Modern or Contemporary

What do home buyers mean when they talk about modern or contemporary design? We asked interior designers what those terms suggested to them, and while most agreed that contemporary means "now," the definitions of modern were all over the map. Answers included images of modernist architecture - clean lines, bold geometrics and a lack of clutter. But, responses also included home theaters and the newest appliances. A few designers told us that contemporary and modern are the same thing. With such varying notions among design pros, buyer confusion is easy to understand.

modernist architecture, clean lines, bold geometrics and a lack of clutter

Sami Martinez, an interior designer who spent 15 years as a design-center consultant for production builders, says designers, under time pressure from builders, sometimes skip the probing questions needed to flesh out what clients really want. For example, the word "contemporary" could lead a designer to automatically show clients a European contemporary kitchen suite. "A lot of designers would present the products they thought the clients would like, and the clients would walk out the door," she says.

Those kinds of snap judgments won't fly in today's market. Instead, Martinez says that it's important to probe what clients mean by different design terms, and to use those definitions to suggest creative solutions to meet their needs. One problem that designers face is that although modernism is an architectural movement and not a style, clients may associate that movement with the word "modern."

Explain to the client the difference between modern and contemporary design
The hallmarks of modern design are stark detailing and open floor plans with lots of glass. Architects say that the look results from designers' emphasis on function. "Modern isn't a style. It's a way of thinking," says architect Bryan Russell, a partner in Atlanta-based Dencity Design. He says that modernist designers seek creative solutions for design problems. By contrast, contemporary is just a style and differs from traditional only in looks, he says. A good illustration of this is the traditional Cape Cod house: a simple box with symmetrical windows topped by a gable roof. A contemporary house might replace the gable with a shed roof, or with a flat roof surrounded by a parapet, and lose some of the detailing. But, because it's basically a distilled version of the traditional home, major elements and proportions remain. Inside, the design will call for the same materials as a traditional, but with less trim and molding.
modern design are stark detailing and open floor plans with lots of glass

The modern home might be radically different: a box cantilevered over the top of another box with large corner windows, for example. That's because the designer is more concerned with views to the outside than with composition. "Modern thinking is based on asking questions about how to solve problems and not necessarily following the tried and true," says Russell.

Of course, the clean lines and unique spaces that result from modern thinking are becoming more popular, especially among younger buyers. "Mid-century modern is one of the hottest styles these days," says Los Angeles interior designer and former HGTV host Michael Payne. "Many people in their 30s or early 40s don't want traditional interiors." And while he describes this as a largely high-end phenomenon, he also sees it filtering into the mainstream as younger people begin to dominate the housing market.

clean lines and unique spaces are a hallmark of modern design
Indeed, modernist principles of open-space planning are already a staple of American homes. Other modern ideas are likely to make their way into contemporary homes via a burgeoning green consciousness among buyers. That's because these buyers naturally warm to homes that have a strong connection to nature. "People like open space, lots of light and a connection to nature," says Russell, adding that modernist designers have always sought to merge inside and outside with views onto planted settings, rooftop terraces, patios and balconies. Today, the desire for this connection is behind the growing popularity of large-span patio door systems, such as those made by Nana Walls, which can create a free wall opening up to 24 feet wide. During warm weather these door systems let the living room blend into the patio.
Modern homes are becoming green. Lots of space, access to light, and a connection to nature.

"There is much sentimentality in terms of housing. People have sentimental connections to where they live." Russell says that designers who understand the difference between modern and contemporary have a much better shot at identifying what will and won't work for their clients.