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If you’re a little iffy on exactly what is meant by modern or traditional style, we’ll try to clear it up. But first, take the quiz above by pairing each adjective with its corresponding style to see how much you already knew! Read on to find out if you’re right (don’t peek ahead to the answer key at the bottom!). It’s great to compare modern and traditional design because they are so very different. They almost explain themselves once you understand a few main characteristics.

We’ll start with modern style as it’s often the most misunderstood. Modern as a word means current and forward thinking, so modern and contemporary design can be easily confused. Modern style is based in a certain period of the 20th century (from early to mid), having traits that don’t shift with the passage of time. Contemporary style is fluid and follows trends. 

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Top, the Solerno Leather Sofa by Craftmaster Furniture, Bottom, the Modern Rustic Dining Collection by Intercon Furniture

Modern furniture and spaces are functional. The phrase “Form Follows Function” is a major philosophy behind the design. Conceived as a contradiction to the ornate Victorian and curvaceous Art Deco trends, Modern is clean-lined, angular, and unadorned. It was informed by Bauhaus, a German school of fine arts and craft, and an art movement that celebrated geometric forms and design without historical influence. It also followed the minimalist aesthetic and use of natural materials found in Scandinavian interiors. Thought of as cold for its straight lines and reflective surfaces, like glass and chrome, it can be made warm with wood, ceramics, and textural fabrics. Playing with contrasting scale or shapes is common, for example combining a long, low sofa with a tall, sweeping floor lamp. Or placing a rectangular platform bed on a carpet printed with large circles. Usually neutrals or earth tones are chosen, energized with a few hits of brighter color. These tricks, along with some asymmetry, add elements of surprise and personality to what might otherwise be a static and boring approach to design.

Traditional furniture and design is rooted in history. It can take form and details from one period and region, or from several. Think of antiques (but not Mid-century Modern pieces!) and older homes as inspiration. There is an elegance to the curved arms, turned feet, and rolled backs of traditional sofas and chairs, a sheltered feel to the high, carved headboards. Ornamentations such as lion heads, claw-and-ball, pineapples, and shells are motifs that might be seen in this style. Upholstery is casual, comfortable, and even overstuffed, though often covered or accented with expensive-looking fabrics. Symmetrical floor plans and placements drive a sense of calm and balance, while rich colors add warmth. As in modern style, wood and natural materials like stone and terra-cotta are important. Some see Traditional as stuffy, fluffy, or outdated, but with little clutter, a sense of playfulness through pattern, or character in rustic finishes, traditional design can be new.

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Top, the C9 Customizable Sofa by Craftmaster Furniture, Bottom, the Trisha Yearwood Home Nashville Dining Collection by Klaussner Home Furnishings

Which style is for you? If you’re not sure, keep in mind that though certain defining principles will probably always remain, they, like us, are not immune to change. Modern style is admitting some rougher surfaces, some comfier sofas; traditional pieces are being made in simpler patterns and cleaner shapes. They are both becoming less about looks and more about living. And anyway, eclectic design full of personal choices, unexpected combinations, and a sorry not sorry attitude is the biggest trend going. But don’t feel bad for reading, because now you can check your quiz results!

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