What Is Modern Design?

The Use and Abuse of Modern Design

What it is, where it came from, and how to incorporate it into your space


As frequently as we use the word “modern” to describe art, decor and furniture, many of us don’t really know how to define it, and often confuse it with “contemporary” design. These styles are actually quite different: Modern design is characterized by the simplicity, functionality and openness of the 19th century modern movement, while contemporary is a term used to describe recent design trends that can encompass a variety of styles—it’s ever-evolving.


As commercial and retail display designers as well as art enthusiasts, we’ve created this quick intro to these often interchanged ideas to help you better apply the concepts to your own space, whether it be a residential or commercial space.

The Roots of Modern Design

Modern design history dates back to the 19th-century art deco movement, which was pervasive throughout the United States until the 1960s. The original Modernists were seeking to create new norms that were better-suited to a world shaped by the Industrial Revolution, a world rapidly evolving from agrarian to mechanized. Many intellectuals also cite the development of a post-modernism era that began in the late 1970s.

Features of Modern Design

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of modern design is simplicity. It’s characterized by clean straight lines, rigid squares and rectangles (i.e. the pedestal), and perfect circles—a clear contrast to the ornate designs of the previous era.

Minimalism is another defining characteristic of most modern styles, which strive for an uncluttered appearance. Most modern interior design projects feature only the bare minimum number of furnishings required—often creating an open floor plan.

The utilization of colors can vary widely, though most associate neutrals with modern design.

Modern Design Today

It’s not hard to spot examples in our everyday lives.

example of contemporary design with modern design influences

You can easily find commercial and residential furniture that exhibit the characteristic simplicity and economy, as well as open floor plans (no walls separating first-floor rooms such as the kitchen, living room and dining room)—just take a stroll through Ikea and you’ll see what we mean. The 21st-century modern design concept frequently entails products made from chrome, stainless steel or plastic. Built-in or floating shelves are also typical, as they support the minimalist approach by helping to conserve floor space.


Looking to incorporate modern design into your home, office or retail decor? Contact us to set up a free design consultation with one of our experts. Contact Us