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What is the difference between modern and contemporary decor style?

Contemporary and Modern Collage

WordsMegan Lambert

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They mean the same thing, right? Colloquially, yes. But when it comes to decor terms, no. In the interior design dictionary, the two refer to distinct styles from different periods. So, if you’re wondering what modern decor style is and how it differs from contemporary decor style, we’re taking a closer look at two of our favourite design trends.

Differences between modern and contemporary decor

Not only are their names a little confusing, but modern and contemporary decor share similar influences and several key characteristics. From the importance of natural light to the liberal use of industrial-style materials, as well as a neutral colour palette and minimalist, clutter-free living. That's why we're going to be focusing on their differences, so you can tell your modern from your contemporary decor, once and for all.

Difference between modern and contemporary decor: age

Modern decor refers to a specific period in the late 19th century to mid 20th century. Influenced by the German Bauhaus school of design, it followed this simple mantra: "form follows function". On the other hand, contemporary decor refers to what is going on in the decor world right now. Though influenced by modern decor, it's more difficult to pin down as its style continues to evolve with contemporary tastes. However, there is a focus on technological advances and practicality, along with eco-friendly materials and living.

Difference between modern and contemporary decor: colour palette

Whilst both contemporary and modern decor are better suited to neutral colour palettes, the modern decor trend errs on the side of being a little more earthy and industrial, leaning towards the greys and beiges of Palette 04: Timeless neutrals by Kelly Hoppen CBE. 

Whereas contemporary decor can be a bit more playful, experimenting with gentle pinks, warm greiges or even the light blue hues of the new neutrals. You could even use wallpaper in a contemporary decor home.

Take a look at our guide on how to style the new neutrals in your home or how to style Palette 04: Timeless neutrals by Kelly Hoppen CBE to get the look.

Difference between modern and contemporary decor: material focus

The modern decor trend was quick to adopt new post-war materials like acrylic, chrome, sheet glass, and concrete. Both modern and contemporary decor apply liberal use of all of these. However, contemporary decor utilises new, more eco-friendly materials in keeping with the current times. You might find pieces made from recycled plastics or more environmentally friendly bamboo, cork or clay.

Contemporary Living Room
CONTEMPORARY EMBRACES MORE ECO-FRIENDLY MATERIALS, SEEN HERE IN KELLY WEARSTLER'S HOME

Difference between modern and contemporary decor: architectural

Modern decor is all about straight lines, be they horizontal or vertical. This is no more apparent than in modern architecture. London's Trellick Tower, with its long axis, is a perfect example of this. On the other hand, contemporary decor tends to be more fluid and curved, like Hyde Park's Serpentine Gallery in London. These architectural styles trickle down into our decor, and whether through organically shaped furniture or fixtures, they can be incorporated into your home.

Green modern sofa
CLEAN, SHARP LINES DEFINE THE ARCHITECTURE OF MODERN FURNITURE VIA UNSPLASH
Contemporary Living room
WHEREAS CONTEMPORARY DECOR EMBRACES MORE CURVED, FLUID FORMS. VIA KARYN MILLET PHOTOGRAPHY

Difference between modern and contemporary decor: art

The modern decor trend was hugely influenced by the art of its time. Painter's like Piet Mondrian, known for his considered and linear work featuring splashes of block colour—a key characteristic of modern decor. In these logic-driven spaces, a modern decor home might feature one oversized piece of artwork to define the space. In comparison, contemporary decor is more focused on expressing your unique style through your art choices. 

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