While writing a guide to understanding the different types of homes that home buyers are likely to encounter on their home search, I noticed how often the terms “modern” and “contemporary” were used to describe a home’s architecture. That wasn’t unusual in and of itself. The odd thing, though, was how often real estate agents and homeowners used them interchangeably, when, in fact, these words mean two very different things.
Here’s the 50,000-foot view: The term “modern” typically refers to a very distinctive architectural style of home that was built from the early 1900s to the 1950s. It’s a defined style and doesn’t change. It will always be modern. Contemporary architecture and design means “the style of the moment.” It’s a lot harder to define because it’s always changing and is influenced by and borrows from the styles that came before.
But what does that really mean? Let me break down the differences between modern and contemporary design even further for you.
Modern Home Design
Modern design was born in response to the overly ornate, cluttered and fancy architecture of the late 19th century. The modernist architects of the time wanted to break the rules and go against what was deemed traditional design for the time, which included styles like eclecticism, Victorian and Edwardian and, in the 1920s, the Art Deco period.
Modernist architects chose to create homes that showed a distinct lack of ornament and flair, in contrast to what was seen in the popular home designs of the time. They designed homes that featured a strong horizontal composition with large open floor plans, intentional asymmetry, and large expanses of glass windows or glass walls. The focus here was to create a simplified home with an emphasis on function – removing unnecessary details and frills.
These architects chose to use their designs as a tool to respond to how quickly things were changing in their world. The early 20th century was quickly turning into a technology-driven, mass-market industrialist society. Many of these architects and designers felt as if people in their society were accomplishing more but were emotionally stunted and less spiritually or creatively fulfilled. So many of the homes they designed at the time were built not only to acknowledge the changing times but also to give homeowners a chance to feel more connected with nature.
As a result, many of these homes were designed to blur the boundaries between the indoors and outdoors. They used the surrounding area to enhance the features of the home, using the lines of the roof or cantilevers to continue the lines of the landscape around the home. As modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe stated: “Nature, too, shall live its own life. We must be aware not to disrupt it with the color of our houses and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring nature, houses and human beings together into a higher unity.”
While many of these homes on first glance can seem as if they’re cold or stark because of the sharp lines and lack of flair, many modern homes are actually very warm and inviting once you enter the home. This can be attributed largely to the materials used in the construction as well as the interior design of the home – many use things like dark, rich woods and marble with warm accents of color.
Mid-century modern style is an offshoot of traditional modernism using many of the same key features that modernist architects developed, but it’s typically reserved for interior design styles. Some key qualities associated with this style are square homes with flat roofs, a monochromatic color palette, and low-key furnishings with a simple and distinct attention to minimalism while avoiding a stark, cold feeling.
Notable modern designers include:
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
The Farnsworth House, designed by Mies van der Rohe, is located in Plano, Illinois, and is a National Historic Landmark.
The Glass House, designed by Johnson, is located in New Canaan, Connecticut. It was inspired by the Farnsworth House and is also a National Historic Landmark.
The Eames House, designed by Eames, is located in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, and is a National Historic Landmark.
Contemporary Home Design
In contrast, contemporary architecture is rooted in the “now.” This means that these types of homes are typically innovative and forward-looking. However, the design of these homes are distinctly more complex than their modern counterparts. Their design is more free-form and artistic, taking cues from all types of design rather than as a response to the times. Even though these home designs didn’t really gain traction until the 1970s, it’s important to remember that the architecture doesn’t stem from a specific movement and doesn’t refer to a specific time period. It’s fluid and always changing to match whatever is popular right now.
Because contemporary homes can have modern architectural features, it can be difficult to initially discern the differences between the two home designs. The most distinguishing fact is that contemporary home architecture is influenced by the styles that came before it. For example, a contemporary home today draws heavily on the exterior architecture of a craftsman-style home but prefers the large, spacious open floor plans that are seen in modern homes. With contemporary homes, no single style is dominant over another. Instead, contemporary architects can create a home that fits the needs of their client or whatever is in style at the time without having to adhere to a particular movement or design constraint.
One feature that makes many recently built contemporary homes stand out is that they often are built for sustainability, are generally eco-friendly and energy-efficient, and use materials that are often repurposed from their intended use (like a home made out of a shipping container, for example). Another stand-out feature is that they’re often built to act as a mixed-use space. A great example of a contemporary home is the Skyline Residence designed by Belzberg Architects. The materials used in the construction of the home were all locally sourced and are eco-friendly. The architects incorporated solar cells to help with heating and cooling and included a variety of high-end green features to make the home more energy efficient. In addition, they designed a garden area to be built around an exterior portion of the home that they use as an outdoor movie theater. The mixed-use space, a garden that doubles as a movie theater, is a feature that is prominent in many recent contemporary homes.
Modern and mid-century modern styles are currently very popular, so that’s what’s inspiring many architects and interior designers at the moment.
Notable contemporary designers include:
The Gehry Residence was designed by Gehry and built around an existing Dutch colonial house. It’s located in Santa Monica, California.
The Pennoyer residence, designed by Pennoyer, was built in the Greek Revival style using Tuscan and modernist elements, and it’s located in Millbrook, New York.
The Tubac House, designed by Joy, is a celebrated example of contemporary architecture that uses modernist elements along with energy-efficient design components and locally sourced rustic materials.
Aside from the visual differences between these architectural styles, Realtor.com notes one of the biggest differences about contemporary over modern homes is that when they’re listed on the market, homes that are described as “modern” are usually sold much faster than their contemporary counterparts, even though homes described in this way are usually much more expensive than the listings that are described as contemporary.
One of the reasons why this could be is that many people may think “contemporary” means dated. If you think about the definition – “contemporary” means what’s popular right now – then at one point, shag carpeting and macramé were considered contemporary. Many homeowners associate it with the past. Most of the time, homeowners say they’re looking for something modern when, really, they’re just looking for something that’s contemporary with modern influences.
If you’re in the market for a home and are unsure of what style you’re looking for, think of it this way: Remember that the term modern means that a home was built in a specific period of time and that contemporary refers to “whatever is popular right now,” and it’ll be easier when you’re on the home buying hunt. Don’t forget to check out our mortgage calculator to find out how much home you can afford before you get started!
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