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When looking up “modern design,” the word “contemporary” is often listed as a synonym. But as any design lover can attest, the two classic styles are not one and the same. Simply put, “modern” is not just an adjective—it refers to a specific style that flourished during the early to mid-twentieth century. By contrast, contemporary design generally refers to what’s popular at the moment and is constantly evolving.
Of course, this distinction is important when redesigning a bathroom. From shower tile and flooring to paint color and hardware, every decision contributes to your overall vision. While mixing and matching is perfectly acceptable, educating yourself on modern versus contemporary bathroom design can help you pinpoint your preferred style.
To help guide you, we outlined everything you need to know about modern vs. contemporary bathroom design, from color palette, to layout, and finishes.
Generally speaking, modern design is an expression of the modernism movement, which began in the late 1800s and was heavily influenced by Scandinavian simplicity and the German Bauhaus school. It thrived from the early 1900s to the 1950s, when mid-century modern became ubiquitous before postmodernism eventually took over.
Modern design is defined by the belief that form follows function, and is therefore characterized by clean lines, neutral colors, streamlined silhouettes, natural materials, and practical, sleek furniture. Think Marcel Breuer’s famous Wassily Chair, the iconic Eames chair, and the Grand Confort by Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret. Modern homes prioritize balance and function over all and adhere to a minimalistic aesthetic.
On the contrary, contemporary design is less clear-cut and typically draws inspiration from multiple design sensibilities. While contemporary design is not tied to a specific time period, the term first came about in the 1970s in an effort to characterize design inspired by modernism, postmodernism, art deco, and more.
To this day, contemporary design is constantly evolving to reflect the design trends of the moment, and is therefore a bit ambiguous by nature. Contemporary spaces currently draw inspiration from modernism, postmodernism, Scandinavian minimalism, mid-century modern, industrialism, and modern-bohemian, without committing to any single aesthetic.
However, as Elle Decor reports, there are a few qualities that define the contemporary aesthetic: “Neutral palettes, stark minimalism, and organic silhouettes are some of the prominent characteristics. You can expect to see materials including nickel, steel, and chrome, combined with natural textures like hemp or jute.”
When dissecting modern versus contemporary bathroom design, it’s best to reference examples. The above space designed by architecture studio HÛT is a perfect example of modern design in 2020. Although it contains elements of classic modernism (note the clean lines and natural materials), the mid-century inspired teak vanity and art deco-esque terrazzo floors give it a modern flair. It feels very current and reflects the design trends of the moment, while still being rooted in modernism.
The above bathroom designed by Berga & Gonzalez Architects is a great example of a contemporary bathroom in 2020. With its marble floors, curved free-standing bathtub, and matte black hardware, it’s sleek, minimalist, and highly functional. True to form, it draws from classic modernism with its subdued color palette and use of natural materials, which is typical of a contemporary space.
Despite their many differences, modern and contemporary design are often confused for a reason. They both trend toward minimalism and often feature clean lines, natural materials, and a neutral color palette. Modern and contemporary homes both favor open floor plans and feel airy, spacious, and clean.