Many people think modern and contemporary design are the same. But there’s a world of difference. They may be synonyms when describing many things, but in design, modern vs. contemporary are quite different.

Modern design refers to an era that has passed, while contemporary design is all about the now and the future.

The most popular modern design era is the mid-century modern era of the 1950s and 1960s. But Art Deco design of the 1920s or anything from then to the vintage look of the 1970s can also be considered modern.

Here are the most popular elements and looks of modern vs. contemporary design.

Modern design often features wood and earthier elements

Wood elements and nature-inspired decor play an important part in modern design. Image: Square Root Architecture

Shop Mid-Century Modern design: Shelving and Storage, Chairs, Couches, Tables

Contemporary design features state-of-the-art materials, glass and metals

Glass, steel, porcelain and concrete are popular contemporary design materials. Image: Studio Ten

Shop Contemporary design: Shelving and Storage, Couches, Chairs, Tables

Modern vs. contemporary design colors

Contemporary design often sticks to a stricter palate of black, white and grey. If color is added, the color is often the pure, saturated tone like true red, indigo or orange. Modern design colors have an earthier hue and feature shades like rust, turquoise, brown and olive greens. Check out the difference in these two:

Browns, golds, turquoise and earthier tones are popular modern colors. Image: Nest Modern

Black, white and bold, saturated colors are very contemporary. Image: Atmosphere Interior Design

Modern vs. contemporary similarities

Both design styles have three general elements in common, which make them good design styles to mix and match into your own signature look. The three shared elements are:

1. The esthetics are both minimalist

A modern design featuring a minimal amount of furnishings and accents. Image: Koffka/Phakos Design

Contemporary minimal design. Image: John Maniscalco Architecture

2. Clean, architectural lines are their signature

Both modern and contemporary design styles are unfussy and lean toward clean lines instead of ornamentation, like this Scandinavian-style modern living room. Image: Garrison Hullinger

Contemporary design interiors like this living room feature straighter, more austere lines, while modern tends to incorporate more curves. Image: Haus Design Studio

3. They both have an open-space feel

A contemporary open space flows from one area to another fluidly. Image: KF Home Building

Wood is featured on all surfaces to maintain the flow of this open-space modern living area. Image: Best Builders

Now that you know a little more about modern vs. contemporary design, which style do you prefer?