Design Styles Defined: Your Guide to Contemporary Interiors

Christyanne Wheeler
Jan 20, 2022 8:30:00 AM

Whether you simply want to refresh and revitalize your space or you plan to renovate it from top to bottom, nothing is more central to your efforts — and your results — than finding the best interior design style to suit your home, tastes, and lifestyle.   

Modern living room in house with contemporary interior design, comfortable sofa, carpet on floor, lamplight lamp, decor on table and wooden panel background

To simplify the undertaking (or at least get you started in the right direction), we’ve embarked on a regular blog series exploring the defining characteristics of all the major interior design styles, including a quintessential list of what it takes to master each look with ease.  

After covering Scandinavian, modern farmhouse, and traditional décor styles, we’re ready to turn an eye toward an exceptionally popular — but widely misunderstood — interior aesthetic: contemporary design. Here’s what you should know about this forever-relevant style. 

Contemporary Interior Design 101

When it comes to staying relevant and “of the moment,” contemporary décor is a true style chameleon. It makes sense, of course, given that the term contemporary means belonging to or occurring in the present; just as the present is always current and ever evolving, so too are the interiors that adhere to contemporary design standards. 

Dating back to the 1970s, contemporary style is widely mischaracterized as simply another version of modern design. While contemporary interiors have a lot in common with modern interiors — both feature clean lines, a neutral backdrop, plenty of open space, and careful attention to editing — modern design has its own consistent vibe, one that values form and function in equal measure.  

To put it another way: modern design, which began the 1930s, features a monochromatic tonal palette, sleek silhouettes, and a near-total absence of decoration; contemporary style, on the other hand, is a design movement born out of modernism that views simplicity as an opportunity for play

Elements of Contemporary Design

Contemporary style can be hard to pin down because it doesn’t refer to a specific era — it evolves as time goes on, always remaining in the present moment. Just as contemporary interiors of 20 years ago aren’t the same as today’s contemporary spaces, future contemporary décor will look different than it does now.

So what does it take to create streamlined contemporary interiors that are both sophisticated and playful? Here are eight ways to make your home feel more contemporary:

1. Set a serene neutral scene

As a style that’s just as defined by empty space as it is by the curated objects within that space, contemporary design demands a neutral canvas — earthy, natural hues and bright, crisp whites set the tonal scene for contemporary décor, while charcoal black is used to ground and define a 21st century space. 

Neutral scene-setting continues with bare, smooth flooring. Contemporary design favors hardwood, tile, or luxury vinyl flooring over carpeting wherever possible; use plain or geometric-patterned area rugs to add warmth, texture, and color. 

2. Energize with pops of color

Contemporary spaces can feel minimalistic, modern, and well-edited, but there’s nothing bland about them: a neutral palette is the perfect backdrop for the bold, bright pops of color that are so central to a contemporary aesthetic. 

Whether you introduce rich jewel tones by way of a vivid accent wall, eye-catching accessories, stunning artwork, textural area rugs, or an oversized ottoman, color sets contemporary neutrality into motion. 

3. Feature sculptural lighting 

While standard recessed lighting, versatile track lighting, and slender metallic floor lamps all have their place in contemporary spaces, the most illuminating lighting trend in contemporary design revolves around statement-making light fixtures — specifically, large-scale sculptural fixtures that draw the eye and carry as much aesthetic weight as a beautiful piece of original artwork. 

Looking towards a white bedroom and stairwell with a modern, round light fixture hanging from the high ceiling.

​​4. Highlight structure and material

The bare structures of modernism are also key to contemporary interior design, where exposed beams, steel pillars, and brick or concrete walls are common. 

Reflective surfaces like glass and metal are just as welcome as natural stone and wood surfaces; contemporary furniture designers and artists also use these materials to push the boundary between sculpture, art, and functional pieces.

5. Choose bold furnishings

Contemporary furnishings have a lot in common with modern pieces: neither are fussy or overwrought, and both favor strong, clean lines. But where modern furniture stays firmly in the “streamlined” lane, contemporary furnishings aren’t afraid to embrace silhouettes that are a little curvier and more organic. 

Contemporary furniture design favors simple natural upholstery that adds textural appeal, like wool or linen, and shuns florals, fringe, and other “extra” details; if you want to incorporate bold contemporary prints, use them sparingly on throw pillows. Exposed legs are preferred, particularly when they’re made of shiny nickel, stainless steel, or chrome. 

6. Keep it open and uncluttered 

Contemporary design favors open floor plans for one simple reason: negative space, or the space that isn’t occupied by furnishings, artwork, fixtures, and structural elements, is just as important as the items that have been chosen to fill and define the space. 

While contemporary décor isn’t purely minimalistic, it does support the central design concept that less is more. To that end, windows tend to be bare, walls and floor space are uncluttered, and every object or piece of furniture has been carefully considered. 

7. Embrace contemporary art

With clean silhouettes, a neutral foundation, restrained finishes, and mindful attention to space and editing, contemporary interiors are the perfect backdrop for showcasing current, emerging, and otherwise exciting new artists. Bold or colorful artwork definitely stands on its own in a sea of neutrals. 

Given that art has always been a catalyst for change in the design world, it makes sense that contemporary design — the style that’s been evolving since its inception — gives artwork a very prominent place in the home: a large painting, print, or sculpture may be the focal point of any space.  

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