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Let’s start this piece by saying that the styles we’re covering here have been around for a long time. And by that, we mean they’re decades… and even a century old.
So you must be wondering why we’re calling them “the modern family of interior design styles.”
To answer that, we need to go back in time.
History of the Modern Styles
Photos: Gothic Revival by Leonid Andronov, Greek Revival by KenWiedemann Getty Images, Victorian by Marieke Peche Getty Images.
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By the end of the 1800s, the world of architecture and design was ripe for new and revolutionary ideas. After all, the prevailing styles of the time were the likes of Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and the eclectic Victorian Style – mere rehashes (revivalism) and mash ups (eclecticism) of the classic and historical styles.
Photos: La Sagrada Familia by alexsalcedo Getty Images, Chrysler Building by StephenKingPhotography Getty Images. Both via Canva Pro
So in the early 1900s, several new styles began to appear, like the Art Nouveau Style (1910) and the Art Deco Style (1920).
Social events like the Arts and Crafts Movement (1905) and the Modernist Movement came into play.
Bauhaus Building in Dessau, Germany by Tegula Pixabay via Canva Pro.
They all had something in common – the work they produced had little, if no reference at all to the classic historical styles: Greco-Roman, Romanesque, Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classic Styles.
That said, let’s turn our focus on the Modernist Movement and explore how it came to influence the field of design.
The factors that shaped the Modernist Movement
Modernism is a philosophical way of life that developed because of major happenings in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In terms of architecture and interior design, these are:
· the decline of religion in Western culture
· the effects of Industrial Revolution
· the First World War
Let’s take a dive into each one.
The decline of religion in Western culture
Since the time of antiquity up until the 1800s, religion largely influenced the directions taken by the arts and architecture.
The interiors of Pantheon in Paris, France, a building in Neo-Classic Style — that was a revival of the classic Greco-Roman Styles. Photo by 139904 Pixabay.
Byzantine – Photo by KevinHolt Getty Images Signature.
Gothic stained glass windows of the Cathedral of Toledo in Spain. Photo by Fernando Cortes.
Baroque interior of old church in São João del-Rei. Photo by Hugo Martins Getty Images.
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The major Greco-Roman structures were essentially built to house their deities. Christian iconography was a requirement in Byzantine buildings. Stained glass art of the Gothic Style depicted scenes from the Bible. Cherubs or angels adorned the walls and ceilings of Baroque architecture.
These styles or their elements consistently made their way into structures over the centuries.
Church images by: DAPA Images, Robert Stokoe Pexels, and user 32212 Pexels.
Microscope image by: goemb Getty Images.
Laboratory equipment image by: fotomy Getty Images.
Machine image by: Tiden Getty Images.
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Then came the fast-paced advances in most areas of everyday of life, such as in medicine and technology. New discoveries and new ways of philosophical thinking developed, giving people a sense of freedom and invincibility. Something very novel at that time.
Man no longer thought that life should only be lived in the confines of what the Church dictated.
Crystal Palace image by Phillip Brannan, courtesy of the Science Museum Group with Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence.
Eiffel Tower image by Samson Bush Pexels via Canva Pro.
As religion took a lesser hold of societal norms, the Industrial Revolution was moving at a frantic speed. And in the later half of the 1800s, industrialization made its mark in architecture with the erection of the all-iron Eiffel Tower in Paris. Prior to that in 1851, the Crystal Palace in London was built with mainly iron and glass as the materials.
Both were devoid of any religious embellishment.
The effects of the Industrial Revolution
Industrialization wasn’t just seen in the monumental structures that were the Eiffel Tower and Crystal Palace. It permeated all areas of life.
Typewriter factory assembly line photo by Hulton Collection Getty Images.
Steamboat Photo by Archive Holdings Inc. Getty Images.
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It brought about new and more efficient ways in the manufacturing sector. The materials produced exuded the machine aesthetic. They looked uniform, precise, and polished. That was something difficult or even impossible to achieve using manual processes.
Another effect of the Industrial Revolution was its contribution to the fast developments in transportation. Access to what then were exotic places like Africa and Japan in Asia became easy for the Westerners.
Japanese torii gate by Studio Japan,
Japanese pagoda by MMMHagenbucher Getty Images,
Tribal mask by Ablestock.com Photo Images,
Tribal sculpture by Jupiterimages Photo Images,
Greek sculpture of a woman’s head by Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art CC0 Images,
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They discovered the boldness of African art forms despite their simple, handcrafted nature. And also the refreshing, understated aesthetic of Japanese works. Those were in striking contrast against the excesses and realism seen in those days’ prevailing Western styles.
Simplification, abstraction, and minimalism then became some of Modern Movement’s design principles.
The First World War
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So many lives were lost in the First World War that it spurred in the populace an intense feeling of mistrust and resentment towards the ruling class. As a consequence, their sense of nationalism began to fade and lose meaning.
To the Modernists in the design field, the ostentatiousness of the past styles became visually incongruent with the devastating aftermath of the war. In reaction, they abandoned all things that pointed to the past, a sort of rebellion against their sovereigns who espoused these styles – against the same people who led them to the war.
From there, the principles of modern design developed to embody the antithesis of everything traditional.
That being said, let us now explore Modernism as it relates to interior design.
The Modern Styles: De Stijl, Bauhaus & Mid-Century Modern
Modernism found its way into almost all fields of creative expression. In the arts, it included many genres. Among them: Cubism, Symbolism, Dadaism, and others.
And there’s De Stijl, Bauhaus, and Mid-Century Modern for both architecture and interior design.
3 Composition in Colour A by Piet Mondrian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
4 Painting by Dom J Pexel s via Canva Pro.
Spearheaded by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, De Stijl was an art movement that started in 1917, right in the midst of the First World War.
Feeling that the war had created a great degree of human divide, the movement sought to counter it through their art. And they did that by using an extreme form of abstraction, using only the simplest of elements in the efforts to convey unity and universality.
This resulted in an art form that anyone could understand. Something that transcended age, gender, nationality, or religion – in contrast to the classical and prevailing artworks that preceded it.
The difference was so stark that it’s better shown than described.
1 Impressionist Painting by Edouard Manet via Canva Pro.
2 Art Nouveau Painting “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
3 Symbolism Painting by Van Gogh by Andrew_Howe Getty Images Signature via Canva Pro.
From the two-dimensional art form, Dutch architect Gerrit Reitveld adapted De Stijl to architecture, interior and furniture design.
Built in 1925 and still standing today, the Schröder House was the only structure that strictly adhered to the principles of De Stijl, using the same shapes and colors, only this time, done in three dimensions.
Doing away with anything decorative that didn’t serve a practical purpose, the architecture and interior layout displayed a strong sense of minimalism and functionalism, two cornerstones of Modernism.
To top it, the second level of the house featured movable partitions, giving the space flexibility and multi-functional quality. The partitions allowed the use of extra space and provided privacy when desired – something that was revolutionary in built spaces a century ago.
Reitveld also designed and constructed the now iconic representation of De Stijl in furniture styles, the Red and Blue Chair.
Characteristics of De Stijl interior design style
- Clean-lined, colorful, simple and abstracted
- Functional and exhibits clever and versatile use of space.
Elements of De Stijl
- vertical and horizontal lines, that make squares and rectangles
- primary colors blue, red, and yellow
- non-colors gray, white, and black
- main material – wood
De Stijl didn’t become a mainstream in the fields of architecture and interior design. Despite that, it went on to greatly influence the Bauhaus Movement.
Photo by Tegula Pixabay via Canva Pro.
In 1919, Walter Gropius founded Bauhaus in Germany. It was a school that combined fine arts, crafts, and design. Their students were told not to mimic but to create their own.
Happening alongside England’s Arts and Crafts, both aimed to be the opposite of the traditional styles.
But while Arts and Crafts saw industrialization as something that cheapened the end product because of mass production, Bauhaus realized the opposite.
The school embraced the Machine Age and used the new technologies available in creating a diverse portfolio of products for a lower cost in terms of time and labor. And that’s without sacrificing aesthetic.
1 Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair by Kai ‘Oswald’ Seidler from Berlin, Germany, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
2 Le Corbusier’s LC3 Armchair by Christopher Söhngen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
3 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair. Image by I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons.
4 LC4, chaise longue, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perrian. Image by Vivienda-mansión la roche, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
5 Marcel Breuer’s Cantilever Chair by Holger.Ellgaard, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
That resulted in works that were functional and yet exuded an art-like, sculptural vibe – a successful feat in combining function and beauty despite being mass-produced by machines.
Bauhaus’ success as a school was interrupted when the Nazi Regime closed it down in 1933. The members of the faculty were forced to migrate to other countries. As an effect, they got to spread the Bauhaus principles along the way.
What started as a school then became the Bauhaus Movement. It was on its way to change architectural landscapes, but then, World War II happened.
Characteristics of Bauhaus Style
- Clean-lined, exudes machine aesthetic, masculine, metropolitan
- Functional and open interiors for versatility
- Uses iconic furnishing pieces with exposed metals and sculptural feel
Elements of the Bauhuaus Style
- Materials: concrete, metal, glass, leather
- Glass window wall
- Simple geometric shapes
- Color palette is mostly neutral but can include color blockings
Iconic Bauhaus designers and their iconic works
- Bauhaus Building
Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe
- Barcelona Chair
- Barcelona Stool
- Barcelona Couch
- MR Chair
Le Corbusier aka Charles Edouard Jeanerret-Gris
- LC3 Grand Confort Chair
- LC2 Petit Confort Chair
- LC4 Chaise Longue
- Nesting Tables
Showcased in these pieces are the thin, impeccably bent, polished steel framings. They are a testament to the material’s strength and to what could be accomplished using machines.
De Stijl’s influence on Bauhaus was more prominent in graphic design. But it’s evident in Josef Alber’s Nesting Tables in his use of color blocking.
There’s no arguing about the newness of the Barcelona Chair at that time. Nevertheless, it featured elements from previous styles like the tufting normally seen in Victorian pieces, and the x-shaped legs seen in ancient Egyptian stools. Incidentally around that time, there was a renewed interest in everything Egyptian because of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. (See chair #3 in the preceding photo.)
Mid-Century Modern aka Midmod or MCM
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The Bauhaus Movement might have been interrupted by the school’s closure and then by the Second World War. But its proponents’ migration to the US and other countries had helped in the propagation of the style. So when the war ended by mid-century, Modernism simply picked up from where it had left off.
However, the events of that time were also significant by themselves that the style began to take different looks, making Mid-Century Modern a distinguished version of the Modern Style attributed to the period between the later part of the 1940s to the 1960s.
Factors that influenced Mid-Century Modern Style
Apart from the Modernist Movement, here are the other factors that shaped Mid-Century Modern into the style we know today.
Save Scrap for Victory – Work Projects Administration Poster Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Salvage for Victory – National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Stahl House with floor-to-ceiling glass walls by Ovs at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Migration concept – Photo by heliopix Getty Images via Canva Pro
Atomic bomb – Charles Levy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Space Race – various, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
Boho Lifestyle – Photo by carlosbezzGetty Images Signature via Canva Pro.
Pop Art Movement – Photo by leszekglasner Getty Images via Canva Pro.
- There was a shortage of metals during and after the Second World War, so designers looked into other materials to use. With the aid of new technologies of the time, sleek molded plastic and molded plywood made their way into furniture design.
- Long-span glass was invented in 1952, so floor-to-ceiling glass walls began to be used in architecture. Prior to that, the Crystal Palace and the Bauhaus Buildings had smaller panes.
- The war forced some Europeans to migrate to the US, and those included Scandinavian craftsmen. The two groups of designers influenced each other, hence the striking similarities between them.
- Two major events of the time were the atomic bombings that ended the war, and the Space Race between the US and the former Soviet Union. They were so significant that styles in their names emerged, the Atomic Age and the Space Age Styles.
- In the 1960s, Bohemianism became a big part of the social scene, inevitably influencing Midmod to some degree.
- The Pop Art Movement started in the 1950s, so it’s not unusual to see artworks from that period in a mid-century modern space.
Characteristics of Mid-Century Modern Style
Because of Midmod’s diverse influences, a space done in this style can take many different directions. As for characteristics, one can have some or all that’s listed below. Same goes for the style’s elements later in this post.
Elements of Mid-Century Modern Style
- Large glass picture windows and doors – blurring the line between indoors and outdoors
- Hard materials:
- steel and black iron
- medium- or dark-colored wood
- molded plywood
- molded plastics
- natural stones
- Multi-functional and iconic furnishings from earlier modernists, and from later American and Scandinavian designers. Other notable pieces are also commonly seen, like the Acapulco Chair, Chandigarh Chair, Lady Chair, Arco Lamp, and Mushroom Table Lamp
- Furniture pieces have:
- flat-paneled doors
- biscuit tufting
- bent plywood frames with angular forms
- legs can be
- metal hairpin legs
- splayed or straight, tapered peg legs
- Natural and organic materials in construction and decor, such as plants, crazy-cut stones, live-edged wood, etc
- Graphic and stylized details on fabric, upholstery, wall constructions
- Neutral or earthy color palette
- Décor and other details with Boho, Space Age, Atomic Age, and Pop Art influences.
What are the Modern Styles and why are they called "modern?"
The Modern Styles are De Stijl (1917), Bauhaus (1919), and Mid-Century Modern (1945 – 1960s). We call them “modern” because the first two excluded elements that referred to any style before it. They literally looked “modern” at that time. For Midmod, it’s because it was largely based on Bauhaus Style.
While all three have distinct characteristics and elements of their own, all Modern Styles share the following:
- Simple, clean lines
- Open space for versatile use
- Functional / multi-functional spaces and furnishings
- Uses iconic sculptural pieces
- Exude machine aesthetic
- Have glass, metal, concrete, molded plywood, and molded plastics as their defining elements.
The effects of the Modernist Movement in architecture and interior design have left quite an impression. Some say that its the most influential movement of the 20th century.
And rightfully so, because as its offshoot, the Contemporary Style (so called because it’s the prevailing style of today), takes so much after the Modern Styles.
That brings us to this commonly asked question.
How does Modern Style differ from Contemporary Style?
Modern Style requires a strict implementation that references De Stijl, Bauhaus, or Midmod. Contemporary Style is today’s style, evidently based on the Modern Styles, but in contrast, excludes elements that’s dated, and includes everything that’s “new and now.”
Characteristics of Modern Style
- Clean lines
- Use of iconic pieces from the era – early 1900s to 1960s
- Can be colorful or have a neutral scheme
- Has a retro vibe
Characteristics of Contemporary Style
- Clean lines
- No reference to any style
- Mostly neutral – black, white, and gray with dash of color as accent.
- Can include smart and green technology
An example of Modern vs Contemporary Living Rooms
Here are the elements that make the first living room above a Modern one, containing pieces that are inspired by iconic pieces from the era
- Arco lamp
- Chair with Modern Style silhouette and materials, i.e. leather and steel
- Daybed inspired by Le Corbusier’s
- Coffee table inspired by Noguchi’s
- Exposed beams on sloping ceiling – typical of Mid-Century Modern home architecture
- Large glass windows
- Stone-clad accent wall
- Firewood used as decor giving the space an organic, natural vibe
- Graphic area rug
Elements of the Contemporary living room:
- Large picture window
- Rectilinear and curvilinear elements
- Neutral color scheme
- Non-iconic furniture pieces with exposed metallic legs
- Minimalist look
The Modern Movement started over a century ago and some believe even longer than that. But we see its influencein interior design today not just in the standalone Contemporary Style.
Almost all styles now come in their understated, modern, contemporary versions – meaning they’re simpler, exhibit minimalism, or have lots of neutrals in their color schemes.
And with that kind of effect, it seems like Modernism in interior design is here to stay.
For inspirations on the Modern Family of interior design styles, go to our Pinterest boards below. Whether you’re looking into De Stijl, Bauhaus, Midmod, or a mix of all of them, you’ll find something there.
Take our quiz to know if any of these Modernist Styles fit your project.