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Deciphering the Language of Design

For most people, the words "modern" and "contemporary" conjure up images of white cabinets, polished chrome hardware, concrete floors, grey granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. While these are accurate images, the definitions of these terms are evolving and broadening.


Photo Credit: Moen Incorporated

To an architect or professional designer each of these terms has a specific meaning. Both share important elements -- clean lines, bold geometrics, and a lack of clutter. But there are subtle differences. Modernism is an architectural style based on a comprehensive system of space planning; the look of the house is secondary and flows naturally from how the space is supposed to be used. Meanwhile, a contemporary design has a Modernist look but may not use that style's concepts of space planning.

To most people, the terms are interchangeable. Modernism with a capital "M" denotes the architectural style, while small "m" modern could refer to that style or to a contemporary home.

Turning to Modern
While modern styling has always been popular in Asia, Europe, Mexico and Canada, the U.S. has been "kind of insulated from it," according to Ji Kim, industrial design manager for Moen. Now, Kim sees a growing market in the U.S. for this look. She credits the growth to two trends: more people are traveling globally, and their daily lives include more use of technology, which blends naturally with modern styling, "Appliances are going high tech, even the washer and dryer," Kim says. "Those influences are affecting home dÚcor."

In terms of fixture finishes, Kim says chrome is the standard for modern kitchens, but brushed nickel and stainless steel also work well. On the high end, she's seen some use of dual finishes, such as chrome and white or chrome and black, though she admits that such combinations are unusual.

In the Moen product line, Kim points to the 90 Degree faucet as a prime example of a modern faucet. "The square, linear look is a trend in the bathroom and the kitchen," she says. Rather than an arc, the faucet's spout makes a 90-degree turn. The idea, she says, was to visually integrate with horizontal elements, such as wall-mounted shelves.

What customers want
Emily Smith, design consultant for AK Complete Home Renovations in Atlanta, says clients who want a modern styled kitchen tend to be looking for:

  • Clean lines with custom-designed storage areas. The flowing lines of a modern kitchen lead the eye around the space so that no one element dominates. Having plenty of storage reduces clutter. For instance, many people are tired of having a foot or more of unused space above their cabinets; simple cabinetry that reaches to the ceiling offers cleaner lines and more storage.
  • Open space. A hallmark of modern styling is the open floor plan, which enhances traffic flow. "Even people who think that this style is cold can agree that an open, clutter-free space is an invitation for family and guests to gather," says Smith.
  • Color. Forty or 50 years ago, the vision for a kitchen of the future was steel and chrome, lacking the warmth of a traditional kitchen, says Smith. Things haven't quite played out that way. Smith observes: "Today's [modern] designs use various materials -- wood, glass, metal, and stone, in complementing and contrasting colors -- to create a feeling of warmth, while also maintaining the clean lines that are essential to this style."