spaces. Furniture has sharp, defined edges and rooms are free of knick-knacks. The goal is to create a space that flows to allow the architecture and core elements to stand out without distraction.

Functionality & Simplicity

In a modern space, every piece of furniture and decor has a purpose. There’s no room for excess or overly decorative items. With less ‘stuff’ comes less need for storage, allowing furniture to be more streamlined.

Edgy Materials

Modern design incorporates stark raw elements like steel, concrete, leather, and stone complimenting the clean lines with cool tones. Often, these materials are left in their natural state or minimally treated to highlight their organic beauty. Other times they are buffed for a glossy high-contrast aesthetic.

Black & White & Red All Over 

Does anyone remember that joke? What is black and white and ‘red’ all over? The answer was always either a sunburned zebra or a newspaper. Har. Har. Har.

modern bedroom

Modern design loves its blacks, whites, and silvers to create environments that feel crisp and futuristic. But modern spaces aren’t afraid to add a punch of colour either. Some modern aesthetics will throw in a bold primary accent colour, like a bright red pillow or a vivid blue piece of art, to add interest without overwhelming the simplicity of the design.

Open Floor Plans

Modern design favours open, flowing spaces where rooms seamlessly connect. This layout promotes a sense of spaciousness and allows for better movement and interaction within the home to create larger, multifunctional spaces.

Low, Horizontal Furnishings

Furniture in modern design tends to be low to the ground and emphasizes horizontal lines. This creates a grounded, stable feel and enhances the sense of openness. Features like low-slung leather sofas, wide metal coffee tables, and long, sleek glossy white credenzas that extend the eye horizontally across the room.

Wondering how eclectic and maximalist design styles are different? Learn more.

Contemporary Interior Design 

Gaining popularity in the 1970s, contemporary design more or less focuses on the here and now and is always adapting to the latest trends and ideas. Unlike modern design, which is rooted in a specific time, contemporary design is fluid and ever-changing to reflect what’s hot right now. 

Key characteristics of contemporary design include:

contemporary living room

Open Spaces

Contemporary design also loves airy spaces with features like large, open floor plans where rooms flow into each other. This approach maximizes space and light for a bright and welcoming environment.


While not as strict as modern design, contemporary style embraces minimalism as well. It focuses on clean, uncluttered spaces for a sleek and sophisticated look that feels effortless.

Quality Craftsmanship

Contemporary design values high-quality craftsmanship. From custom-built pieces of furniture to well-made luxury fixtures, the emphasis is on durability and fine details that stand out. Because the ‘contemporary’ is meant to grow with us, longevity and neutrality are key.

contemporary kitchen

Neutral Colours & Earth Tones

The colour palette in contemporary design tends to be neutral, with lots of blacks, pure whites, beiges, and greys, but it also incorporates earth tones like rust, ochre, or deep greens to add warmth and interest depending on the current trends. It is the foundation that the eras can build off.

Crisp Lines with Curvature

Contemporary spaces feature curved and smooth lines, giving the space a softer, more fluid feel. Simple geometric shapes and flowing forms create a balanced and harmonious look.

Modern & Contemporary Comparison 

Modern and contemporary styles are often considered the same. Though seemingly subtle to those not in the know, their differences are distinct.

Let’s break down the key similarities and differences between modern vs contemporary:

Interior of bright bedroom with beautiful iris flowers on bedside bench


  • Both modern and contemporary styles favour minimalism. They prioritize clean, uncluttered spaces that focus on functionality and simplicity.
  • Neither style goes for overly decorative elements. The emphasis is on subtle sophistication.
  • Both use neutral colours as their foundation.


  • Modern design is all about functionality. Every piece serves a purpose and contributes to a practical, efficient space. Contemporary design places a higher value on form and aesthetics. It’s more willing to experiment with shapes, textures, and materials to create visually striking spaces.
  • Modern design is rooted in mid-century principles, mainly sticking to the design ideals of the mid-1900s. Contemporary design is constantly evolving with current trends. It’s a living, breathing style that adapts to what’s new and exciting in the design world. 
  • Though both styles are neutral in their colour scheme, modern design often accents with bold primary colours, whereas contemporary stick to more muted earth tones.
contemporary dining room

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To wrap up, modern vs contemporary, while often confused, have distinct characteristics that set them apart. Modern design sticks to its roots in mid-century principles, emphasizing functionality and strict minimalism. In contrast, contemporary design is more fluid, changing with the times to embrace new trends and flexible forms.

As you explore these styles, don’t be afraid to mix and match to find what truly resonates with you. 

After all, that’s what design is all about! 

If you’re ready to transform your space and need some expert advice, reach out to Unshelf today.