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Contemporary wood-covered building.

Contemporary Or Modern? Which One Is Your Architecture Style

Rachel Burris8-Minute Read
September 25, 2020

Understanding the differences between architecture styles can be a huge advantage whether you’re trying to find that perfect new home or impress the guests of your next cocktail party. While certain home styles are immediately detectable – like the colorful, ornate facades of Victorians or the steep roofs and exposed wooden frames of Tudors – others require a more discerning eye.

Those who haven’t studied architecture often find themselves getting tripped up when it comes to identifying contemporary homes. Much of this confusion stems from the similarities between contemporary and modern designs. While there is quite a bit of overlap between these two styles – beginning with their seemingly synonymous titles – there are important distinctions.

Reading this article will teach you what contemporary homes are, so you can readily distinguish them from modern homes and identify the defining features of their architectural and interior designs.

What Is A Contemporary Home?

A contemporary home is an example of 21st-century architecture. Given that the style began in the 1970s, it pays tribute to many of the features of modern architecture, including the emphasis on open floor plans, natural light and geometric lines. However, contemporary architecture focuses on the trends of the time period in which it was built and can include a mix of different design styles.

Contemporary Vs. Modern: What’s The Difference?

You may be thinking, “Contemporary vs. modern? Don’t they mean the same thing?” The answer is no, they are different architectural styles, though there are many similarities between them. Unfortunately, people tend to mistakenly use the two terms interchangeably, which accounts for much of the uncertainty regarding their distinctions.

In everyday usage, we consider the words “contemporary” and “modern” to describe things that are of the present day. Yet in design, these two terms have distinct, though related, meanings. Contemporary refers to “current, present” styles, while modern refers to “new” styles or, in reality, what was new during the time period in which it was created.

Modern Architecture And Interior Design

Large villa with brick wall feature.

Paradoxically, modern architecture is not new, but it was novel when it was built in the early to mid-20th century. Modern architecture emerged as a rejection of previous styles. While the architecture of the time was marked by decorative design features that had no purpose beyond their beauty, modernist architects, like Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Llyod Wright, sought to simplify their designs.

Instead of building ornate houses, they prioritized function over form. They designed homes with their occupants’ needs in mind, stripping away all features that did not have a clear purpose. For example, since residents no longer had a need for formal sitting and dining rooms, modern homes included an open floor plan.

Modern homes can be distinguished by their minimalism. In place of embellished facades, the modernists designed their structures to be geometrical and asymmetrical. They included large windows to allow sunlight to pour into the rooms and blur the boundary between the indoors and out. These homes are distinguished by their clean lines and stark interiors, which lend them a colder, more austere feel.

“In a modern home, we will find metal furnishings with tight, black leather seats and square arms on sofas,” says Rachel Waldron, owner and lead designer at Waldron Designs, LLC. “I find the simplest way to differentiate is that modern looks uncomfortable but feels amazing – the hard appearance of the furnishings are misleading because they are some of the most comfortable furnishings that exist! Contemporary, on the other hand, looks comfortable, and while it may be comfortable, it isn’t always!”

Contemporary Architecture And Interior Design

Contemporary buildings.

Modern architecture was a distinctive style that arose in response to the changes that came with a new, modern era. On the other hand, contemporary architecture is harder to pinpoint because it continues to change. Contemporary designs follow trends. So, although contemporary architecture first emerged in the 1970s, the style has continued to evolve with the times, making earlier contemporary homes appear more outdated than recent examples.

However, most contemporary homes continue to showcase certain elements of modern architecture. They have open layouts that allow residents to move seamlessly between the kitchen, dining room and living room. They have large windows that grandly display the home’s surrounding environment and allow the rooms to bathe in natural light. Their facades and interior designs also highlight geometric lines.

Yet, the lines of contemporary homes have more movement. Instead of the straight, angular lines of the modernists, contemporary architects, like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, I.M. Pei and Norman Foster, use free-form lines that are curved and expressive.

Although these designs are most closely connected to the modern style, they don’t strictly adhere to it. They often incorporate different aspects of a variety of styles that came before them, which further explains why they can be so challenging to identify.

Although contemporary interior design may contain a similar range in styles, minimalism remains paramount. “A contemporary home has a less is more approach,” says Pamela Durkin, interior designer and owner of Pamela Durkin Designs.

“Each piece or element has a reason for being there; it’s not just to fill space. I think these elements tend to have more importance because they have to. There is more focus on them, and they need to stand out and be interesting on their own merits.”

Features Of Contemporary Homes

“A contemporary home will normally exhibit an architectural style – or combinations of features of architectural styles – like modernism, farmhouse, Craftsman or cottage – but interpret them in unusual or audacious ways that express new, recently introduced or current ideas in architecture,” says Tim Bakke, director of publishing for The Plan Collection. “So, a contemporary home may have a flat roof and boxy shape that looks like those of an early 20thcentury modern home, but will use materials like wood or natural stone or brick in unusual ways that mark it as contemporary.”

Luxury contemporary house with a pool.

Contemporary architecture can often be identified by the following features: 

  • Strong lines: While they can appear severe and angular like modern homes, contemporary homes also tend to have free-form lines that express movement and individuality.
  • Unique, asymmetrical shapes: Since the lines of these homes are free-form, their facades tend to be made up of a selection of different shapes. They are very geometric in nature: Some homes are boxy with flat roofs like true modern designs, while others incorporate circular and triangular forms, causing the homes to appear different from each angle.
  • Floor-to-ceiling or clerestory windows: Contemporary homes, like modern ones, emphasize natural light by having an abundance of large windows. These windows can either take up the entire wall or consist of a series of panels that are situated well above eye level.
  • Open layout: Since these homes are designed with contemporary lifestyles in mind, they eliminate the walls that used to define smaller, formal rooms. Instead of having a separate kitchen, dining and living room, contemporary homes have open floor plans, which allow all residents to enjoy the space together without feeling crammed in.
  • Mixed materials used for facades: Contemporary homes often create contrast by using a combination of different materials for the facade. Homes may be made out of concrete, steel or glass and can have stone, wood or metal panels.
  • Sustainable and eco-friendly: The latest contemporary homes are consciously designed with the environment in mind. Whether they use reclaimed materials or affix solar panels to the roof, these homes minimize waste and environmental impact.

Contemporary Interior Design Characteristics

“Contemporary style uses neutral colors and fabrics with some splashes of bold color. The bold color should be complementary and subtle to the neutral decor in the form of a rug or pillow. The furniture that one would use would have clean lines but with soft, round edges,” says Laurel Vernazza, director of sales and customer service for The Plan Collection. “Try to stay away from patterns and use natural fabrics such as linen or cotton. Contemporary style favors the use of light woods (think birch or maple), glass and sleek, smooth finishes.”

Hoover LR: Blaine Jonathon Photograph

Contemporary interior design is often characterized by the following features: 

  • Clean lines: Much like the exterior of the home, the interior design possesses clean lines that are just as pronounced in the decor as they are in the structure of the house. The furniture is made up of a combination of geometric shapes.
  • Minimal decor: Rooms designed in a contemporary style are sleek and functional. Rooms appear spacious because there are simple, elegant pieces that don’t distract from the bones of the room.
  • Simple decoration: When it comes to artwork, contemporary homes use one or two pieces to create a focal point for each room. Mementos are not displayed. Bare walls are preserved so as not to clutter the room or take away from the natural scenery presented through the windows.
  • Neutral colors: The color palette of contemporary rooms is narrow. Walls and furnishings tend to be beige, white, black or gray. One or two items in each room may add a pop of color to add contrast.
  • Natural materials: Contemporary homes incorporate natural materials, like stone, light woods and glass. Furniture upholstery is also natural and often textured.
  • Little to no moldings: While there are usually no moldings adorning the walls of modern homes, the walls of contemporary homes may have slight trimming. If there are crown moldings or baseboards in the home, they are simple, not embellished.
  • State-of-the-art appliances: Contemporary homes tend to be filled with high-end, energy-efficient appliances. These appliances tend to clad kitchens in a lot of stainless steel.

Why Are Contemporary Homes So Expensive?

The location, size and condition of a home will often determine its value. However, style can be a significant contributing factor. Homes are worth what buyers are willing to pay for them, and architecture styles play into demand.

The higher the demand is for a certain style of home, the more expensive that style will become. Contemporary styles tend to be more expensive because there’s a growing number of buyers who are looking for them, and the market only possesses so many.

“Contemporary homes are very popular because everyone wants a home that fits the current trend,” says Candice Dickey, REALTOR® for Compass. “The main theme we see are eco-friendly, technologically advanced, clean and airy, yet comfortable home designs. People want ‘smart’ homes equipped with the best, most up-to-date resources with an eco-conscious and natural flair. Many people work from home now more than ever, so they want homes that function well but are also great fits for entertaining and lifestyle.”

The unique features of contemporary homes may make them harder to identify, but they also lead them to be celebrated for their ability to breathe new life into styles of yore. Although they have a warmer and cozier feel than modern homes, contemporary homes don’t speak to everyone’s preferences.

So, before you decide to buy a contemporary home or design your current home with a contemporary interior design, take some advice from Waldron: “What is more important than the name is the way we want our spaces to feel.”

Unfortunately, for many of us, it can be hard to verbalize what we want our spaces to feel like. But if you’re looking for a change, we can help you figure out your style preferences. Peruse the home styles Americans favor to get more ideas for your perfect home.

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    Rachel Burris

    Rachel Burris is a writer covering topics of interest to present and future homeowners, as well as industry insiders. Prior to joining Rocket Companies, she worked as an English teacher for the New York City Department of Education and a licensed real estate agent for Brown Harris Stevens. She holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Bucknell University, a postbaccalaureate certificate in psychology from Columbia University and a master's degree in English education from Teachers College, Columbia University.