Contemporary vs. Modern & Transitional Designs

Interior Design Styles: Contemporary vs. Modern vs. Transitional

Modern, contemporary and transitional decor are popular choices for interior design layouts, but people often mistake these styles for one another. Although they share certain traits, modern design focuses on clean lines, while contemporary looks include more curves. Transitional styles blend the updated feel of contemporary design with more traditional details.

Streamlined, simple silhouettes promote a modern look within this bedroom.
Streamlined, simple silhouettes promote a modern look within this bedroom.

What you’ll learn in this article:

What Is Modern Design?

Sometimes confused with contemporary decor, this design has various defining features. Modern rooms typically have an earthy or neutral color palette that promotes a clean, casual vibe. Some layouts also incorporate striking orange, green or blue hues in small amounts to boost their visual appeal.

Straight, clean lines are the hallmark of modern living room, bedroom or dining furniture. Simple, unadorned silhouettes and tailored upholstery help distinguish modern pieces from similar furnishings. Function is another central tenant of modern room decor. Seating, tables and accents should all have a specific purpose within these layouts, and decorative trinkets and knickknacks are typically absent.

Most furniture in this style features natural elements like wood and stone, making it easy to pair modern furnishings with other styles. Since many modern tables and chairs feature light or dark wood finishes, you can also add them to rustic, classic or coastal layouts.

Natural woodgrain and sleek, tapered legs make this space feel modern.
Natural woodgrain and sleek, tapered legs make this space feel modern.

Modern Room Ideas

In bedrooms, complement your bed frame with headboards in neutral or earthy colors to achieve a more modern look. If you want to organize your novels for late-night reading, add a sleek bookcase. Or, consider a storage ottoman to stow extra sheets or blankets. Does your bedroom have a high ceiling? If so, modern chandeliers provide plenty of light and coordinate well with the rest of your decor.

To create a modern living room design, start with a coordinated collection, a sofa featuring straight lines or a set of streamlined accent chairs. Introduce natural elements with a wooden bench, coffee table or accent table to make the space more casual and inviting. For a little extra flair, add accent pillows or wall decor in complementary hues.

For modern layouts, look for straight, angular furniture.
For modern layouts, look for straight, angular furniture.

What Is Contemporary Interior Design?

When comparing contemporary vs. modern style, you’ll notice contemporary layouts lean more toward curved silhouettes, saturated colors and bold accents rather than straight edges and earth tones. In these designs, neutral hues like black and white are common upholstery colors and finishes. Neutrals provide a backdrop for brighter accent hues, allowing these more vibrant colors to shine.

Fabric and texture are also important in contemporary interior design. Soft, comfortable furniture such as upholstered living room sets and accent chairs often feature in contemporary layouts along with natural materials like smooth metal, wood and stone. For instance, you may see furniture legs and hardware with polished metal finishes used in some pieces, such as a chrome end table.

The table's curves and use of bold color are typical of contemporary design.
The table's curves and use of bold color are typical of contemporary design.

Decorating a Contemporary Layout

Unlike sleek modern furniture, curved lines take center stage in these layouts. In a contemporary living room design, sofas with rolled arms, glass top end tables and circular coffee tables work well as the foundation of your ensemble. Bring in plush armchairs, loveseats and sloped back chaises if you need to expand your seating to accommodate guests.

You can take the same approach in a contemporary bedroom. While modern spaces emphasize wood finishes and earthy colors, opt for something like a crisp white or chic black bed to create a contemporary look. When mixing in materials and textures, consider storage pieces like a silver chest of drawers or an embossed nightstand with metallic hardware.

Curved headboards and glossy finishes add contemporary flair.
Curved headboards and glossy finishes add contemporary flair.

What Defines Transitional Decorating Style?

Transitional design mixes traditional structures with contemporary details. This style pairs the ornate flourishes and shapes of traditional furniture with the colors and comfort of contemporary decor. Since these silhouettes borrow from traditional design elements, many items have arches or curved lines and classic touches like turned legs or bun feet.

Transitional color palettes often incorporate neutrals like cream, taupe and gray. Furniture should be cozy and comfortable, from textured fabric upholstered transitional sofas featuring rolled arms to plush leather recliners with padded headrests. In bedrooms, beds with upholstered headboards or button-tufted daybeds add an extra layer of coziness.

Bolder accent colors, when combined with more traditional furniture shapes, give the room a fresh, updated appearance.
Bolder accent colors, when combined with more traditional furniture shapes, give the room a fresh, updated appearance.

Decorating a Transitional Style Living Room or Bedroom

Since transitional design style combines both classic and contemporary elements, you’ll see aspects of both when selecting furniture. A white sectional with sloped arms and turned wooden legs provides a chic mixture of both looks. Darker colors add depth and enrich the room’s palette, too, so consider accent pieces like an espresso chair or a walnut table set.

Designing a transitional style bedroom can be as easy as pairing a panel bed in a stylish gray finish with a coordinating dresser and nightstands. If you have an existing bedroom set, consider bringing in other transitional home decors such as vanities, benches and stools. Finishing touches like wall art, accent pillows and light fixtures help pull the design together to create a relaxing environment.

Transitional bedrooms in neutral colors are easy to decorate in any theme.
Transitional bedrooms in neutral colors are easy to decorate in any theme.