“I know it when I see it.” Interestingly, the famous line delivered by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart regarding pornography could also be applied to design. Why do I need to know all of the definitions and boring parameters when I know it when I see it?

While this is true to some extent, it does help to know a bit about design terminology, as it can help you make the right decisions when developing your own sense of style. After all, when is a sofa not a sofa? When it’s a midcentury modern sofa, of course!

Contemporary living space featuring sculptural accents, wooden floors, and a whole lot of white.

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To get a clearer picture of the nuances that can often exist within the design world, it’s helpful to start by learning about two of its most well-used terms: “contemporary” and “modern.” While you may have heard these words being bandied about interchangeably with regard to different design aesthetics, there are actually subtle nuances between the two that can make a difference — especially if you’re planning your own interior design scheme. And while it’s okay to use these terms to describe trends that are right now, or of the moment, once you get a grasp of their differences, you’ll be one step closer to becoming a bona fide design expert.

Contemporary: Right Now

This contemporary living space is cozier and a lot more neutral than a

Let’s start with contemporary design, as it’s a little harder to define than its counterpart. Unlike “modern” design, contemporary design isn’t defined or restricted by a specific period of time. Rather, it’s constantly evolving to reflect changing trends and styles as they happen. Think of it in terms of present-day design. For example, as I write this on December 20th, 2021, one of the most popular design trends is cottagecore. But cottagecore itself has evolved since its inception last year, with variations on the theme that place it firmly in the category of being “contemporary.”

This contemporary kitchen space thrives on its combination of manmade and natural textures.

Another aspect of contemporary design is its fluidity. Not defined by any one style, it tends to adopt various facets of current design trends. Think of it as a mish-mash of up-to-the-minute trends. Right now, that means minimalist clean lines, modernist neutral palettes, Art Deco vibes, and a combo of natural textures with shiny, manmade objects like steel and chrome.

Modern: Early to Mid 20th Century

Shouldn’t “modern” be the term to describe the stuff that’s happening right now? Not in the world of design, where modern is actually so last century. But that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s passé, and it’s definitely not out of fashion. In fact, it’s one of the most popular design trends out there, showing that some things never really go out of style.

Modern living space features decidedly bolder pieces and fixtures than its contemporary counterpart.

Modern design was essentially borne of the modern art movement, heavily influenced by aspects of both Scandinavian and German Bauhaus designs. Think simplicity in both form and function, more natural materials like wood and stone, and earthier tones, rather than the neutrals you tend to see in contemporary design. And yes, midcentury modern does fall under the umbrella of modern design, as it came about in — you guessed it — the middle of last century (the 1950s and 60s).

This modern living room incorporates rougher materials like brick and geometric lighting fixtures for a classic 20th-century look.

Now that you know the essential differences between these two popular design terms, you’ll be more equipped to develop a signature aesthetic unique to your own taste and style – because design is so much more than just “knowing it when you see it.”