When shopping for furniture, you may see the words “modern” and “contemporary” used interchangeably or both at once to describe the style of a piece you’re looking at. But when it’s modern vs. contemporary design, what’s the difference?
According to Oxford Languages, one of the meanings of the word “contemporary” is “belonging to or occurring in the present.” In design, that’s the best way to think of what contemporary design is—it’s what’s happening in design right now.
Trends in design can move quickly. When speaking of contemporary design, it may not be possible to pin it down to a certain color palette or form in clothing, art, or furniture. But if you are looking at a piece that came into being very recently and clearly does not refer to a bygone era in its design, you are probably seeing a contemporary piece.
For designers, “modern” has a much more specific meaning and identification than “contemporary.” In design, modern usually refers to a very specific period of the 20th century, extending from just after WWII through the 1960s. This period has an even more specific name: “Mid-century modern.”
In furniture, think George Jetson, or the look of Mad Men’s Don Draper’s New York living room. The forms are unfussy, functional, and clean. Legs on tables or chairs tend to simply express one shape—either round or square. Some supports are formed as pillars, or several legs radiate from a central support, like the points of a star.
In some design circles, modern design may also include other sub-genres, such as designs that clearly express the art deco or art nouveau periods of the earlier decades of the 20th century.
Modern Contemporary or Contemporary Modern
Adding to the confusion, modern and contemporary are sometimes used in tandem to describe a piece of furniture or home décor. This simply means that the piece was created in the present to echo the design ethos of the past in a clearly recognizable way. A modern contemporary lounge chair is a new piece of furniture that pays homage to the modern style, whereas a modern chair designed and built in the ’50s or ’60s may be considered a valuable antique.
There’s a real answer to explain the difference between modern and contemporary design, but ultimately, design comes down to a matter of taste and personal style. Browse our collections and select the pieces that speak to your design sensibility.