What is Modern Interior Design?

Clean lines, no applied ornamentation, and the desire to embrace and celebrate the materials and methods afforded by new technological innovations are fundamental characteristics of Modern interior design.

“The House is a Machine for Living In”.  LeCobusier, 1923

Historical Overview

Modern style, as we know it today,  emerged from a movement which began with the Industrial Revolution around the end of the 19th century.  Proponents of the modern movement, such as Mies Van der Rohe, LeCorbusier, Walter Gropius sought to exploit the new materials and methods of the Industrial Age.

Farnsorth Interior

To the modernists, the Industrial Age was a significant fact – on par with such epic events as – the migration of humans from foraging  to agrarian societies or the religious movement of the Middle Ages.

Truth was viewed as the “Significance of Fact”.  As such, it was of great significance to express the truth of the new technology in our culture.

One of the mantras for modernism was ‘’Out with the Old – In with the New!’’ Other now infamous quotes include, “Less is More” and “Form Follows Function”.

It marked the beginning of a new era in both architectural and interior design. Modern designers sought to replace that which was deemed to be fussy or have gratuitous ornamentation such as the ornate and intricately carved furniture and decor of the Gothic, Renaissance, and Victorian design styles.

Lovell House InteriorModern Principles and Features: Instead,  the modernist movement presented furniture and decor exhibiting clean lines,  no applied ornamentation, and often times, modern materials such as steel or chrome   –  features that reflected the functional nature and materials of industrial production.

As described in a book entitled,  “The International Style” written in 1932, common principles of this Modern style included:

1) the expression of volume instead of mass,
2) the emphasis on balance or asymmetry rather than symmetry, and
3) the avoidance of applied ornament.

While Modern design rejected the use of  “applied” ornamentation – ornamentation was nonetheless a concern in Modern aesthetics.  Here, every detail to the construction of an object was considered. Another common motto of the modern movement was – “God is in the Details”.

modern dining chairsFor example, if nuts and bolts were used to connect a piece of furniture, they might be displayed as a decorative element.  Any ornamentation was an integral part of the objects construction.

Modern Evolutions: Since the early days of the modern movement many sub-genres of styles have emerged such as Mid-Century Modern, Post-Modern, and Deconstructionist –  from campy and kitsch to streamlined and elegant to  frenetic and complex.

While some of these styles veer from some of the original tenets of the Modern style by incorporating previously denounced practices such as using  gratuitous ornamentation or creating forms that do not relate to function, these styles nevertheless maintain an inventive spirit incorporating new technologies that remain within the realm, if not influence, of Modern design.

Residential Interior Design – Modern Style

Below is an overview of the common practices and features of Modern residential interior design. These apply to commercial design as well.

Floors, Walls, and Ceilings

Modern design focuses on creating dramatic “space” and expressing the “integrity” of a material rather than on the applied embellishments as found in Traditional design. High-end Modern interiors may feature, in a simple and elegant way, exquisite marbles, granites, woods, metals, leathers, and other fine materials.

Floors: Stained or unstained concrete, wood, bamboo, ceramic or porcelain tile, and linoleum are common choices for a Modern floor covering. Linoleum was very popular in Early Modern design as this material was one of the new industrial materials of the time.

modern lighting
Cove Lighting

Wallpaper is used sparingly – if at all. Occasionally, a “feature wall” may utilize  a bold print or “word art” wallpaper. But, more commonly, other materials such as wood, stone, metal, or glass is used for a feature wall.

Ceilings: Ceilings are usually flat or angled: typically drywall, tongue-and-groove wood paneling, exposed wood beams, or exposed metal trusses if going for an industrial look.  Cove lighting is a 20th century invention – and it can add depth to a room when the cove creates a tray or ledge effect.

Furniture and Accessories

modern style sofa
Modern Style Sofa Appears To Float

The new materials of the Industrial Age such as stainless steel, aluminum, chrome, laminates, glass, and plastic are all reflected in Modern furniture and accessories today.  And, other age old materials such as wood, bamboo, teak, leather, and textiles are also frequently found. The finishes of Modern design are often smooth and shiny.

Modern sofas and chairs typically have either thin and delicate legs or no legs at all  – and may appear to almost float.  Pleated and ruffled skirts are not used. The lines are often straight and clean, the arms are generally squared off and the back may have flat cushions.

jacobnson modern chair
Arne Jacobson Egg Chair and Noguchi Coffee Table


Art furniture is the expression of “form over function” and includes pop art motifs such as high-heel shoe chairs and giant lip sofas.

Sculptural chairs and tables are quite common examples of art furniture such as the famous Arne Jacobsen egg chair.

These pieces should be useful but their main purpose is to inject a shot of interest, color or shape to the room.



Wall Art and Modern Wall Mirrors:  Wall mirrors and wall art typically have narrow or no frames.  When art is framed and matted, the matting may be very wide relative to the size of the picture.  Large pieces of wall art are often preferred over a collection of smaller pictures – as it minimizes the appearance of clutter and maintains simple lines.

Modern Rugs range from short to long pile (shag or fur-like)  – often a solid color.  Although, it has been a longstanding practice by designers to interject a traditional and highly patterned Oriental rug into an otherwise Modern style decor.


Colors and Fabrics

A wide spectrum of colors and shades are utilized in Modern interior design. Perhaps most associated with this style are the neutral shades: black, white, gray, and beige.

dining room yellow

Yet, color has always played an important role. Colors range from muted and earthy olive green, burnt umber, mustard yellow, and pumpkin to the intensely saturated colors such as fuchsia, chartreuse, plum, and cobalt blue.

Many Modern rooms have one splash of vibrant color against a backdrop of neutral white, cream or gray.  With color, like most design elements of the Modern style, expect the unexpected. Fabrics may be quite smooth without much texture and have a large splashy floral, geometric, stripe, dot, or paisley pattern. Solid colors are very prevalent.

Windows Treatments

modern window blinds

Less is more when it comes to Modern window treatments. In some cases, window treatments are not used at all. But, this usually occurs in when there are no neighbors around.

Roman and other types of shades and blinds work well because they are functional and not frilly.  Curtains that extend from the ceiling to the floor are also popular. These are hung from a thin rod or hung from the ceiling with some type of recessed device.  Simple panels or curtains are all that’s needed.



Lamps and Lighting

The electric light bulb was one of many significant developments of the Industrial Age.  However, the widespread use of the incandescent bulb did not occur until well after WWI.

Modern Bubble Lamps

This new technology combined with the new manufacturing processes and materials such as plastic spurred tremendous innovation within the newly-formed electrical lighting industry.

Today, there are lots of Modern lamps and lighting fixtures that come  in a variety of geometric or organic shapes, materials, and colors.

Whereas Traditional table or floor lamp shades are usually cone or bell shaped, Modern lampshades are usually a simple drum shape with no tassels or fringe. However, the shade fabric may have a bold color or pattern. Other more organic shape lampshades are also available.

Changing a table lamp or other lighting fixture can be a relatively inexpensive way to update the look of a room.  The room decor need not be Modern in order to add a Contemporary or Modern lamp – provided that the fixture relates in some manner.


The Modern style is easy to spot and hard to forget. Modern takes on a life of its own—it’s fun, colorful, stylized, sleek, polished, smooth, sophisticated and so much more. It can be beautiful in shape, image and form or whimsical and even amusing.  Although, today, the Modern style is more of a renaissance than a revolution it still new, fresh, and exciting!

Photo source:  HOUZZ

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