What Is Contemporary Design? And How To Decorate

Let’s talk about contemporary design for a minute, shall we? It’s often confused with, or described interchangeably as, modern design. Although perhaps some elements of modern design carry through into contemporary design, the two styles certainly have their differences.

Contemporary green chair seating

In this article, we’ll take a look at the definition of contemporary design, how it is different from modern design, how contemporary design relates to a few other styles, and what it is…and is not.


Wire base coffee table with purple sofa

Definition of Contemporary

The dictionary defines contemporary as (1) living or occurring at the same time, or (2) belonging to or occurring in the present. Simply put, contemporary at its core refers to things “of the moment.”

Contemporary bedroom design with black and white art above

How is Contemporary Design Different from Modern Design?

It’s interesting to note that many people use the words “modern” and “contemporary” interchangeably when referring to design; however, this is not quite accurate. Modern design generally refers to design of the mid-1900s. Characteristics such as natural materials, expansive neutrals with pops of color, and clean, low lines are all part of modern décor.

Contemporary feeling three seats blue couch

Contemporary, however, refers to décor that is much more current. Even designs that were contemporary in the 2000s may no longer be considered contemporary but rather vintage. In five or ten years from now, contemporary design will likely have a different look and feel than contemporary design today. Where modern design has a specific look and feel, contemporary design is ever-changing, due in part to the availability of (new) materials and pieces.

contemporary dining seating related to modern homes

How does Contemporary Design Relate to Other Styles?

Because contemporary design is always evolving, it easily relates to other styles no matter what they are. A space of almost any given style can have contemporary elements due to the very nature of contemporariness – that is, as a space’s design changes to accommodate the shifting preferences, tastes, and needs of the people who live there, that evolution inherently creates a contemporary space.

Contemporary and modern red sofa design

Contemporary + Modern

Contemporary spaces can still (and often do) incorporate modern elements and pieces. To make these spaces truly contemporary, however, the modern pieces (e.g., low sofa, shag rug) are mixed with other non-modern elements (e.g., concrete floor, graffiti-type wall mural).

Grey sofa and armchair with a wood tall coffee table

Contemporary + Traditional

Traditional furnishings take on a contemporary look and feel when they are combined with lighter elements. For example, blonde wood, an ombre rug, and a light grey color bring a decidedly contemporary vibe to this traditional-inspired sofa seating with its curves and tufting.

Contemporary and ecletic design on this chair

Contemporary + Eclectic

Eclectic styles seem inherently to incorporate doses of contemporary design, simply because their mix-and-not-match attitude is embraced in the world of contemporary décor. Combine a vintage mid-century sofa with an Ikea coffee table and a Moroccan rug for an example of this concept. And singular pieces can be both eclectic and contemporary simultaneously, like this freshened up retro rocker.

Contemporary and rustic feel

Contemporary + Rustic

A wood-heavy design can be brought into a contemporary design realm with a few strategic inclusions, such as plenty of clean straight lines (which juxtapose, and show off, the wood grain beautifully) and cozy layers in neutral colors.

Contemporary design elements

What Are Contemporary Design Elements

Of course, the dynamic nature of the contemporary design makes this section time-locked. But, today, we’ll do our best to showcase what types of design elements are contemporary touches.

Neutral masculine boxed shelves from mutto

Neutral, masculine color palette

Feminine elements don’t tend to take root in contemporary design; rather, the overall effect is more muted, mature, and masculine. This is particularly true of the color palette.

Sleek and clean lines on bathroom sink

Sleek, clean lines

Contemporary design is grounded; nothing here feels over-the-top.Super decorative items are omitted in favor of simplicity and cleanliness in contemporary forms. This includes low, simple sofas.

Modern wallpaper for bedroom and oversized art

Colorful and/or oversized art

Softer art may be mixed in to a contemporary art gallery wall, but what creates a contemporary feel is the inclusion of oversized, often colorful, pieces or a geometric wallpaper backdrop that READS as oversized art.

Clever storage solution -stacked design

Clever storage solutions

Contemporary design is all about smart, hidden, and/or unexpected storage solutions. This includes architectural storage solutions, such as behind or inside of walls, as well as furniture-based storage, such as the drawers camouflaged in the sculptural elements on these side tables. So pretty and functional!

Contemporary design bedroom

Tailored, or nonexistent, skirts

A simple, clean aesthetic when it comes to fabrics bespeaks contemporary design – keep the ruffles and excess fabric at bay. This tailored black bed frame wrap is a completely contemporary touch.

Color blocking wood and porcelain mix

Color blocking

Color that makes a space look and feel fresh, new, and inviting is generally part of a contemporary scheme. Color blocking is a common way to carry this out via a contemporary space’s accents, such as painting the ends of a rustic wooden table with white blocks of color.

Black and reflective contemporary accents

Black and reflective accents

Chrome or nickel finishes, glass and mirrors, ebony wood and other materials – these are accents that typically feel right at home in contemporary design. A glass coffee table, for example, is a perfect complement to a low-slung, simple black sofa in a contemporary space. A monochromatic black kitchen with variations of shine is also uber-contemporary.

Cream bed with comfortable layers

Cozy, comfortable layers

Residing somewhere between the minimalism that’s found in modern interiors and the often-excessive elements of traditional, cottage, and other styles, is contemporary layering. The focus of this layering is generally to incorporate friendliness and spontaneity into a space with ho-hum tendencies.

Diff patterns and colors for contemporary design


Classic and geometric pattern plays an important role in contemporary design today. This colorful low seat and ottoman set, for example, incorporates a subtle contemporary vibe with its diagonal striped weave.

Work in progress bedroom

A work-in-progress

As you know by now, contemporary design is ever-evolving. It shifts subtly over time, but it is never “finished,” never static. This is a key component of what contemporary design is.

Modern wall art above the sofa

What Contemporary Design Is Not

Before we set out to quantify certain design elements that are not innately contemporary, there’s a caveat: Each of these discussion points can actually be part of contemporary design. While this seems like an oxy moron, it actually makes sense because of the ever-evolving scope of contemporary design. So, the points below may or may not appear in contemporary spaces, and their presence or absence does not in and of itself qualify the space’s contemporary-ness.

Modern cutting edge wooden table with brown leather chairs

It’s not…bright pops of color.

Whereas modern design thrives on neutral expanses with pops of bold color, contemporary design uses this less. Tones and shades of similar hues are more likely to be found in contemporary design, such as the brown and grey neutrals of this dining area – large wooden table with brown leather chairs.

Sleek shower faucet

It’s not…feminine.

Sleek, it definitely is. Casual and inviting, sure. Even light and airy at times. But contemporary design draws the line when it comes to feminine design elements. It’s more substantive and grounded than that, as a rule.

Perfect hanging chair for porch

It’s not…inherently minimalistic.

While contemporary interiors thrive on a foundation of clean lines, the contemporary design itself does not require minimalism. For example, the organic basket weave around this hanging chair makes for warm, textural, and interesting contemporary décor.

Exposed pipes turned into lighting fixtures

It’s not…static.

As you are aware by now, contemporary design is anything but static. Although it’s quite comfortable in its own skin (if you have contemporary tastes, you like what you like right now, regardless of reference to past design), universal contemporary design is ever-evolving, sometimes slowly and sometimes not.

Outdoor jacuzzi design spot

It’s not…over the top.

Contemporary interiors prefer to not call attention to any one past design era; rather. In fact, these interiors prefer to show themselves in calm and collected maturity of presentness, with nothing glaringly reminiscent or futuristic.

How do you feel about contemporary design?