Contemporary Design vs. Mid-Century Modern: What’s the Difference?

If you’re not necessarily invested in the world of interior design, you might have some trouble keeping track of all the different terms for different styles and aesthetics. Industrial, rustic, Feng Shui, modern, contemporary, mid-century - sometimes they sound the same, and sometimes they just don’t make any sense. In fact, many professional designers still have a lot to learn about all the different kinds of design styles that exist, especially because even if they have different names, they can often incorporate some of the same thematic ideas.

Speaking of things that are similar, some words are very similar but carry extremely different meanings - namely, “modern” and “contemporary,” which in regular colloquial spoken language are often used interchangeably. So if you’re looking to learn the difference between contemporary furniture and mid-century modern furniture, keep on reading - and if you want to learn what all those other words are, you’ll have do a bit more digging somewhere else.

All About Contemporary Design

The word “contemporary” refers to design that came about in recent years - say, after the turn of the century, and probably even more recent. “Contemporary” and “modern” have a very similar meaning, and it gets even more complicated when you consider that as time goes on, almost every different time period will have been, at some point, the newest and most modern/contemporary in history, until it is surpassed by something else! Those are the key concepts of contemporary design - it is something that can’t be pinned down by just one definition.

Contemporary design comes in lots of variations, often inspired by European-type designs, and by nature it refers to the things that are popular and used commonly at the present time. Since contemporary design is always changing, it can be hard to describe it in terms of one set aesthetic, unlike (spoiler alert!) modern design, which operates under a more fixed set of rules. It’s true that contemporary design has some of the same qualities as minimalism, modernism, and other extremely popular design styles, but it is prone to change and adaptability.

For example, a contemporary home probably has an open floor plan with large windows and funky geometric shapes. The materials of contemporary furniture include marble, cedar, and different types of stone. Some key concepts of contemporary design include sustainability, comfort, and clean lines. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every piece of furniture is brand-new or hand-crafted, but arranged in a way that is spacious, bright, clean, and welcoming.

All About Mid-Century Modern Design

If “contemporary” means loosely “as recent as possible,” it’s important to understand that “modern” and “mid-century” are used to describe the same time period. “Mid-century modern” refers to the middle of the 20th century, where people started shifting from the heavy, art-deco, even industrial-style furniture that they were using after the war to a more minimalistic, retro design. In fact, many people even use the word “retro” to refer to this time period and its accompanying design style.

The early to mid-twentieth century was a great time of artistic development - you might have heard of the “modernist” art movement, which originated in Scandinavia and Germany. This style focuses on function and clean, simple forms rather than elaborate adornment. Some of the popular materials that are used in modern decor include polished metal, molded plywood, glossy plastics, wood, and linens. Most of the furniture is open and spacious, raised off of the floor to allow for an airy vibe. Bare floors, often with a neutral-colored area rug, are common. Small hints of colors are used, with occasional fun geometric patterns. Most of all, modern design focuses on using natural light and careful furniture arrangements to feel open and spacious.

We hope you enjoyed learning this quick art history lesson about two often-confused design aesthetics. While both of them tend to favor uncluttered, minimalistic spaces with lots of natural lighting and open spaces, it’s important to understand that the differences between them are very nuanced. This is a common theme amongst all different design aesthetics and styles: while some are complete opposites, they really are just different combinations of the same types of underlying tones and styles. No matter what you prefer, have fun designing - and keep your eyes open for the newest design trends yet!