Comparing Modern vs Contemporary architecture or interior design can be either quite simple or quite difficult. Most people don’t know there’s a difference, so the easy way is often the incorrect way — using the terms interchangeably.
In actuality, Modern design began in roughly the 1920s and ran until the 1970s when styles began to change as the Contemporary Age tiptoed onto the scene. Colors may differ, but basic trends still run through design and decorating choices even today. Contemporary design can also encourage and embrace sustainability. The “Go Green” decorating trend is most definitely a Contemporary trend in decorating, working and living.
Both eras use clean lines and open floor plans, straight lines and cool, cream colors that might accent or emphasize in primary shades. Both can utilize an industrial flair as well: Wrought iron, chrome and large glass panes are not rare in either style.
While subtle similarities might cross each design era, for the most part, Modern design and decoration in cabinetry, for example, stresses simplicity in lines and evenness in portion. Unadorned cabinet doors with simplistic handles and hinges are not uncommon. Contemporary kitchen cabinets may incorporate the open concept a step farther with glass doors if there are doors at all on cabinets. The fully open look is a distinct mark of contemporary interior design.
In bedrooms, the same basic concept applies. It’s not unusual to find a flat-surface door covering a closet in a Modern-decorated home. A Contemporary design option might be a sliding or folding door that accordions open along a track. Doorways may be open and uncluttered throughout the home, but light, uncluttered or glass surfaces aren’t uncommon either.
Bath areas display similar but different aspects, depending on which decorating era you prefer as you choose or redecorate your home. Modern decorating in baths can be identified by walk-in showers, clear shower doors or curtains and subway tiles and doorless cabinets and shelves, crossing the line into a Contemporary style and not just strictly of the Modern-era.
While almost every major chain of decorating shop has mass-produced options, features and equipment available, furniture whose recognizable ancestors can be seen in older homes or photos are probably modern homes. For example, having a sofa or occasional chair in a living room is not unusual, but if you see a Tulip chair, that’s a Modern decorating item. A contemporary equivalent might be a hemp-based sling chair instead.