If you ever watched Mad Men, you know the modern look. Picture the Drapers’ New York City penthouse: the living space defined by a sleek sectional couch and angular built-ins. Or the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising agency office, with all of its low-slung furniture, high-polish lighting fixtures — and infinite coolness. Clutter was utterly anathema, and clean lines were as abundant as cigarette smoke. That’s the epitome of modern design.
Here, we’ll get into the history of modern design, the key principles that define it, and tips from experts on how to pull off the modern design look at home.
The birth of modern design
Think of modernism as a backlash: It sprung up as a reaction to the intensely ornate flourishes built into architecture, art, and design in the 1800s.
Beginning in the late 19th century and really taking hold in the 1930s, the pendulum swung to form over function with the arts and crafts movement. This style cherished hand-wrought, simple furniture with glass and steel accents. Arts and crafts interiors featured primarily neutral hues with pops of intentional color and eschewed clutter in favor of tidiness and clean lines.
Modern design evolved the years following World War II into mid-century modern design. As seen in Mad Men, mid-century modern design is grounded in simplicity and functionality, featuring elements like tapered and hairpin furniture legs, sleek oak tables, and minimal decor.
Modern design today: Defining elements
Today’s iteration of modern design still abides by its predecessors’ fundamental design principles:
- Clean lines
- Clutter-free spaces
- Industrial-inspired materials
- A largely neutral palette with curated pops of color
Compare this with the so-called contemporary design style, which simply refers to decorating aesthetics that are current and trending. While “modern” and “contemporary” may have similar dictionary definitions, they refer to two distinct styles in interior design.
Master modern design for your interior
Ready to try the look at home? For guidance, refer to these expert-backed tips for styling a modern interior.
Start with a streamlined sectional and minimalist accent chairs
Select a sleek, low-profile sofa à la Restoration Hardware. “Choose comfortable, sleek, and minimal furniture pieces,” advises Emily Perez, the lead home designer at Kitchen Infinity. “The upholstery may include materials like leather or natural fabrics in different textures. Avoid ornate furniture if you want a modern look, and pick pieces based on the size of your living room to prevent clutter.”
Not all furnishings must be upholstered, though: Clear, acrylic accent chairs provide an unexpected twist that instantly elevates your space. Drape a faux fur throw over the arm to soften the appearance.
Get the look: Sofa and chaise sectional, $2,599 at AllModern
Layer a neutral palette with intentional pops of color
“The design of a modern interior revolves around the principle of ‘less is more,’” Perez explains, recommending a neutral color palette in shades of white, beige, or muted gray. Natural materials like wood, bamboo, and stone can add warmth to space in a sustainable manner.
“If a soft scheme seems too monotonous, you can break it by adding pops of color via accent walls or with soft furnishings like cushions, rugs, or artworks. Make sure that all the colors complement each other and give the space a balanced look,” she advises. Traditionally, hues like mustard yellows, oranges, and browns are associated with mid-century modern design.
Sarah Gaffney, design and development director for Next Stage Design in San Jose, California adds this tip: “To keep the palette from appearing too cold, opt for warmer tones for the flooring.”
Get the look: Clarita modern throw pillow, $70.95 at Crate and Barrel
Add high-polish accents
“When styling a modern interior, choose dramatic metals that reflect natural light like chrome,” notes Sara Abate Rezvanifar, branding and communications director for the Ontario, Canada-based Ambience Design Group.
Lighting fixtures can be an easy way to bring in the look. Or try incorporating polished metallic finishes like chrome and stainless steel in mirror frames, wall accessories, pendant lights, tables, doorknobs, drawer pulls, and photo frames.
Get the look: Touch-control table lamp, $39.99 at Amazon
Carefully curate open shelving
Curated open shelving is a defining feature in modern design.
Ashley Peeling, regional marketing manager for property management group CLV Group, agrees that floating shelves or built-ins are a great tool for creating a modern look in a space. “Decorative storage is an excellent strategy to make use of vertical space while looking modern and decorated,” she says. “Each resident can customize their shelves to style however they like to suit their home.”
In the kitchen, Trendey lead interior designer Andra DelMonico recommends adding two or three small floating shelves to an empty wall. “Mount them one above each other and arrange spices, oils, or fresh herbs on them,” she says. “This adds functional storage space while also being a decorative display.”
Get the look: Slim floating shelves collection, from $40 at West Elm
Harness built-in storage to reduce clutter
To keep your living room clutter-free, choose furniture pieces with built-in storage, Perez advises. “These can be used to store anything that doesn’t need to be seen or is not used every day. A bookshelf, a TV unit with drawers, a couch with hidden storage are some ways to ensure there isn’t too much stuff lying outside.”
Get the look: Swenson geometric bookcase, $199 at Wayfair
Bring in some greenery
Add large plants for pops of greenery in your modern design space. Fiddle leaf figs, dragon trees, snake plants, and Phalaenopsis orchids all fit the mid-century modern look, especially when planted in sleek planters on stands.
“Plants, huge ones, are an integral part of modern interior design,” explains Marina Vaamonda, home stager and the Founder of PropertyCashin. “Greenery makes your home look homier and adds a vibrant pop of color that makes a room feel alive.”
Get the look: Faux snake plant in planter, $85 at AllModern
Decorate intentionally with a few key pieces
Showcase a large piece of abstract art on a wall instead of crowding the space with smaller paintings and wall accessories. After all, clutter is the enemy of modern design.
Katie Mills, interior designer, writer, and editor for UK-based interiors platform Poshh suggests using picture ledges to create gallery walls. “This combines two key aspects of modern interior design: strong, clean lines and playing with art,” she says. “It’s also vastly easier than a traditional gallery wall. Keep your art cohesive by using some kind of theme, [such as] subject, color, or frame shape.”
Get the look: Roar + Rabbit embellished wall art, $280 at West Elm
Anchor the room with a Scandinavian-inspired rug
When in doubt, choose a Scandinavian-inspired accent to complement a modern theme.
“This light and clean design style will leave your home feeling refreshed, comfortable, and, most important, modern,” says Land of Rugs’ Ryan Jones. “Synthetic materials such as polypropylene and polyester will work really well for this as they look great and can [tolerate] a high amount of foot traffic.”
Get the look: Scandinavian linear area rug, $115.60 at Walmart
Header Image Source: (Kitchen Infinity)