The Meaning of Modern

NPR's All Things Considered

Guilty as charged. I've mixed and misused the term "modern" as much as the next guy in my posts on Apartment Therapy. I couldn't help but feel a little bit sheepish as I listened last week to NPR's All Things Considered...

"Modern and contemporary can — and do — mean the same thing, of course. But in the world of art and design, "modern" means Kandinsky or Picasso, Schoenberg or Stravinsky. It means daring experimental writers such as Ezra Pound or Gertrude Stein. It means Frank Lloyd Wright sweeping out the overstuffed and fusty in favor of long, clean lines."

Reality TV's Thoroughly 'Modern' Mistakes takes a look at reality design shows like Project Runway and their runaway use of the term "modern" when what is meant is "contemporary". During the piece, NPR speaks with modernism expert Douglas Mao, chair of the English department of Johns Hopkins University:

"Mao says he cringes a little bit when he hears the word tossed around by lazy designers. He's an avid fan of Project Runway, and he's noticed that the judges tend to use "modern" and "contemporary" interchangeably. Which is not necessarily wrong, he's quick to say — just surprising when it comes from people who've presumably studied the history of art and design."

The radio feature served as a reminder to choose words carefully. "Modern" used on Apartment Therapy or in other discussion about design will bring along with it specific connotations. Moving forward, I will be careful to use "modern" appropriately, and elsewhere use "contemporary", "new" or some such other term. What other terms do you suggest for describing contemporary design?

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Regina is an architect who lives with her husband and son in Lawrence, KS. As a LEED Accredited Professional and longtime contributor to Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn, her focus is on healthy, sustainable living through design.

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