What is... contemporary design?

What is... contemporary design?

What does modern mean in design and architecture, and contemporary? Find out through the work of several designers.

The word modern (not modernist) refers to the pieces created from the so-called Modern Movement, which advocated an international style absent any decoration and vindicating industrial work. Contemporary, however, applies to design that is closer to reality, to what is happening in the field of design in the last 15 or 20 years at most: the design of the 21st century.

Contrary to modern design, where its precepts were faithfully followed in different parts of the world and assumed almost as a dogma, the contemporary design depends more on the personality of its authors and does not obey universal rules such as "less is more" or "form must follow function." Thus, very opposite lines of action now coexist and do not contradict each other. Each designer has their school of thought, which translates into very different ways of approaching the design of furniture and objects. They do not invalidate each other, and the coherence of their proposal is valued. And yet, some themes can be traced in the path of all of them.

General characteristics of contemporary design

Through the proposals of some of today's most relevant designers, let's see what we mean when we talk about contemporary design.

First of all, its characteristics include an interest in sustainability, adjusting the modes of production, transport, and recycling of products (or their parts) to its parameters, and tireless research on all new materials, without disregarding for a second the noble traditional materials. The curiosity to explore new technologies and at the same time a renewed interest in artisanal processes, to revisit crafts in decline and give them a new life, as in the case of the rug in the image: the Mangas model designed by Patricia Urquiola for GAN, are other features that define the contemporary design.

In general, in the contemporary design, there is a natural lack of prejudice and a total freshness in terms of taste, aesthetics, decorative elements (ornamentation is no longer a crime), incorporating elements that for decades had been dismissed from the world of design for being under the label of kitsch, which in turn coexist with a kind of new essentialism with roots in Japanese or Scandinavian culture, as we see in the Favn sofa in the image above, designed by Spaniard Jaime Hayon for Fritz Hansen.

There is also a social concern. Many of today's designers have on their plan to provide democratic and responsible solutions that help improve the lives of the less fortunate, whether in projects carried out in the third world or worrying about the final price of the products they design for the first world. The color palette has become infinitely more prosperous; it is no longer just a matter of shades but also of degrees of warmth and coldness. And yet, the absence of color or its negation is also visible in the work of many designers. Contemporary design is a plural world in constant evolution, with one foot in the past and the other in the future.

Craftsmanship, flexibility, and femininity


Recovering manual production after the absolute hegemony of the industrial output is one of the most exciting aspects of contemporary design. One has been incorporated into the other, thus enriching modern production. The Milan-based designer of Spanish origin, Patricia Urquiola, is one of the leading exponents of this trend. In this image, we see her Nub armchair designed for Andreu World.

The importance of the local versus the global, of ecology and recycling

As soon as we began to talk about globalization in the late 1990s, designers began to be concerned about the loss of national identity. The Campana brothers from Brazil are an invaluable example of incorporating a national identity into the international design.

Between the rational and the emotional lies a good part of contemporary design, a path opened by the Bouroullec brothers (of French origin) and currently explored by many of their contemporaries. Well-constructed products but with particular attention to their formal beauty; a meeting place that opens up a world of possibilities conceived with sensuality and whose sculptural sense invites you to touch.

The importance of color and imperfection

These are also characteristics common to contemporary design, controlled use of color enriched with countless shades that give the shapes of the products a different look and speak of diversity and customization. Dutch Hella Jongerius is a master in this field. We should add her taste for handcrafted details combined with industrial production, which generates a possibility of error, accepting imperfection as something positive. Several designers are exploring this path. One of them is another Dutchman, Marcel Wanders: an absolute fighter against the dogmas of the modern movement. Wanders is not afraid of prints, flowers, large scales, or dramatic light changes. His designs and interiors have a significant visual impact; they hardly leave anyone indifferent. No one beats him in emotional comfort.

For Marcel Wanders, reclaiming history before the industrial revolution is a great motivation, which leads him to incorporate historicist elements into his vocabulary. For him and other contemporary designers, the memory of other times is an inexhaustible point of departure and inspiration that can be exploited with absolute freedom and without any modesty. In a similar vein, we find the Spaniard Jaime Hayon: the perfect exponent of the contemporary designer who manages to respond to users' needs while giving free rein to his imagination and expressing a personal universe that is sometimes on the verge of art. This ability of the contemporary designer to express his creativity is key to understanding the design of the 21st century.

The contemporary design makes few concessions to the excessive and stands out for its simplicity of lines and absolute preference for geometry. An excellent example of this is the German Konstantin Grcic: the heir of the modern. He has taken the furniture of the 20s and 30s as a reference, transferring it to the 21st century with his intelligence and sensitivity.

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