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Modern vs. Contemporary - What's the Difference?

Published 6 months agoΒ β€’Β 2 min read

Welcome to Owner Notes, a free newsletter for anyone planning on (or dreaming about) building a custom home.

πŸ‘‰ If you enjoy Owner Notes, share this link with pals or read past issues.


Hello friends!

Before getting to this week's newsletter, I have a request. I'd love to know about your (current or future) project and what's on your mind. Are you facing a dilemma? Do you have questions about getting started with a project? Do you need advice on how to handle a situation?

No strings. I'm here for you. Feel free to email me directly at lee@buildlivable.com or reply to this email.


Modern vs. Contemporary - What's the Difference?

When we first started planning our home in 2018, we wanted it to have a "modern" look and feel. Modern felt like the right word, even though I wasn't 100% sure what it meant for our design.

Since then, I've learned a lot about architecture and how new homes relate to architectural movements and contemporary design. The house we built is a modern design, and it's also contemporary. Confused yet? You're not alone.

Modern and Modernism

To understand modernism, we need to consider home design prior to 1900. These homes were often made of traditional materials like brick and wood, and full of ornamentation and flourish. This house in Charleston, SC is an example:

Around 1950, architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe embraced a new style of architecture that did away with the traditional approach. This meant embracing technology and using materials like metal and glass. It also meant discarding the ornate decoration of traditional design and focusing on function over form. The new focus was efficiency and the idea that homes should be built according to how they are used.

This was the beginning of a design movement called "modernism". When we say, "I want a house with a modern design.", we are referring to the ideas from this movement. One of the most famous modernist homes is the Glass House by Philip Johnson, built in 1949.

Our house, for example, incorporates a modernist design with large glass and aluminum panels, for example:

Contemporary Design

Architectural has had many movements over time. Before modernism, there was Art Deco and Arts and Crafts (Craftsman). These movements were marked by places in time, or periods.

Contemporary design is different because it's not a specific movement or style. Instead of having a time period, contemporary design relates to the materials, styles, and approaches that are currently popular or in fashion.

An example is the modern farmhouse style, which is a throwback to traditional architecture with some modern approaches and materials.

The charred "yaki sugi" siding we used on our house is another example. The technique goes back centuries in Japan and is now having a moment in contemporary architecture. It gives the house a modern look but isn't likely to be considered modernist.

Note: Architecture is a diverse field with various perspectives on what represents a style or movement. Your mileage may vary.

Bottom Line for Homeowners

In planning a home and working with an architect or designer, it's helpful to be aware of the basics of modernism and what represents contemporary design. This can set the vision for your project and become a touchstone throughout the process.

Keep Learning for ✨Free✨

This post is based on the chapter "Architecture Crash Course" in our Home Planning Navigator course course.

We've made the chapter free (no login required). Check it out.

That's what I have for now. I'll be in touch again soon! 🌞

Lee LeFever, Build Livable​


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Build Livable's Owner Notes + Courses for Homeowners

We're homeowners helping homeowners navigate custom home construction via online education. Owner Notes is a weekly email with expert tips and advice for anyone planning (or dreaming about) building a custom home.

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