Contemporary Design is Hard to Define, Easy to Live With

Contemporary design can be hard to define and with good reason. While some general characteristics are always present, the subtleties and specifics can shift over time. This is because “contemporary” refers to what is happening now — what is “of the moment.” What was contemporary in the 1980’s is not the same as today. Also, contemporary design often incorporates the influences and elements of design periods past. So what characteristics are typical of contemporary design?

Neutral Color Palettes

First of all, a neutral color palette is most common. According to HGTV, monochrome palettes that use a lot of brown, beige, cream and white are common. Today, gray is also a trendy neutral for contemporary rooms, and black and white is always a classic choice for this interior design style. Any pops of color come from striking accessories or additions like artworks, statement rugs or bold accessories.

This contemporary grouping uses a typical neutral palette that is very popular in today’s contemporary rooms. In addition, the sofa is easy care and comfortable and the upholstery fabric has texture that spices up the neutral color. The graphic accents in the tableaux are also neutral, however the pillows have a trendy chevron pattern and the solid pillows add more texture with their fur coverings.

This is a highly common style and color range for a contemporary room.View in gallery
This is a highly common style and color range for a contemporary room.

Wood Furniture

Contemporary styles generally incorporate wood furniture that is lighter in color than that which is typically used in traditional styles of decor. Here, clean-lined coffee tables are made from wood that has gray finish and is further accented with inlaid metal stripes across the table. Metal accents like these are also common in contemporary design. While darker woods may still be used in contemporary design, the silhouettes are clean with spare lines and no carvings or elaborate details. A minimum of accessories that also convey a light and open style are common themes in contemporary style..

Lighter wood furniture is a key element of contemporary design.View in gallery
Lighter wood furniture is a key element of contemporary design.

This bedroom by Bushell Interiors features darker wood, however it is definitely done in contemporary style. All the lines of the furniture, from the nightstands to the bed and its headboard, feature straight lines and no ornamentation. While this setting has some elements in common with modern style, the warm wood and textures in the room mark it as contemporary.

Textured fabrics add interest to the neutral space.View in gallery
Textured fabrics add interest to the neutral space.

While this contemporary living room by Gianfranco Ferre Home features a salmon hue, it still sticks to a generally neutral, if darker, color palette. The leather used on the pillows as an accent is indicative of the contemporary design style and adds a further dimension of texture to the velvet sofa. Anchored by a rich brown rug, the living room grouping has gold-legged accent tables topped with a complementary shade of marble. The bold color in the room comes from the dominant piece of artwork on the wall.

Contemporary sofas often have no visible legs, with upholstery extending to the floor.View in gallery
Contemporary sofas often have no visible legs, with upholstery extending to the floor.

Often, it can be hard to distinguish modern style from contemporary design because there can be many similarities. While this desk and chair lean toward the modern end of the spectrum, they would easily work into a contemporary space because the lines are clean and unembellished. The wood is lighter than that used in traditional furnishings and it has metal legs. The styling of the chair and leather sling seat also fit the style.

Contemporary style can be eclectic, making it easy to incorporate other eras.View in gallery
Contemporary style can be eclectic, making it easy to incorporate other eras.

Modern Metals

Contemporary spaces often highlight advanced materials and sleek metals. This space by Ginger and Jagger has both: the lavender wall of shiny tubes combined with the metal room divider, which serves as both artwork and accent. Even the occasional table sports a base of gleaming chrome. Although the tubular backdrop lends a pastel base to the room, it is still largely cream and gray thanks to the sofa and the screen.

Contemporary design incorporates elements from other eras, like the sofa in this room.View in gallery
Contemporary design incorporates elements from other eras, like the sofa in this room.

Similarly, this tall cabinet for Guadarte of Spain features a shiny surface and metal detailing. It maintains a clean silhouette and has metal base, putting it squarely in the contemporary design range. The pair of accent vases on top are shiny and bold, perfect for this style of decor. The leggy base contributes to an open feeling in the room, which also fits well with the open floor plans of today’s contemporary spaces.

A tall cabinet instead of a traditional credenza shape is contemporary.View in gallery
A tall cabinet instead of a traditional credenza shape is contemporary.

Pieces that feature mixed materials and a variety of metallics are also appropriate for interiors that are intended to be of a contemporary design. This modular coffee table by VG New Trend of Italy combines brushed metal with a high shine finish and a stone style pattern. The trendy shape and arrangement is contemporary as is the dominance of metal finishes. Again, accessories are minimal and simple.

New shapes and trends fit well in contemporary design.View in gallery
New shapes and trends fit well in contemporary design.

Fluid, eclectic style

There’s a lot of leeway for accommodating personal preferences in contemporary style because of its fluid nature. This bedroom by LEV2 is definitely contemporary but also incorporates a more traditional wallpaper along with an accent color and accessories that are a little global, or perhaps bohemian. The basic color palette is a neutral beige and white with the addition of a grayish blue. This is the beauty of contemporary design style because it’s easy to make it reflect individual style.

This room would have less of a boho feeling of the accent color were different.View in gallery
This room would have less of a boho feeling of the accent color were different.

Mixing materials and textures is very common in a contemporary design setting. While this dining room boasts more color that is typical of this style, the dining set would work well in a contemporary space. The wood on the chairs and table base is simple and smooth, while the glass top keeps the feeling open and airy, perfect for today’s open-plan homes. The texture on the chair upholstery adds another dimension to the space as well. You could probably say that this room fits the definition of luxury contemporary design because of the more refined finishes and materials.

Just enough reflective material in a mixed palette helps keep the space contemporary.View in gallery
Just enough reflective material in a mixed palette helps keep the space contemporary.

Pops of Color

Yes, the typical color palette for contemporary design is neutral, but that doesn’t mean it is always devoid of color. Typically additions of bold color to a contemporary interior are made through accessories and especially through wall art. Here, a rug/tapestry from the Magen H Gallery is used to bring vibrancy to a space. This is a fantastic way to create a focal point as well as add color, bringing more dimension and interest to the space.

Wall art or a feature wall is a good way to add color to contemporary design.View in gallery
Wall art or a feature wall is a good way to add color to contemporary design.

Distinctive Lighting

Spaces done in a contemporary design almost always feature distinctive lighting fixtures. These can be any shape or size — remember that “contemporary” means what’s going on in the design world right now. Your choices can be understated or dramatic; they just need to fit with the overall scheme of your space and color palette. Because metals are common in contemporary design, it’s easy to find lighting that will put the focus on this material. Whether a hand-crafted piece or a mass-market fixture, select lighting that has the right mood for the specific space. Mobilia’s Neiva pendant is an example of a metal fixture with a matte finish and a very attractive, distinctive silhouette that works in a contemporary space.

Choosing a shinier finish would add more of a glam touch.View in gallery
Choosing a shinier finish would add more of a glam touch.

While contemporary design might be among the hardest to define, it is among the easiest to create because of its fluid nature and the ability to reflect more personal style. Because everything that came before influences the style, it can be more eclectic than other style genres. The most important rule for creating a room that has a contemporary design is that it should fit your preferences and lifestyle.