The words “modern” and “contemporary” are often used interchangeably, but they are in fact two subtly different styles.
Modern refers to a set of specific design movements, which taken together help define 20th Century style. From the 1920s, forward thinking designers and architects like Mies and Le Corbusier sought to create a new visual language that expressed the spirit of a rapidly changing world. Mass production, new technologies, and a political establishment discredited by the carnage of the First World War created the conditions for a creative revolution in industrial design, broadly described as modernism. As the century progressed, modernism evolved and took on new forms, culminating in the Mid-Century Modern movement. Today, “modern” is used to describe iconic pieces designed between the 1920s and 1950s, plus current designs inspired by the era. It’s a fixed style, with a well-defined roster of historic practitioners.
Contemporary style is a little more slippery. The term technically covers anything being produced right now, in a way that breaks with styles of the past. That said, there are a few common themes that arise again and again in contemporary interiors. Uncluttered rooms, featuring minimal ornamentation, and furnished with pieces displaying clean, strong lines are contemporary. Function is important, and in some cases leads the design, with aesthetics coming in a close second. Whites and neutrals are foregrounded, while brighter color is used judiciously if at all. Some contemporary interiors incorporate elements inspired by modern design, blurring the line somewhat.
Modern design has stood the test of time, while contemporary is a little riskier — it’s impossible to say for certain whether a new piece will age well. However, contemporary style arguably gives you more room for experimentation, in that the rules are still being written.