In conversation, modern and contemporary are often used interchangeably to describe a single style of interior design. In reality, modern and contemporary are two distinct styles. If you’re working with a designer or architect to add modern or contemporary decor to your home, understanding the key differences between these styles is essential to communicating your design vision precisely and accurately.

Modern design is recognized for its use of industrial materials, bold primary colors, minimalist space planning, geometric forms, and simplicity of use. Contemporary design is characterized by neutral and organic colors, sleek lines, and organic silhouettes. But these aesthetic differences are just the tip of the iceberg–the key division between modern and contemporary decor stems from the history of these two interior design styles.

The Rise of Modern and Contemporary Styles

Today’s modern interior design is often stereotyped as looking futuristic, but in reality the style first emerged in the early 20th century. A combination of industrialized production techniques and new design philosophies drove interior design towards the modernist movement.

Industrialization enabled mass production and meant materials could be used in new ways. Concrete, steel, and glass rose in popularity for both buildings and furniture as modern architects began embracing these new industrial production techniques. These materials were often left exposed as part of the final design to emphasize the structure’s modernity.

In addition to industrialization, the spread of modern design philosophies, such as Bauhaus, led to a shift in how buildings, furniture, and decor were styled. Bauhaus and similar schools taught the importance of simplicity in form and function. This type of thinking had a profound impact on the development of modern style in interior design and architecture. It was now possible for manufacturers to produce furniture that could reach more of the general public. As a result, modern interior design became widespread and remains popular to this day.

On the other hand, contemporary design does not overlap with modern design. Contemporary design has only been around for the last several decades and does not coincide with any greater cultural or philosophical movement. Instead, this style is an aesthetic approach to interior design that seeks to create clean, minimalist, and organic spaces. Contemporary design has gained popularity through the use of organize and eco-friendly materials, like natural wood or linen.

Contrast in Modern and Contemporary Decor


Finding an acrylic side table or molded plastic chair in an interior design is a clear signal that a space is done in modern style. Man-made materials such as acrylic, molded plastic, and bent plywood are characteristic of modern furniture. The Eames Shell Chair is one famous example of molded plastic in modern furniture design.

On the other end of the spectrum, a room decorated with natural wood, wool, linens, and silks indicate a more contemporary style. Most of the materials used in contemporary furniture and decor are natural, organic, and eco-friendly.

●     Acrylic

●     Molded Plastic

●     Bent Plywood

●     Concrete

●     Steel

●     Glass

●     Natural Wood

●     Natural Wool

●     Linen

●     Silk

●     Natural Stone


Color marks another division in modern and contemporary styles. Since modern furniture and decor is often produced with man-made materials, the pieces come in a broad variety of unnatural colors. For this reason, modernist interior design makes use of bold accent colors against predominantly neutral backgrounds. If a space is decorated with primary colors, it’s most likely modern interior design.

Contemporary style interior design typically works with organic color palettes, using the bold contrasting combination of black and white as a disrupting accent. Contemporary interior design can be colorful but most often uses muted colors.


Since modern design follows a philosophy of simplicity, geometric forms are the norm. Sharply cubic chairs or perfectly spherical ottomans are dead giveaways that a space is decorated in modern style.

Contemporary furniture and decor is typically more organic in shape. It uses swooping curves, rounded edges, and irregular shapes in furniture and decor.


Above all other factors, you can tell the difference between modern and contemporary interior decor based on how they make you feel. Modern decor presents a more rigid, geometric, function-first attitude while contemporary decor seems to exude a sense of organic earthiness.

At a glance, modern and contemporary decor can look similar and even be difficult to distinguish from each other. But once you know the background of each style and their defining characteristics, it’s clear that they are each unique. If you’re looking to create a modern or contemporary look for your home, working with a knowledgeable design professional can ensure that you get the style and results you envision!