Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Modern Design

updated Jul 8, 2020
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Pinpointing the distinctions between Modern, modern (yes, those are two different things), and contemporary decor can be quite tricky. The fact that these terms are often used interchangeably also tends to throw some people for a loop. Think of it this way—what we consider to be modern at the present is somewhat synonymous with contemporary design, while Modern (with a capital “m”) refers to the aesthetic that established the foundation of contemporary style as we know it today.

“When speaking of Modern design, three things come to mind: clean lines, meaningful pieces, and an edited approach,” says designer Mikel Welch. “It’s all about minimalism and refinement—it sticks to the basics yet nothing is basic about it!”

Credit: Joe Fletcher

Modern (with a capital M) style by definition

Modern style plays an important role in how we view design at the present. Think of it as a sort of a “retro” version of the future, like a Corbusier Barcelona chair, explains designer Victoria Sass of Prospect Refuge Studio. In Modernism, you have elements that are extremely tailored and streamlined, thoughtfully placed but never overly symmetrical, and edited down, embodying the idea of “less is more.” Here are the trademark characteristics of Modern style:

  • A palette of natural, earthy tones with contrasting accents that can include primary colors, black, and even lustrous metals
  • An open-layout floor plan that joins multiple spaces into one, promoting an airy ambiance
  • Clean lines, sleek surfaces, and a minimalist aesthetic
  • Intentional decor with functionality at its core—but without compromising style
  • Warm woods, stone, and leather details

Following the declining popularity of traditional design and fresh on the heels of the Art Deco movement, Modern style was born from a need for simplicity. For every ornate fixture and rich patterned textile, Modernity presented a streamlined alternative—a pared-down approach to decor. Taking root at the turn of the 20th century, Modern style was inspired by the serene minimalism of Scandinavian design and the rigid, no-frills sensibility of the movements that followed, instantly becoming an antidote for the excessive and extravagant. 

“Think of the clean, crisp work of the Bauhaus school or some of the futuristic Deco styles of the 1920s,” says Sass. “This was then adopted and adapted in other parts of the world, most significantly Scandinavia, which birthed what most of us know as mid-century modern style, which focused on simple silhouettes, woods, and natural materials.” 

Mondrian’s abstract work in red, blue, and yellow; Eames’s iconic chairs; Le Corbusier’s visionary linear architecture and furnishings; and even the inception of IKEA were all prominent influences that helped shape Modernism. More than half a century later, those very same elements are just as ever-present in our spaces—you’d be hard-pressed to find a home without at least one piece from the iconic Swedish retailer—albeit things have slightly evolved with a contemporary twist.

While the retro label can now be used to describe styles like industrial or even modern farmhouse, at its core, Modern is also retro—and this style has remained the same: refined yet approachable and totally uncluttered. 

Credit: Lula Poggi

Modern vs. contemporary

Think of contemporary design as Modern design’s trendy cousin, and contemporary design is essentially most of what you’re seeing on your Instagram feed or in the pages of a magazine today, says Welch. “It’s confident because it knows it has all the ‘right pieces’, there’s a focus on accessorizing and a neutral palette with occasional highlights of color.” Modern style, on the other hand, will feature functional and simple pieces with darker tones and heavier materials such as leather and wood. Generally speaking, Modern design excludes “popular” accents or any sort of superfluous decor. 

Credit: Ben Sandall

Modern vs. mid-century modern

An offshoot of Modern design, mid-century modernism reigned supreme in the early 1950s. It introduced a

How to get the Modern look

Here’s how to bring the iconic Modern design aesthetic home: