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Interior Design Series: Key Design Elements of Contemporary Interior Design Style

Whether this is the first time you’ve ever held a paintbrush or been designing and decorating for years, it can sometimes get confusing differentiating between several design styles. 

With several decor options to choose from, homeowners and designers alike often feel overwhelmed and are unable to bring different decor elements together into one style.

Let’s talk about contemporary designs for a minute. It might give you an idea about the theme by the definition itself: of the moment. 

In essence, contemporary designs incorporate minimalist, but futuristic design elements with a lot of crossover with other design styles. The last part is what people struggle with because you can see elements from traditional, modern, and all sorts of other aesthetics in contemporary styles.

This article explores key design elements of contemporary interior design styles, which would hopefully clear up the essence of the design itself.

Contemporary vs. Modern

Credits: Unsplash, Andre Gorham II

Close your eyes and picture a contemporary living room. Now, close your eyes again and picture a contemporary one. Is there a difference? Many people seem to think there isn’t, and here’s why: a misnomer. 

When you think of modern design elements, you tend to think of the present time. However, the very definition of modern interior designing is to refer to an era that has passed. This contradicts contemporary designs which are about the present.

There are some similarities between the two styles nonetheless. For example; both design styles incorporate minimalist decor with a cleaner and much more open space feel. 

However, that’s pretty much it. Contemporary designs have a stricter color palette with only room for accents. The modern aesthetic has a more welcoming color palette with several undertones. 

Additionally, contemporary elements rarely have wooden finishes and if they do, they’re almost invariably ebony. Modern designs rely heavily on wooden themes.

Contemporary Color Palette

  • Neutral Tones

Credits: Unsplash, Marcos Fecik

Neutral shades are defining features of contemporary design. Black, white, gray, and beige are some of the colors that are considered to be cornerstones of this aesthetic. This, however, does not limit homeowners or designers to a sole neutral palette.

While ‘toned down’ colors make the bulk of this aesthetic, it allows for solid and bold colors to shine through when used as accent shades. People are quick to assume that contemporary designs are boring or generic. The truth is, it’s only as boring as you want it to be. 

Neutral tones have been notoriously known for being generic and dull. Even though they’re very versatile to work with and can balance any design. Hence reaffirming the fact that contemporary design is a crossover with every other aesthetic.

  • Masculine Elements

Credits: Unsplash, Nastuh Abotalebi

Contemporary designs fit more of a masculine color palette and design elements with muted and mature aesthetics. Decorative pieces are often finished off with chrome, nickel, or ebony wood giving darker contrasts and reflective accents.

If you’re looking to go contemporary, you’re parting way with super decorative items for more minimalistic and clean forms. For example, you would have to put that colorful sofa somewhere else to make room for a low seating ottoman.

  • Color Blocking

Credits: Unsplash, Nastuh Abotalebi

Color blocking refers to accent tones and colors intended to make a room feel fresh and inviting. The contrast between the neutral shades with brighter accents and rustic finishes creates an appealing contrast.

Key Elements of Contemporary Style

  • Making A Statement

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No interior design scheme is complete without lighting; it can transform the look of your space, for better or for worse. Always striving for the former, it is important to make all the right calls when selecting your next fixture – especially because lighting has such a direct impact on the mood and the overall energy of the space.

An important consideration is to keep the chandeliers or hanging lights in such a way that they don’t create too much shadow in the intended space. The pictures below illustrate the point; on the left, the chandelier is hung low to illuminate a small area, while on the right the lights are fewer directions and generally higher to provide radiance to a wider space.

  • Contrasts:

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Ideally, you would want your work spaces such as desks, reading chairs, dining tables, or kitchen benches to be high contrast areas, whereas the general living areas such as the T.V. areas are ideal for low contrast lighting to accentuate the central theme of the room. The room below is an impeccable illustration, with the workspace illuminated by wall-mounted LED lights, while the rest of the area is lightly lit with diffused roof-mounted LED lights.

  • Creating Vignettes:

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While cohesion is an important aspect of interior design, different is not always bad. Especially with smaller spaces like a console table in a lobby or a corner, the right kind of table lamps can elevate the entire space. Think about the tone you are expressing, such as in the picture on right; the lamp juxtapositions the straight lines of the console, while the soft illumination would provide a pleasing, yet understated lighting. 

  • Function Over Form:

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The lighting in a room can provide illumination for the entirety of the room, or it can highlight very specific elements. Either way, it needs to serve a function, or it’s simply wasting electricity. Chandeliers, or pendant lighting, are commonly used in large areas for their centrally themed placement, but also their excellent omni-directional lighting. Wall lights help with length and size visually, while track lights can be used to highlight specific elements of a room.


While it might be easy to lose focus over what’s contemporary and what’s not, there are several defining features and key elements that make it easier to understand and work with. Focus on the definition of the word itself: in the now, of the present. This calls for a minimalist, contrasting, and futuristic theme. That’s the core of contemporary design.

Over at Light Atelier, we have an extensive collection of contemporary lighting solutions fit for any aesthetic, theme, or custom fit. Check out our product catalog today for lighting elements in all forms and shapes.