The Difference Between Contemporary and Modern Design for Kitchens

Some bits of jargon are destined to confuse us. Fission and fusion, speed and velocity — these are launch pads for lengthy discussions involving technicalities and nuances.

Near the top of the list, though, is the difference between “contemporary” and “modern” kitchen styles.

Don’t these words basically mean the same thing? As it turns out, they don’t. “Contemporary” refers to the stylings of whatever time period we are currently in, while “modern” refers to a specific time period in the last century. However, much like two different genres of music, they can be blended to open up a world of different possibilities in kitchen design.

Let’s take a look at where today’s kitchen comes from, as well as what the terms “contemporary” and “modern” mean and how we arrived at them. As it turns out, the history of the kitchen is as lyrical a tale as any. It took a long time — and a lot of suffering — to arrive at the beloved iteration we enjoy today.

The Dark Ages of the Kitchen

If asked to summarize what a kitchen is in a few words, you would probably say something like, “the place where food is prepared.” However, kitchens have become so much more than that. They are often where we do work on the computer, entertain guests and relax with a drink. They are full of constantly evolving appliances and gadgets, cabinets and walk-ins — and are even seen as the centerpiece of many homes.

So how did we come to love our kitchens so much?

kitchen history

When you look at the kitchens of long ago, the pleasant airiness of today’s cooking quarters seems like a paradise. For most of humanity’s indoor history, the kitchen was part of a one-room abode that made up a home. As its fire was the centerpiece of the family’s doings, it tended to be centrally located and all cooking was done around it. The smoke would rise to the roof and slowly escape through its cracks, but the incessant flames made the room smoky and unpleasant.

Even as the centuries progressed, the kitchen was still a dark, damp place of putrid smells and rampant uncleanliness. As cooking continued to be done over a fire until quite recently, they were sweltering and full of acrid smoke. Running water was not available, nor was refrigeration. When in use, they were also quite busy and uncomfortable to be in.

If such a room existed in today’s homes, we would naturally try to situate it as far from the rest of the home as possible — and this is exactly what our ancestors did. The kitchen was separated from the rest of the house and was kept away from the view of visitors. There was nothing beautiful about it, at least not in the eyes of its users.

But then something new came along: a catalyst that would change kitchens rapidly and ultimately result in the contemporary and modern kitchen designs of today.

The Kitchen’s Ticket to Redemption: The Chimney

The chimney is as important to our modern affection for the kitchen as Gutenberg’s printing press is to our love of books. Because life centered around the perpetual flame of the open fireplace, the presence of smoke and soot was a nuisance people had learned to live with.

But when the chimney began finding its way into homes in the 16th century, the problems associated with smoke largely disappeared — as did the smoke itself. Now families could enjoy the roar of a fire without the putrid stuff clogging their lungs and dirtying their walls.

kitchen chimney

Naturally, the kitchen began to grow into a more inviting place during this time. A typical Tudor manor would see stone fireplaces with stately mantles, beautiful iron pots and plentiful cooking surfaces beginning to appear around the kitchen. With the issue of smoke gone and the fire contained to a fireplace against the wall, the kitchen became a more orderly and pleasant place. It gradually moved closer to the dining and entertainment areas.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw further improvements in kitchen design. It was accompanied by rapid development and the adoption of curious customs as well as by multi-course meals that at times bordered on the absurd, with their many dishes and complicated etiquette. Stoves gradually replaced fireplaces and improvements in plumbing and aesthetics slowly turned the kitchen into the warm, agreeable place it is today.

What Is a Modern Kitchen?

Now for the first big reveal: what does it mean for a kitchen to be modern?

The word itself turns out to be a misnomer — or at least it has been for 60 years or so. That’s because “modern” refers to a minimalistic and sleek style of kitchen that grew popular in the 1940s and 50s. The inception of the idea came several decades earlier than that, around the turn of the century or so, but it wasn’t until the postwar era that its no-frills style of efficiency cemented itself in the public zeitgeist.

The concept was to remove the frivolous and fancy ornamentations from the kitchen that had accumulated over the past couple of centuries. Gone were the ornate carvings, the excessive labyrinth of tiny drawers and impractical devices. The jarring smattering of different colors was reduced to a couple of complementary shades.

But where did this return to simplicity and function come from?

It actually came from the Bauhaus School, which operated out of the war-torn country of Germany in the years after her defeat in World War I. The catastrophic collapse of the country’s monarchy led to a new regime and subsequent radical new forms of thought. The Bauhaus School sought to blend art and industry in a way that would make art mass-producible. This new design would not only simplify the unnecessary complexity of the modern kitchen, but would also make it available to everyone.

bauhaus school

So, if the word “modern” refers to a specific time period many decades ago, let’s see what its counterpart in contemporary design has in store.

What Is a Contemporary Kitchen?

“Contemporary” is a term that moves along with us as we pass through time. That is, it describes the current style of the day. Modern design was considered contemporary in the mid-twentieth century, for instance, and whatever strikes our fancy in the present is considered contemporary now.

What does a contemporary kitchen look like in the present day? As it turns out, we have developed a collective taste for simpler times while simultaneously appreciating the simplicity of modernism. At the time of writing, a contemporary kitchen can be differentiated from a modern one by the following features:

  • More rounded and gentle lines and curves (like those featured in our Alba Suite), as opposed to the stark right angles of modernism.
  • More natural materials, whereas modern kitchens might use plasterboard and composites.
  • Neutral colors like grays and browns accentuated by pops of color, unlike modernism’s sleek white look.
  • Some traditional touches like rounded edges and trim, whereas modern kitchens favored uniform surfaces.

contemporary kitchen

However, this can still be misleading, because modernism is very much alive and well inside the contemporary kitchen. The so-called “traditional look” of today is actually a tasteful blend of actual traditional design and modernist ideals. It can be thought of as a modern kitchen with earthier colors and a rekindled affection for curves, warmth and pops of color.

We’ll shift focus shortly to how contemporary and modern kitchen designs may be blended, but first let’s take an imaginary walkthrough of both a modern and a contemporary kitchen to get an idea of what you might actually find in them.

A Walkthrough of a Modern Kitchen

The first thought that might pop into your head as you enter a modern kitchen is that it seems inspired by some futuristic vision of kitchen design. There is a sleekness and a bright uniformity that make it immediately digestible and understandable to the human eye. One of the happy results of this, and no doubt an intentional one, is that the kitchen feels distinctly clean.

modern kitchen

A modern kitchen feels so clean in part because, with one cursory glance over its interior, we can easily envision ourselves cleaning it. The singularity of the surfaces, whose countertops and drawers are as pristine as fresh snow, look like they could be returned to their original state with a single, arcing sweep of the hand. There are no nooks or crannies to trap crumbs and no ornamental molding around the tops of the cabinets to attract dust. There is only a consistent and spartan evenness that gives the impression it could be wiped with a whiteboard eraser.

The drawers and cabinets in this kitchen are not only clean, but also distinctly the same. Aside from a few varying widths — the top drawers are shorter than the bottom drawers — everything is practically identical. The unbroken white of the countertops, drawers and cabinets is contrasted by one black accent wall, a brown hardwood floor, and four to five pops of daffodil yellow in the toaster and some flowers in a clear glass vase.

The stovetop is a flat, glass-like electric range that matches the black accent wall. If described carelessly, this kitchen might seem cold and charmless, but there is an uncanny warmth to it. Its intelligible, tasteful charm eases the mind while its whiteness sets the stage for any food or bright colors to really pop visually.

Another word that comes to mind in this modern kitchen is “Scandinavian.” That’s because those on the Scandinavian peninsula effectively co-founded modern kitchen design, though for different reasons than the Germans. They were looking to make their kitchens brighter, happier places during the dark northern winters. They were also in pursuit of “hygge,” which describes that special brand of coziness derived from contrast with the dark winter outside. The whiteness of their kitchens, much like snow on a moonlit night, reflected light and brightened up the indoors.

A Walkthrough of a Contemporary Kitchen

In contrast to the modern kitchen we just walked through, a contemporary kitchen might feel at first glance like an artist’s easel. There are more generous splashes of color all around: the countertops are sparkling granite and the walls are a sort of warm, Tuscan gold. Plants and glass figures decorate the cabinet tops, resting just below the ceiling and drawing the eye upward.

On closer inspection, there is order at play here. Though the cabinets are topped with crown molding, it is tasteful and matches that of the walls. The same white, though a warmer shade, adorns all of the cabinets and doors — even those on the kitchen’s center island. The same machine-brushed stainless steel is on the face of the refrigerator, oven, toaster, cooking range and sink. Even though the cabinet and drawer hardware are more prominent than in the modern kitchen, it is still a mild shade of black that adds an accent rather than a distraction.

In the modern kitchen, the faces of drawers and cabinets were a solid, featureless panel of material. Exactly which material didn’t quite matter, as its design didn’t favor the natural grain of wood. However, in this contemporary kitchen, the old-time feel of carved wood is central to its charm. All of the cabinet doors are adorned with lines and recessions shaped lovingly by a carpenter’s router bit. The corners of the island are lined with decorative panels. It feels like the frills of traditional farmhouse kitchens have made a comeback, albeit a modest one.

This revival of ornamentation is moderated by taste and practicality, though. Though these touches lend the kitchen an elegant beauty, never do they overwhelm. It seems the perfect balance of nostalgia and function has been reached, as if an 1800s American farmhouse had been given a brisk makeover by a 1950s Bauhaus artist. The kitchen is designed to be completely functional while at the same time allowing for a bit more personal expression.

contemporary kitchen style

So the contemporary kitchen seems to be a constrained throwback to earlier times. What happens, then, when we blend contemporary and modern kitchens? What would such a room look like?

A Tasteful Blend: A Walkthrough of a Contemporary, Modern Kitchen

If asked to utter a single word upon first seeing a blended modern-contemporary kitchen, you admittedly might settle on “modern.” That’s because modernism, like a dominant gene, makes a strong statement that is consequently immediately recognizable.

Its lines are still markedly angular and the edges of its drawers and cabinets are as seamless as the stones of a Roman aqueduct. There is a strong sense of the horizontal: long, continuous lines formed by edges of countertops and cabinets that float across the room and convey the eye around its perimeter.

However, the deviations from modernism soon start to appear. Whereas a modern kitchen focuses mostly on whites and blacks with smatterings of other subtle shades, this kitchen seems to have adopted a more relaxed stance on colors. For one, there is the happy presence of wood tones. The cabinets themselves are wood-faced and the umber surfaces of the kitchen island and drawers even show a wooden grain. You count over five different colors in this kitchen: the dark wooden floors, the stainless steel appliances, an accent wall behind the range, the cabinets and the granite countertop.

Furthermore, there is a peculiar casualness to this kitchen that you sense might not be welcome under the strict purity of modernism. Stools with white leather seats are pulled up around the outside of the island. Lamps hang from the ceiling with decorative, curving metal designs. Lights on the ceiling and under the cabinets cast uneven glows and shadows across the wooden surfaces. The hardware on the cabinets is also much more prominent.

contemporary and modern

This kitchen takes the sleek, understandable lines of modernism and introduces some of the neutral, warm colors and light embellishments of contemporary design. Our imaginary kitchen is but one example of the infinite possibilities, though. With different color schemes, hardware and layouts, it’s possible to come up with any type of kitchen one could possibly want.

What Types of Cabinet Hardware Work for Modern Kitchens?

Because modern kitchens strive for minimalism and simplicity, it follows that cabinet hardware should follow suit. In fact, you’ll notice upon searching that some modern kitchens forego hardware altogether. While certainly minimalistic, having hardware is recommended because it keeps surfaces safe from skin oils and wear and tear.

Here are some suggestions for hardware in a modern kitchen:

  • Bar pulls made of stainless steel tubes: An excellent choice for drawers and cabinets alike. Because these slender tubular pulls run along the bottoms of your cabinets and drawers, they further accentuate the horizontal aspect of modern kitchens while adding an industrial feel.
  • Bar pulls made of flat stainless steel: A variation that will add to the angular shapes of a kitchen. If you are looking to make a stronger statement with hard angles, bar pulls will help.
  • Pulls recessed into surfaces: These add an industrial feel to a kitchen and also save space by eliminating protruding handles and knobs. This may not amount to a lot of cubic footage, but it makes a big difference when you can lean against your drawers instead of keeping your extremities away from them.
  • Tab pulls: Tab pulls are made from a small, flat piece of metal that is bent 90 degrees and given a bead to grab onto. All that you see is a rectangle of metal hanging out over the top of the drawer. They are sleek, low-profile and make kitchens feel unique.
  • Integrated handles: These are recessed handles, but they are typically carved into the edge of the cabinet or drawer. This delineates the edges between them and makes for a smooth overall look.

tab pulls

For modern kitchen hardware check out these product lines:

modern bauhaus collection

What Types of Cabinet Hardware Work for Contemporary Kitchens?

Contemporary kitchens are a bit more lenient in terms of what hardware they will accommodate. It is possible to mix and match some hardware — and the options leave for a lot of playful design work. Here are some great hardware ideas for a contemporary kitchen:

modern hardware

  • Knobs: These come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are square knobs for a modern feel, round knobs for more traditional applications, mushroom knobs that ease gripping and offer a less traditional look, bar knobs that have a horizontal bar attached to the drawer at just one point, and novelty knobs that allow for unique inlays and materials like crystal and pewter.
  • Hinges: Hinges create different effects in the kitchen. If you want your hinges to be out of sight and out of mind, invisible hinges will do so perfectly. Face-mount hinges will attach to cabinets without having to cut into the wood. Self-closing hinges will even gently close the doors for you to ensure uniformity in your kitchen.
  • Handles: Contemporary cabinet handles can be identified by flat arches, sleek curves, or angular designs. To get the most of your contemporary design, match your cabinet and appliance handles.
  • Pulls: Cabinet pulls can come in more traditional handle designs or even the same pull designs we covered in the modern kitchen section. Because the contemporary kitchen will inevitably draw on modernism, there is plenty of overlap between the two styles. Slim bar pulls look elegant in contemporary kitchens, as do classic pulls.

For contemporary kitchen hardware check out these product lines:

contemporary alba suite

Let Cliffside Industries Put the Final Touches on Your Contemporary or Modern Kitchen

Hardware is the ultimate finishing touch to a kitchen. However, at its core, it’s more much than an aesthetic choice — it’s the hard-working, heavily trafficked interface between us and our drawers and cabinets.

perfect hardware

We take our hardware seriously at Cliffside Industries, which is why we’re proud to put our name on some of the most durable and elegant pieces in the industry. Check out our online catalog to find the perfect hardware for your tastes and needs or get in touch with us today for top-notch design advice.

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