Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Contemporary Design

updated Jun 22, 2020
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There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to contemporary design, and confusing this aesthetic with modern style is common. After all, the two terms are often used interchangeably even though there are some distinctions. For many, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what a contemporary space consists of—in reality, one can have design elements from many different styles, including Hollywood Regency, Scandi, and even boho.

“Contemporary design is forever evolving,” says designer Mikel Welch, and this flux also makes it difficult to define. Ultimately, contemporary design is all about creating an aesthetic that’s currently on trend, something that feels like it belongs here and now. 

Think of it this way: A home that falls under the contemporary umbrella today will be characterized by an entirely different title in 20 to 30 years. In a nutshell, it’s what you view as being “popular” right now. Defining contemporary design means understanding its fluidity and recognizing its versatile nature, which can encompass a variety of eclectic styles. Here, a few designers have helped to break contemporary design down so you can understand it better.  

Credit: Amber Interiors

Contemporary design by definition

Contemporary design can be fairly ambiguous although more often than not, it’s distinguished by a neutral palette. Unlike the sleek lines of modernism, you’ll find more rounded edges and natural elements present with a mix of pieces that look like they’ve been borrowed from other eras—think industrial, retro, and even bohemian in style. Decorist designer Natalie Tiller boils the style down to these hallmark characteristics: 

  • Reserved color schemes and muted tones such as beige, white, gray, and soft blues
  • Furniture with clean lines or rounded edges and a strong, sound build
  • Mostly solid textiles and fabrics with an emphasis on texture
  • Oversized wall art that mirrors the tonal components of the room
  • Polished lighting where the hardware is made from lighter metals such as brass, iron, or chrome 
  • Fewer but more impactful decorative accessories that result in a collected, curated look
  • Minimal use of pattern, typically reserved for rugs, furniture, or an accent pillow
Credit: Sylvie Li

A brief look back

Unlike many of its design style counterparts, contemporary design is constantly evolving. This style channels what we perceive to be of-the-moment—an aesthetic that’s now “cool” and “trendy”. To fully grasp this concept, think back to preceding decades and hone in on what felt fashionable back then. In the 1920s, it was the Art Deco movement, the ‘50s were all about mid-century modern, closely followed by the post-modernism of the ‘60s, and so on and so forth. As each decade had its own distinct style, contemporary design remained a mainstay, borrowing fragments from what proceeded it, growing, and eventually adapting to the next period. 

“Today’s definition of contemporary design could be seen in the bohemian design style,” says designer Ariene C. Bethea. While the true boho aesthetic originated in the 1970s, it’s been made popular again by designers like Justina Blakeney. Scandinavian design is yet another common form of contemporary style. These days, this iconic look can incorporate vintage materials or mid-century modern furniture—there’s also room for tongue-in-cheek riffs on Scandi style like OFF-WHITE designer Virgil Abloh’s collaboration with IKEA.   

For that reason, it’s tricky to put a label on contemporary design or identify an exact point where it peaks in popularity. In a way, contemporary design is perpetually fashionable. It not only reflects what is presently deemed “in style,” but it looks to the future (and can channel the past) as well. Embracing a contemporary aesthetic means being adaptable and susceptible to constant, gradual changes and shifts. 

Modern vs. Contemporary 

“When speaking of modern design, three things come to mind,” notes Welch. “Clean lines, meaningful pieces, and an edited approach—it’s all about minimalism and refinement.” In contrast, contemporary design is a bit more all-encompassing. It borrows elements from a variety of aesthetics, resulting in a scheme that feels fresh yet distinct, one that makes it difficult to pinpoint it to one specific era or another. Whereas modern design is typically devoid of textures, you can be sure to find plenty of tactility in contemporary design—think lush, patterned rugs, a live-edge coffee table, or even a sculptural display of branches that double as art. 

“Modern design actually refers to early to mid-20th century, while contemporary is more current,” explains designer Renee DiSanto, co-founder of Park & Oak Interior Design. “It’s basically the opposite of what you would assume based on the name.” 

Credit: Ulrika

Minimalism vs. Contemporary

Think of minimalism as a current subcategory of contemporary style. Made popular in recent years under the influence of Scandinavian design, its hallmark traits feature muted tones, streamlined surfaces, and unfussy decor. In a contemporary setting, you’ll find the addition of natural accents, such as a rattan chair or a brass side table, and industrial elements such as an iron chandelier or a Moroccan rug. 

Credit: Sylvie Li

Bringing contemporary style home

Ready to embrace this ever-changing aesthetic? Here are a few simple ways to incorporate contemporary design into your home:

  • Limit your palette to a handful of hues and avoid vibrant color juxtapositions
  • Paint your walls in a soothing shade of beige or in a timeless gray. This will allow you to layer in accents that offer a splash of contrast such as a wrought iron chandelier or a blue velvet sofa
  • Bethea suggests bringing in rattan and wicker in the form of baskets, pendant lighting, and natural woven areas rugs
  • Potted plants such as a fiddle leaf fig tree or a rubber plant are prime examples of contemporary plants
  • Introduce a reflective detail by way of a lucite coffee table, a glossy lacquer tray, or bookcases with glass doors

In sum, “contemporary design gives you the essence of now,” says Welch. “Similar to the feeling you get when you walk into a new, swanky hotel lobby or restaurant, and they have all the pieces that you’ve seen on Pinterest or Instagram.” Seeing these neutral, textural elements within the comforts of your own home is pretty hard to rival, and that’s what makes contemporary style so soothing and appealing.