What “Modern” Means in Interior Design

In the layperson’s lexicon, “modern” is more or less synonymous with “right now.” Yet, when you are talking about interior design trends, modern take on a completely different meaning.

The history of modern design dates back to the modernist art movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when artists were moving away from classical and impressionistic art and toward high-concept, abstract and streamlined works. Architects and interior designers inevitably took inspiration from the monumental shifts in art, and the modern style of interior design hit its peak in the 1950s and 1960s.

Today, modern interior design adheres to many of the same principles and characteristics as the original modernist designers of the 20th century. Additionally, modern design has mixed with many other emerging interior aesthetics to create new varieties of the modern style worth recognizing.

Characteristics of Modern Design

While many interior design styles are obvious and easier to decipher upon first glance, modern has been so impactful on the development of new interior aesthetics that true modern design is often confused with other styles, such as minimalism, Scandinavian or contemporary.

Straight Lines

The modern design eliminates excessive ornamentation, to the extent that even curves, as one might find in archways, are not present or welcome in modern homes. Simple geometric shapes with straight lines dominate the modern aesthetic, utilizing strong horizontal and vertical elements to create visual interest. The objective of this characteristic of the design is to emphasize function, remove distraction and provide more calm in the home. You might best appreciate this concept by considering the streamlined form of modern ceiling fans.

Exposed Structure and Natural Light

In modern design, less is more. This is most obvious in the architecture of modern spaces, which tends to use a fewer number of larger rooms. Fewer walls mean that natural light can reach more corners of a home, creating brightness and lightness in the design. Additionally, modern design often celebrates the structure of a building by leaving structural elements visible and on display.

Neutral, Natural Colors

Bright and loud colors can grab and hold viewers’ attention, but they can also become wearying to the eyes and emotions over time. To prevent this tiring effect as well as showcase the inherent beauty of simplicity, modern design tends to utilize only neutral tones as well as the colors found in natural materials, like wood grains and marbles. Occasionally, modern design will include bright accent colors to draw attention to certain features within a space.

New Spins on Old Modern

Though once revolutionary in interior design, the essential characteristics of the modern style have become commonplace across American homes and served to inspire countless designers in the development of similar but novel interior aesthetics. Some of the most popular offshoots of the modern interior movement include:

Modern dining room interior design with white empty wall


Influenced by modern design as well as traditional Japanese interior décor, minimalism further strips away ornamentation and decoration to prioritize necessary function overall. Minimalist homes tend to look more austere than modern homes as all color and embellishment are eliminated in favor of streamlining life, but with the right combination of architecture and color, minimalist interiors can enhance the calming effect that modern design often provides.


Interior designers began developing the industrial style in part as an escalation of the celebration of a building’s structure as occurs in modern design as well as due to the widespread availability of industrial buildings across the world’s largest cities. Industrial designs often make use of existing structures and forms, including exposed pipes and ducts, wooden framing, bare brick, concrete flooring, and more.


Inspired by the traditional interior aesthetics found in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, Scandinavian design arose as a rejection of the aristocratic power of the Old World and a celebration of democracy and social equality. Scandinavian design overlaps with modern design in many ways, especially with straight lines and neutral colors, but Scandi designers also strive to incorporate the Scandinavian concept of hygge, or coziness, through lighter and warmer colors and plush textures.

“Modern” refers to a very specific style of interior design — although one that has come to dominate Western interiors. As you continue to explore the world of interior styles and aesthetics, you must remember the foundational characteristics that define modern design.

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