Modern vs Contemporary design

Modern vs. Contemporary Design - What's The Real Difference

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When is something “modern” actually rather old?

And when is “contemporary” not considered modern?

The answer: When you are using those terms in the world of art and fashion, design and architecture.


Art and fashion design

Today, we’re going to investigate those differences, explore the unique qualities of both, and show you examples in side-by-side comparisons. Our goal is to clear up any confusion and help you decide which of the two styles is best for your home. 

Let’s begin with a look at exactly what makes modern design what it is.

Modern Design

While the high point for the modern style design era was the 1920s through the 1970s, its roots go back about 40 years earlier, to the rise of Modernist thinking in the late 1800s. 

Its branches extend to the early 1990s, with the postmodernist movement in design. 

Modernists hoped to reform all aspects of life by rooting out anything holding back the “inevitable progress of society.”

It was a reaction to the ever-increasing technology of the Industrial Revolution, growing urbanization, and eventually, the horrors of World War I.

That’s why modern styles favor simplicity, with clean lines and an emphasis on function over form. The Victorian era favored overly ornate pieces, dark hues, and design often more focused on looks than purpose. 

The defining aspects of modern design style are: 

  • Neutral color palette - beiges, grays, earth tones, and whites
  • Mixed textures - velvets, smooth linens, nubby chenille, reflective surfaces, rough-hewn wood 
  • Many natural materials - unstained, unpainted, simply polished woods, natural fabrics 
  • Natural light - large windows with sheer or no coverings
  • Clean lines, often vertical and horizontal straight lines with few curves
  • A warm, earthy ambiance
  • Emphasis on functionality - decorative pieces for practical use

These three modern dining rooms show many of these popular elements to perfection:

modern style dining furniture pieces, with natural materials, exposed wood, and structural beams, neutral tones

Buy the Harris Dining Chair today.

Get your own modern Church 4 Arm Pendant Lighting fixture from our Scandinavian collection

What is the Difference Between Modern and Contemporary Design?

Modern design refers to a specific period of the 20th century. 

Contemporary design, however, is what’s happening now. It’s the current trends of the design and architectural world. 

Contemporary style is typically a mashup of different design styles. Modern and contemporary spaces can have elements in common, but contemporary design is not the same as modern design. It’s the here and now, not the mid-twentieth century.

And while contemporary style is constantly changing, there are some perennial elements to contemporary spaces. 

  • Neutral tones with accents of bright, bold colors - cool greys, bright whites, and black, with pops of intense reds, blues, or oranges
  • Sleek metals, glass, concrete, and other “industrial” materials  
  • Natural materials - jute, hemp, cotton, stone
  • Cutting-edge shapes - geometrics, curves
  • A “less-is-more”, dramatic feel
  • Purely ornamental decor pieces, while functional pieces often incorporate artistic touches

The current contemporary design style borrows a few elements from the modern style, such as:

  • Natural light
  • Functionality
  • Clean lines, even though curves are more prevalent
  • Uncluttered, open spaces, with a minimalist feel

Here we have two rooms, side by side. On the left is a mid-century modern room, and on the right, a contemporary style space:

Alt: blue and tan mid-century modern chair next to a clear table with books and a lamp on it Alt: terra cotta chair next to a stone and acrylic table with a mug and bowl on it

You can find the blue and tan chair in our mid-century modern collection. 

Or, if you prefer, the contemporary chair is a part of our coastal contemporary furniture collection. 

When to Use Modern vs. Contemporary

The following table can help you decide which style is right for your home.

Contemporary and modern design

Modern vs. Contemporary Interior Design

The main difference in modern vs. contemporary design is that modern design has that homier, warmer “suburban” feel, while contemporary is flashier, sleeker, and has a more “uptown” vibe to it.


We think the best way to come to a true modern vs. contemporary definition for yourself is to show you the two styles in action. To really nail down the difference in interior design, as it were. 

To that end, we’ll explore both modern spaces and examples of contemporary design in side-by-side comparisons, starting with the kitchen.  

Contemporary vs. Modern Kitchen Design

Contemporary vs. Modern Kitchen Design

On the right, the natural tones and clean lines of a modern kitchen. On the left, the sleek metal, darker tones, and contrasting hues of a contemporary kitchen. Both are sleek and chic but have definite differences in wood tones and the use of metals. 

In the modern kitchen, the shiny metal is simply an accent on the stool legs. The contemporary designer, however, has made it a feature — the stool, the appliances, the wrap around the island. 

Meanwhile, the wood’s natural beauty shines through in the modern island, while the dark red and black stains of the contemporary design add both contrasts in color and the treatment of the wood. 

Modern vs. Contemporary Design Style Living Room

Contemporary vs. Modern Living Rooom Design

The modern design living room on the right and the contemporary room on the left both have large windows and use natural floor coverings. The similarities, however, end there. 

The modern room’s wooden window frames contrast sharply with the contemporary’s steel. And the warm blue of the modern sofa softens the room’s appeal, while the dark grey contemporary sectional adds to the room’s dramatic effect. 

Shop for the sectional in our contemporary collection.

Modern vs. Contemporary Style Bedroom

Modern vs. Contemporary Style Bedroom
These two rooms perfectly answer the question: “Mid-century modern vs. contemporary: What are the differences?”

On the right, the clean, natural tones of a mid-century modern space. On the left, the more eclectic, curvier, darker ambiance of contemporary styles.

You can have that mid-century modern bed from our collection now. 

Modern vs. Contemporary Exterior Home Design

Modern vs. contemporary design style doesn’t just include the inside of the home. It extends to the exterior and overall architecture, as well. 

Here are two photos,  from the modern “House of Tomorrow”, built in the 1950s. The other is a contemporary house in the Pacific Northwest, built in the 21st century.

Modern vs. Contemporary Exterior Home Design

Note the use of natural stone and wood in the modern home, while the contemporary house has an exposed steel patio, glass and metal balcony, and fewer organic lines.

Shop our outdoor collection to bring both modern and contemporary looks to your outdoors. 

Contemporary vs. Modern Furniture

We hope by now you’ve discovered the differences in, and the beauty of, both modern and contemporary design. 

Buttercup HD is your best place to find just the “right” items when your tastes run to mid-century modern style. 

Contemporary interior design fans will find their “perfect” items, too.

That’s because we know and love our furniture. We carry some of the best lines, like Timothy Oulton and Interlude. We also travel the world, haggling rug prices over tea while building relationships with designers from Australia to Morocco.

hd buttercup modern and contemporary furniture

Now, It’s Your Turn

We’ve shown you clear differences between modern and contemporary styles for both inside and outside your home. 

We’ve also shown you some of the great products available in our collections to help you achieve one, the other, or both, styles for your home. 

So whether you’ve decided to let everything old be new again, or to try your hand at something completely different, you’re covered with HD Buttercup.

Here’s to the future of good taste.