What is the Difference Between Modern and Contemporary Furniture?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2019
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Modern and contemporary furniture, although often very similar, are not necessarily the same thing. The word modern, in this context, refers to a school of design -- modernism -- as opposed to the time frame in which the furniture was designed or built. Contemporary, on the other hand, refers to a different set of aesthetics, although like modern furniture it also incorporates clean lines and a lack of clutter. Modern and contemporary furniture are both very popular styles right now, and a great deal of what can be seen in high-end boutiques fits into one of these similar schools.

Contemporary furniture can also refer simply to a set of furniture which all fits in the same time frame, no matter what that time frame might be. For example, a dining room set in which all of the pieces were from the 1970s might be described as 1970s contemporary, to indicate that the pieces were all meant to go together when they were made. The term can also simply mean furniture done in the style of the day, whenever the term is used. These different uses of a single word can be a bit confusing, but usually just by looking at the style of the furniture, it becomes clear what sense of the word is being used.


Furniture styled in the contemporary look generally shares a few common characteristics. For example, it usually incorporates very modern materials in its design, with lots of chrome, metal, and glass. Sharp edges and angles abound in the style, with lines that are a bit asymmetrical to draw more attention to the overall composition. The texture of contemporary furniture tends to be quite smooth, with little to no decorative elements or carving.

There are a number of different contemporary styles, depending on where in the world it originates. For example, Japanese contemporary is a very popular style right now, incorporating the straight lines, low surfaces, and simple design aesthetic of Japanese furniture. American contemporary and European contemporary are two other popular styles, each with their own distinctive lines and look.

As mentioned, modern and contemporary furniture share many stylistic similarities, among them uses of materials and an emphasis on line. Modern furniture often incorporates a great deal of materials like plastics, and even molded plywood, as well. The early emphasis of modernism was on function, and over time it became seen as a merging of modern art concepts with those of furniture design.

Like contemporary furniture, modern furniture drew a great deal from emergent furniture markets, especially those of Africa and Japan. The look of Japanese furniture especially was striking in its impact on Western furniture when it first came over in bulk at the end of the 19th century. One of the most famous examples of modern furniture, in fact, the Noguchi coffee table, was created by a Japanese-American, Isamu Noguchi.

Perhaps no single school impacted both modern and contemporary furniture design as much as the Bauhaus school, in Germany. Especially during the 1920s, many of the great furniture designers worked there, revolutionizing the face of modern furniture. The Werkbund, as well, also in Germany, produced some amazing modern furniture.


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Post 3

@ parmnparsley- I once had a holiday dinner at a contemporary home in Santa Monica that made me drool. You enter the home by walking through a bamboo path that hides the house form the pool (technically the back entrance, but the most used entrance). The first thing you see is a piano in front of a wall made of paper disc spires. On the other side of the paper wall were a couple of modern contemporary chairs made of pressed and formed wood around a unique contemporary coffee table. The coffee table was the centerpiece of the room and it was made of a huge piece of burl that stuck out above and below the table. On the walls

were Sam Francis (abstract expressionist) pieces from the 60s and 70s (blue period and geometric lattices) that completely went with the décor.

The dining room was very modern minimalist. The dining table was big enough to seat ten or more people easily, and was blue plate glass supported atop two huge coral arches. The room had two walls on one side with a pale blue Shingo Francis piece hanging dead center. The other two walls were floor to ceiling glass that looked out into a tropical inspired garden and small koi stream. It was a perfect mix of organic contemporary décor.

Post 2

@ Alchemy- I have seen houses furnished with Japanese and European contemporary furniture that were amazing. It all depends on the space that you have to work with, and making sure that the furniture fits with the room.

For example, my grandfather had a beautiful modern contemporary home in Pacific Palisades before he passed that was outfitted with contemporary furniture. The furnishings were not the minimalist modern contemporary styles so popular in the 90's. The pieces were less angular and had a slight curvature. Many of the pieces included wood structures with curved lines, but sharp edges similar to the Naguchi table design.

Post 1

I never really knew there was a difference between contemporary and modern furniture. After reading this article however, I feel enlightened. I am just starting to buy real furniture for my condominium and this has been very helpful in helping me decide what I want to get, and purchasing pieces that work together. I think I am more of a modern furniture fan. The contemporary stuff seems like it is more of a funky furniture design. I like clean lines, low profiles, and practical features. Pieces that incorporate hidden storage into the design are more my style.

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