The average furniture shopper doesn’t always know the technical name for the furniture style they’re looking for, but they do know what they want. Some shoppers that like sleek, trendy, cutting-edge furniture may refer to the style as modern furniture while others may call the same piece contemporary furniture. Interestingly enough, the terms are not synonymous. Modern furniture actually arrived on the decorating scene in the early 20th century while contemporary furniture is more of a art form that didn’t really get classified until the last quarter of that century.
Modern furniture had most of its roots in the French Art Deco style that was popular just after the close of the First World War. The furniture—the beginning of the Modernism movement— was all sharp lines and angles reflecting the impact of the industrial age and the new technology that came with it. Modern furniture had little embellishment; instead, accents came from splashes of bright color and the use of shiny metals. Less traditional and frivolous than the Art Deco they were styled after; modern furniture pieces had to have a purpose.
After the war, money and resources were tight. Furniture making, which had nearly come to a standstill during the conflict, needed to devise a more efficient and economical way to get their pre-war businesses up and running. By necessity, furniture was designed without the frills, plush fabrics, or intricate carvings that had previously been used to soften the lines of the wood. Gone, too, were the exotic woods and rich marbles and other stone surfaces that defined earlier furniture styles and in their place came steel tubing, leather and other animal hides, and that lumber workhorse, ”plywood”. Years later, as technology introduced new materials, modern furniture builders began to incorporate materials made from plastic, and foam rubber padding began to replace horse-hair, cotton batting, and other stuffing materials. While hand-crafting wasn’t completely set aside as the modernism era gained strength, much of the furniture built in this era was mass produced to help keep costs to a minimum.
Embraced by the Bauhaus School of Design, modernism gained in popularity and became more artistic and creative in its finished form. The instructors at the school felt strongly that the furniture should reflect some measure of social responsibility and instructed their students to keep the community in mind as they built their designs. Bauhaus had a huge influence on the spread of modernism throughout the world but the most influential individuals, by far, were Gerrit Rietveld, a Dutch artist, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—a modern designer/architect.
Contemporary furniture, while it may share many of the lines and structural components of modern furniture, is more of an art form and, in some cases, more of an environmental statement than was modern furniture. Contemporary furniture first appeared in the Netherlands during the late 1970s and the early 1980’s. The early pieces turned out by designers like the De Stijl Group were sleek and daring in their designs, but more abstract than the modern furniture of the 1920’s. Often times, the structure of contemporary furniture was left exposed and the fabrics and other materials had a more industrial look than those of their modernism predecessors. Contemporary furniture companies made quite a splash when they began offering pieces made entirely of injection plastic or recycled materials of all kinds. The Contemporary look was asymmetrical and bold; some of it even took on a cartoonish look. But the premise was the same as with modern furniture. It was minimalist, sleek—even stark—functional, and given to geometrical profiles.
Early Scandinavian designs were compelling and garnered attention to the genre, but it wasn’t until the second generation of craftsmen put their spin on contemporary furniture that the style really took off. More industrialized in their vision, these designers took chances and were more willing to experiment with unusual materials and shapes. During this timeframe, hand-crafting began to decline as more and more people turned to the manufactured shapes, cutting-edge styles, and pocketbook-friendly pieces offered by the contemporary furniture companies.
The extent of the impact that contemporary furniture has had on the design world is demonstrated by the number of museums dedicated to showcasing the style. The Vitra Design Museum and the Terence Conran Design Museum are two examples of properties dedicated to tracing the history of the art form, promoting the design and appeal of the style, and preserving classic examples for posterity.
Today, computers have given free-reign to new frontiers in modern and contemporary furniture. Designers can now experiment with more daring designs, untried materials, and break-through technology right on their PC screens. This cuts down on costs, and saves time by allowing designers to solve problems and discover design flaws before the item goes into production.
Through time, the phrase “modern furniture” has come to mean ‘what’s current or in fashion right now’. To that end, it is constantly evolving. Contemporary furniture—which is still popular today—could be considered modern when thought of in those terms. So, for those of you who consider modern furniture and contemporary furniture one and the same, for now you’re right; but who knows where the future will lead us?