Modern Style Defined

Get inspired by these modernist design ideas

By Lisa Frederick

The term modern is often used interchangeably with contemporary, but when it comes to matters of style, they aren't the same. While contemporary style refers to the decor trends of the moment (modern or otherwise), modern style evokes a specific sense of time and place. It is an offshoot of the minimalist architecture and design of the 1930s plus the modernist art movement that reached its zenith in the early twentieth century.

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Airy Contemporary Living Room
Danny Colvin

The Basics

Simple and crisp, modern style marks a sharp departure from the formal symmetry and rich embellishments of traditional design. Although its roots are utilitarian, it has evolved over the decades into a balanced blend of form and function. Modern rooms can feel sterile, so if you crave a touch of warmth, try mixing in a few touches of another style to create a look such as modern global or modern coastal.

These designer rooms display modern design:

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Arris Console
Altura Furniture

Strong, defined colors. Essentially, color in modern interiors takes one of two forms. Perhaps most prevalent is the use of neutrals, such as pure whites, taupes, grays, and metallics, which keeps the emphasis on the architecture and furniture and creates a streamlined, monochromatic effect. The opposite approach involves very clear, high-contrast hues, such as black and lipstick red or lime green and cerulean. Stark white interiors with dashes of bright color (in the spirit of a Mondrian painting) also appear in this style.

Clean-lined furnishings. No muss, no fuss—modern pieces are stripped down to the bare essentials and fashioned to suit the human form. You won't see embellishments such as carved details, curlicues, or flouncy skirts; instead, lines tend to be straightforward, with the tight upholstery, bare legs, and crisp edges that marked Bauhaus and other seminal modern styles. Profiles are strong and sculptural with a focus on angles rather than curves.

Dramatic architecture. From cantilevered ceilings to a progression of angled walls, striking architecture with pronounced geometry is the star of many modern interiors. Rooms tend to have a sense of light and space and feature open, unbroken vistas; bare windows; and a functional flow. Unconventional, durable materials such as acrylic and concrete are often put into play.

Ogassian Collection
Ann Sacks

Sleek finishes. You won't find thick carpets or wood-paneled walls in modern design; surfaces tend to be smooth with a lot of give-and-take between matte and glossy. Think polished or brushed metals, stone, tile, glass, and plastic. That's not to say that there are absolutely no soft elements, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

Spare accessories. Clutter messes up the modern vibe. Interiors in this style are more likely to feature a carefully culled assortment of pieces, useful as well as decorative, that stand on their own. Abstract art and black-and-white photography both work well with modern interiors, and sculpture feels apt for this approach as well.

If you like modern style, you may also like contemporary and Le Corbusier style. Click to explore!

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