As I surf online and go on consults, I see and hear the words Modern and Contemporary thrown around quite a bit. I wondered, “Is there a difference between the styles or were they both a part of the same pot?” I sought out the incredible Connecticut-based interior designer Sharon McCormick to help answer the question. I’m so glad I did, because now I not only know that there is indeed a difference but can also identify the correct style innately while having a design-related conversation. Interested in knowing more? Let’s let Sharon take it away…
Sharon McCormick, Allied ASID
Sharon McCormick: When I begin working with a new client, I of course ask them what style they have in mind. Often a client will say they want their interiors to be “modern”. Experience has taught me that my idea of modern and theirs are two entirely different things! As they begin describing their ideal modern living room, I translate it to “contemporary”. To designers, modern is mid-century modern. I don’t know why, but The Dick Van Dyke Show living room always pops into my head, the low-slung divans and chairs with exposed legs in particular. But I digress.
The easiest way for me to get the difference across is to describe Modern as 40’s and 50’s retro. In the alternate, rather than a defined period of time, Contemporary is just of the moment.
My New England clients have been slow to warm to the idea of mid-century modern, while my metropolitan clients have been excited about it for several years. I’ve also found age to be a determining factor in my clientele. Those who lived through the mid-century era generally have little interest in recreating it, while the younger crowd perceives the modern look as having a very cool vibe. (The exact same is true for shag rugs, in case you were wondering.)
In design school, I took a class called 1000 Chairs. It wasn’t until recently that the well-known, iconic pieces and designers of the 1940’s and 1950’s became a part of my daily design lexicon. I love it when things that didn’t seem useful at the time suddenly become entirely relevant!
C O N T E M P O R A R Y
Contemporary is the style my clients use most frequently. Contemporary design is free-wheeling, and can incorporate antiques, mid-century pieces as well as the latest designs. Color schemes and materials are au courant, so rooms don’t look like museums, but there are no rules at all. Clients often refer to their taste as “eclectic”, because they want so many styles to be incorporated into their homes, but feel comfort in giving their style a name.
M O D E R N
In modern design, the walls are painted a neutral, generally white. The main pieces of furniture therefore stand out, especially if they one of a few pieces selected for their pop of primary color. Shades of neutrals reign, in the upholstery fabrics, draperies, rugs, floors and wood furniture. While this certainly doesn’t make a room feel warm and cozy, there is often a sense of control and orderliness that people find comfortable. The lines in modern design are simple, whether they are straight or curved. There are no flourishes. The mix of materials used in pieces from this era is truly remarkable. Lucite, plastic, chrome and molded plywood are its hallmarks. Think the plywood and leather Eames chair and ottoman or the leather and chrome Le Corbusier chairs which grace the lobbies of so many public spaces.
One of my favorite places to shop for mid century modern furnishings is Irwin Feld Design in Stamford, CT. It is THE place to shop in Fairfield County, and is often tapped by top NY designers. Here are some of my favorite pieces:
Lucite Barrel Chairs upholstered in metallic faux leather, made by Hill Manufacturing. Fabulous start to a stunning living room.
Biomorphic End Tables made of materials which define the era: teak, glass & nickel.
So now that you know how a designer defines modern and contemporary, what is your style?
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I hope you enjoyed today’s post! Sharon has graciously provided a list of books and websites she recommends in order to keep learning about both modern and contemporary design; do see them below. Sharon has a fantastic Facebook fan page where she shares links and images she comes across, please do become a fan — in fact, give her a shout-out if you liked the article! She also has a great website you can look through as well as her frequently updated eponymous design blog. Thank you, Sharon, for the wonderful tutorial! Have a wonderful day, dear Readers!
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Sharon's Recommendations for Modern Design
BOOKS: Sourcebook of Modern Furniture,Mid-Century Modern
Modern: Interiors, Furniture, Details
WEBSITES: Design within Reach, BoConcept and Room & Board
Sharon's Recommendations for Contemporary Design
BOOKS: Barry Dixon Inspirations, Michael S. Smith Kitchens & Baths
and The Language of Interior Design
WEBSITES: Z Gallerie, GILT and 1st Dibs
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