Style, Function, and Practicality

For those who love modern interior décor, it seems like a no-brainer to choose furniture that fits within the Modern style.

But choosing appropriate furniture can be especially difficult because “contemporary” or “modern” furniture often gets confused with what is trendy – which is not the same thing. Monty Simpson, assistant professor of Furniture Design at Kendall College of Art and Design, explained that just because the style of a piece of furniture is new or trendy doesn’t mean that it fits in the Modern or Contemporary style.

Vintage furniture, for example, is extremely trendy, but when we asked Simpson if a piece had to be vintage to be contemporary, she said that, by definition, vintage items couldn’t be modern.

“Contemporary means what is going on now,” said Simpson. “Yes, there are ‘knock-offs’ of iconic Modern designs, but many companies are interpreting the modern form by adding trending colors, using reclaimed materials, and even ornamentation in the treatment of doors and drawers with geometric and faceted motifs.”

Stores like West Elm, Target, and Ikea are examples of manufacturers that produce Modern furniture.

“Knoll still produces iconic designs, and Hayworth subsidiary companies are producing products tailored to the residential environment,” said Simpson. She added that while most Modern furniture is more affordable, not all Modern furniture has a lower price point. Some higher-end designers do exist, but their work might be much more technical or complicated.

“In many high-end designs, you’ll see a more sculptural interpretation,” said Simpson. “One furniture part will flow and transition into the next. Vladimir Kaagan is a good example of that.”

So, what makes a piece of furniture fit into the Modern category? Simpson said that there are many characteristics that define Modern or Contemporary furniture, including minimal ornamentation, clean lines and lightness of scale, purity of form, honesty of material and function, and more.

Many people often confuse the Modern look with bold colors, but most Contemporary furniture is black, white, or brown. Occasionally there will be different colors thrown in, but mainly as a small pop; hardly ever as the entire focal color.

Regarding materials, Modern furniture tends to be made of materials with harder, easy-to-clean surfaces for maximum practicality and functionality. Wood, metal, iron, laminated woods, and leather are examples of materials commonly used in Modern furniture.

Anyone who has shopped at stores like Ikea or West Elm knows that practicality is a big part of their designs. Going off the idea that Modern furniture is centered around functionality, it’s no surprise that it is typically modest in size and often has multiple functions. This idea, according to Simpson, is the heart of the Modern furniture movement, and those ideas carry on in today’s Modern furniture.

“Part of the original Modern movement was an innovation of material and manufacturing processes and making good design affordable to the masses.”


Characteristics of Modern Furniture from Monty Simpson

  • Minimal ornamentation
  • Clean lines and lightness of scale
  • Purity of form
  • Honesty of material and function
  • Mix of materials: molded plywood and plastics, leather, glass, wood
  • Rectilinear forms, often modular
  • Generic leg forms – hairpin, canted round tapered, inset on the shell
  • Sculptural interpretation – one furniture part flows into the next