Everything You Need to Know About This Minimal and Current Style

Melissa Bradford

When it comes to interior design styles, contemporary interior design may be the most future-thinking. “What distinguishes it so much is that it is an ever-evolving design style, versus some of the ones in history where they have a very set time period and a very specific set of rules that they’re referring back to,” says Erin Sander, an interior designer based in Dallas, Texas, and founder of Erin Sander Design. Defined by clean lines, decorated minimalism, and current trends, contemporary interiors are distinctly of-the-moment—even when the moment changes. Found throughout homes, offices, and retail settings, below AD dives into just what makes this versatile style and how you can bring it into your space.

History of contemporary interior design

“Contemporary design came out after the midcentury-modern movement,” Sander says. Starting in the 1970s, the style was first seen as more of an amalgamation of various popular aesthetics of the time, like modernism, postmodernism, and Art Deco. Slowly the term contemporary started to take on a meaning of its own.

This contemporary home designed by Erin Sander features a concrete console paired against natural elements like wood and greenery.

Photo: James Nathan Schroder

What is contemporary in interior design?

“From the 1970s forward, it has continued to grow just as a very current, very on-trend way to define a style that is moving forward,” Sander says. It could be understood as a design style that pulls from many popular styles of a given moment, creating a unique look that is undeniably “in.” This also means, however, that a contemporary home may look different at different times. “Other styles that frequently recirculate have many distinct correlations,” Sander says. A midcentury-modern aesthetic will almost always make use of walnut-toned wood, for example, in the same way a farmhouse aesthetic will frequently include rustic decor. “With contemporary, there aren’t as many reference points,” she continues, “and I think what you’ll see is contemporary borrows from so many different styles and combines them all together.”

What does contemporary design style mean?

“Typically I would define contemporary more as a blending of styles,” says Brad Ramsey, an interior designer based in Nashville. “It’s a little more eclectic, but it’s trend-forward, so contemporary is usually what’s on trend right now.” Ramsey grew up in a contemporary house outside of Atlanta that was often well-liked by visitors for its uniqueness. “It had tall pitched ceilings that are all cedar slats inside with skylights at the top,” he says. “And when I was growing up, everybody always loved coming over to my house.” Even though his parents purchased the home in the ’80s, it’s kept its contemporary status through thoughtful upgrades and changes throughout the years. “If it stays in the trends of when they bought it, then it no longer really stays in that contemporary feel; you have to keep updating it,” he says.

A contemporary bedroom by Erin Sander adds a small pop of color through a textured bedspread.

A contemporary bedroom by Erin Sander adds a small pop of color through a textured bedspread.

Photo: James Nathan Schroder

According to Sander, today when someone talks about contemporary style, they’re often referring to an aesthetic that bridges the gap between modern and minimalist, with a more neutral color palette that highlights the architecture of a space. A contemporary living room, for example, “might have fewer pieces in the room, but each of them have a more artistic or artisanal quality and high level of craftsmanship to them,” Sander says. “Frequently the pieces in the room would have quite a mix of textures to them.” Carved wood, mixed metals, and soft fabrics often come together in relatively neutral tones, with occasional bold color infused in pops from artworks, rugs, or blankets.

What is the difference between modern and contemporary interior design?

Though modern and contemporary styles have similar names—and their adjectives are synonyms according to most thesauruses—they manifest very differently in the design world. “Modern is a style that has already passed,” Ramsey says. “We continue to be attracted to it, and we replicate that in design over and over again.”

A contemporary living room designed by Brad Ramsey has a modern shell but brings in plenty of organic and vintage accents.

A contemporary living room designed by Brad Ramsey has a modern shell but brings in plenty of organic and vintage accents.

Photo: Jack Gardner

Unlike contemporary interiors, which are much more fluid and ever-changing, modern homes incorporate specific qualities and elements often derived from or inspired by the midcentury-modern movement of the ’40s and ’50s. “Modern interior design was rooted in the Bauhaus movements and Scandinavian movements, and so modern and midcentury modern really tie back to the principles that those schools of thought promoted,” Sander adds, whereas contemporary interiors don’t reference any specific movement, but rather what’s of-the-moment now. It’s for that reason that Ramsey’s parents’ house may look different today than it did 40 years ago, but in both iterations it was contemporary.

Defining elements and characteristics of contemporary interior design

For someone interested in incorporating contemporary interior design into their home, understanding the building blocks of the style is important.

What are the elements of contemporary design?

According to Sander, clean lines, natural materials, and minimalism are all current signifiers of contemporary design. “I think it’s kind of to each his own,” Ramsey adds, noting there is a certain level of individualism in many contemporary projects. “Everybody could live in contemporary houses and each would be completely different from the next one.”

Clean lines and a natural color palette are on display in this contemporary living room designed by Erin Sander.

Clean lines and a natural color palette are on display in this contemporary living room designed by Erin Sander.

Photo: James Nathan Schroder

Though not an exhaustive list, many contemporary homes will make use of the following elements:

  • Open spaces and floor plans

  • Clean, straight lines

  • Neutral color schemes with pops of color from artworks

  • Layered textures

  • Streamlined silhouettes and geometric shapes

  • Statement chandeliers or pendant lights

  • Breadth of materials including

According to Ramsey, many contemporary homes start with a modern shell and are then layered with unique pieces and finds. “It really is just that perfect juxtaposition of modern pieces blended with old-world finds and great art, and it doesn’t all stay in one lane,” he says.

Examples of contemporary interior design

Contemporary kitchen

A contemporary-style kitchen designed by Brad Ramsey.

A contemporary-style kitchen designed by Brad Ramsey.

Photo: Jack Gardner

Another take on a contemporary kitchen designed by Erin Sander.

Another take on a contemporary kitchen designed by Erin Sander.

Photo: James Nathan Schroder

Contemporary dining room

This dining room designed by Erin Sander is defined by large windows, which allow the greenery outside to complement the natural colors indoor.

This dining room designed by Erin Sander is defined by large windows, which allow the greenery outside to complement the natural colors indoor.

Photo: James Nathan Schroder

This dining room designed by Brad Ramsey mixes elements seen in farmhouse, modern, and minimalist homes.

This dining room designed by Brad Ramsey mixes elements seen in farmhouse, modern, and minimalist homes.

Photo: Paige Rumore

Contemporary living room

Modern art pairs with more minimalist furniture in this living room designed by Brad Ramsey.

Modern art pairs with more minimalist furniture in this living room designed by Brad Ramsey.

Photo: Jack Gardner

How to achieve contemporary interior design in your home

According to the designers, achieving a contemporary-style home is often about paring things down. Sander suggests decluttering your home and looking at the pieces that are most impactful and important. “Then you want to set the stage for [these items] with a neutral palette,” she says. After removing excess, the interior design trend often emphasizes a few focal points—for example, a statement-making chandelier or a central coffee table with one or two important decor items. Ramsey agrees this a good way to bring the contemporary spirit to a home. “The foundation of contemporary is in modern in that it can’t be too busy; it can’t be cluttered with a lot of things,” he says. “So paring it down to where it is a clean palette and then choosing where your focal places are going to be is a good idea.”

A contemporary living room designed by Erin Sander seen through the backyard.

A contemporary living room designed by Erin Sander seen through the backyard.

Photo: James Nathan Schroder

Since contemporary style is often a mix of various popular styles, it’s important to combine aesthetics—at least to some extent. For example, Ramsey says you might use an antique console, a modern piece of art, and a midcentury lamp in an entryway to achieve a contemporary aesthetic. “That’s a good example of how to start a vignette that works in a contemporary look,” he says. Of course, if you’re ever stuck with your home design, browsing for design inspiration or decor ideas is often helpful. And as Sander reminds us, contemporary is all about the future. “It’s not stuck in the past,” she says. “It’s always moving forward.”

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest

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