Whether you’re looking for an authentic mid-century modern kitchen or a modern-inspired contemporary design, the modern style can transform your kitchen into a work of art.
Here’s a look at the history and design fundamentals of the modern kitchen.
In day-to-day life, “modern” and “contemporary” mean the same thing. In the design world, however, these words each have specific meanings.
The difference between modern and contemporary is subtle. If you say “modern” when you mean “contemporary,” you won’t end up with the wrong kitchen. But knowing the difference can help you have a better idea of what you want from your design and help you find inspiration in unlikely places.
“Modern” began with “modernism” an early 20th-century movement in art and design that reimagined the way we look at the spaces around us. Think Picasso and Eames chairs. Modernism focused on minimalism, clean lines, and functionality. Ikea Furniture actually gets a lot of inspiration from this less-is-more philosophy.
Mid-century modernism gave us the iconic 1960s southern California home with its open floor plan, straight lines, and muted color palate.
Contemporary design is a bit easier to pin down: it’s whatever’s happening today. But that’s not the end of the story; contemporary design trends are heavily influenced by mid-century modern styles. It’s difficult to talk about one without exploring the other.
If contemporary is what’s happening today, aren’t all today’s kitchens contemporary?
Not really. A Tuscan or country kitchen might have modern appliances, but its basic setup would be familiar to someone who traveled in time from the 1800s.
Contemporary kitchens draw from the past too, but their focus is the more recent past, the 2nd half of the 20th century.
Styles have a way of coming back around. Contemporary kitchen design has more in common with the midcentury modern kitchen than it does with the more recent kitchens of the 80s or 90s.
The advantage of designing a modern kitchen today is that you have all of history to work with. You can take what you like from modern design and mix and match it with other styles from contemporary to industrial or even rustic.
Unless you’re faithfully restoring a home or trying to design a totally authentic mid-century modern kitchen, you’ll probably have the best results using modern design as a starting point and not a rule book for your kitchen remodel.
Modern design invites you to appreciate the form of the space around you. There are a few vital elements that create that effect.
Modern design does away with decoration and anything unnecessary. In a kitchen, this means no ornate wall cabinetry—or just shelves instead of cabinets.
Minimalism draws your eyes to the details because there are no other distractions. For example, many modern kitchen cabinets have done away with handles. Your eyes are drawn to the color and shape of the cabinets, not to the little metal doodads you use to open them.
Modern kitchens are all about clean, straight lines and angles. “Sleek” is a word that comes up again and again when you read about this style.
A contemporary kitchen can keep the same minimal, sleek aesthetic but soften things with more curves.
The more minimalist your design, the more the little details will stand out.
Blogger Aimee Song told House Beautiful about not wanting her kitchen to be “too this or too that.” By focusing on the details, she designed a completely personalized kitchen. Song saved on cabinetry by going with a simple off-the-shelf model and put that money towards unique 3” marble countertops. By keeping the cabinets simple, she made the countertops stand out.
Authenticity can be an ongoing hunt for found items that fit in nicely alongside state-of-the-art appliances.
You probably don’t want a fridge from the 1960s, not after you get the electric bill anyway… but reclaimed wood or antique hanging lamps can give your kitchen an accent you can’t replicate with something new.
The owners of an apartment in Rome took this to the next level by hanging a 17th-century oil painting in their otherwise modern kitchen.
Some appliances just get the job done. Others look gorgeous while they do it. A modern kitchen is the perfect place for objects like a KitchenAid mixer or a Bialetti Moka Pot espresso maker that do their job spectacularly and look stunning when they’re not in use.
Traditionally, the modern kitchen has a muted, natural color palate. Lots of wood. Lots of grey and beige.
Nowadays, the trend is towards more diverse color options that either throw out the modern palate or remix it in a warmer or more playful way.
Many modern kitchens are black and white. Others are black or white. A monochrome color scheme is visual minimalism.
An all-black kitchen might sound a bit intense, but you can soften the look with other modern touches like wood accents. House Beautiful recommends wood with black for warmth and a more comfortable everyday feel.
In a kitchen with a monochrome or muted color scheme, any bright colors are going to pop and have more presence in the room. This is especially true in an all-white kitchen.
You can add color with a backsplash, bright tiles, or colorful appliances.
The mid-century modern kitchen features a lot of wood and earth tones. By including these in your updated modern design, you can nod to mid-century inspiration without looking dated.
The kitchen became a place to hang out around the time mid-century modernism took off. Ever since then, kitchen islands have been a sought-after feature in modern and contemporary kitchens.
All the style and color features we’ve mentioned apply to the modern island. The island can be a contrast or a complement to the style of the rest of the room.
Modern and contemporary kitchens can be a bit cold and severe, but they don’t have to be. With the right materials, textures, and use of light and color, you can add some warmth and brightness and make the room feel more livable and less like an abstract design statement.
The modern style is a way of looking at kitchen design, not a firm set of rules. Don’t let definitions trip you up, use a modern style as a starting point, and do what inspires you.