Modern or Contemporary?
By Shelagh Duncan
When we moved down here I was probably more drawn to the Tommy Bahama living room more than any Modern one. How can our casual and laid-back lifestyle in Costa Rica relate to the cold, clinical steel and concrete interiors that are called Modern?
However, things change… Oscar Wilde penned “With age comes wisdom” and perhaps my new-found appreciation for the modern aesthetic is proof of that. The clean lines and minimalist approach do have a certain appeal, and I must admit, I have always admired the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
What can be confusing is that the concept of ‘Modern’ for many people also encompasses what we call ‘Contemporary’ design. These are actually two quite different styles, but the terms are often used interchangeably. Simply put, ‘Modern’ design has an historical reference: ‘Contemporary’ style reflects the current trends.
So what exactly is the difference? Modern design has its own specific place in history. It was born out of the Modernism era in the first half of the 20th century, and is in stark contrast to the previously ornate, hand-made furniture of the Victorian and Art Nouveau eras. Factories could produce more items, faster and cheaper, and this movement perfectly reflects the 2nd industrial age – and change. Poet Ezra Pound’s battle cry was “Make it new!” – and they did.
Modern design was functionally motivated, and followed the same principles as modern architecture – machine-like simplicity, smoothness of surface and an absence of ornament. Modern furniture embraced the new materials – steel in its many forms, glass, molded plywood and of course plastics. The goal of modern design was to capture timeless beauty in spare precision. It gave us iconic and enduring designs, and names like Eames, Saarinen, Le Corbusier, Breuer and Mies van de Rohe.
White was the perfect backdrop for these new pieces: it showed their form in the purest way. These modern rooms made liberal use of windows and light – again in complete contrast to Victorian homes, where the “Window Tax” produced those gloomy interiors! However, it was the Englishwoman Syrie Maugham who gave us the first all white room way back in the 1920’s. Her white room was not in the Modern style, but this revolutionary concept helped change the way Modern designers thought about space. Airy interior spaces with sparsely furnished rooms, clean lines and asymmetrical balance characterized the modern look – and the rooms were white.
Modern is a design style attributed to a specific period of time, Contemporary is not.
Contemporary design is ever changing – it is of this moment. It is a living, morphing entity and will display itself in a very different form 10, or 50 years from now depending on the trending styles at that time.
Contemporary style refers to what is popular right now, and can be very eclectic for that very reason. It borrows pieces and styles from different eras. For example, furniture and art from the Modern era are often used in contemporary design, and we know that the mid-century modern look is very popular right now. However, traditional details and trim can also be incorporated into these designed spaces as well as industrial and rustic pieces.
The only caveat with this style is that, because it is ever-changing, it can look great today – but start to look dated after a while. So I guess we just have to keep buying new pieces to keep it updated!
So, you can decide whether your style is Modern or Contemporary, and really, unless you are a purist the terminology is not as important as the finished look. Well designed homes and interiors can have the essence of the modern style with the openness and materials that reflect that time, but by including pieces that show your personality and taste you can enjoy a contemporary, and modern home.
Tropical Modernism is something different again. As an architect in Sri Lanka, Geoffrey Bawa was one of the original proponents of Tropical Modernism – a design movement that, amongst other things began the integration of buildings and the landscape. This is when the blurring of lines between indoor and outdoor living began, and which we still enjoy today.
He built for the tropical climate. He recognized its special needs and combined those needs with the basic principles of Modern design. Bawa’s legacy was some beautifully designed hotels, a university campus and many public and government buildings, as well as many private residences.
What does Tropical Modernism look like today? This is the area that perhaps would be most relevant to us living where we do, so let’s look at this in detail next time. We will talk about the architecture, the furniture, the materials and the overall style.
Embrace the differences and enjoy the results!