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Contemporary vs. Modern Kitchens: The Difference, And Why It Matters

Ask any designer and they’ll be quick to tell you that modern and contemporary are not synonymous. We may use the terms interchangeably in casual conversation, but from a design perspective they are significantly different. Whether we’re talking about art, architecture, literature, or even cabinetry, both styles have unique influences and characteristics. So when it’s time to tackle that kitchen remodel, make sure you’re speaking the same language as the designer or architect.

What Is Modern?

The dictionary defines modern as “relating to the present and recent time“ or “relating to the historical period following the Middle Ages”. The timespan is so broad that two people could be talking about modern cabinets with very different final looks in mind.

When we think modern, we think time-less; homes or furniture pieces that have been around for decades but are as sought after today as when they were first designed (Le Corbusier™ or Bauhaus for example). Whereas with contemporary, think ‘con-tempo’ (with time): using materials and colors that are trending now but which are constantly evolving. We see this most often in restaurant interior design.

Modern cabinet materials often include wood and earthy elements for a timeless look while contemporary materials feature glass, metals, and more trendy finishes. Remember colorful recycled glass countertops? Where are they today?

Orange Pantone Color Palette
Contemporary orange from Pantone Color Palette
Modern orange from the 1931 Le Corbusier Palette

To the left is a sample of Modern Orange from the 1931 Le Corbusier palette. Contemporary colors often adhere to a stricter palette of black, white, and grey. If color is added, it’s often the pure, saturated tone like true red, indigo, or orange. Modern design colors have an earthier hue and feature shades like rust, turquoise, brown, and olive greens. See the Pantone Colors of the Year for contemporary, or the timelessly modern Le Corbusier© color palette.

Modern Kitchen Design

Just like modern architecture, today’s modern kitchen styles originated in Europe, suggesting the easiest way to design a modern kitchen is to choose a European cabinet brand. European cabinetmakers were the first to place an oven within the cabinet to raise it off the floor for easy access. They also introduced the concept of modular cabinets to bring down cost and make kitchen cabinets more accessible. It’s said they were even behind the idea of getting husbands into the kitchen (maybe not to cook, but at least for company)!



Are modern cabinets made in Italy equivalent to cabinets made Germany? They look very similar but think of the automobile industry. A car is a car, but what do you think of when you think about an Italian car? GREAT DESIGN. What comes to mind when you think about a German auto? ENGINEERING. The same is true for kitchen cabinets. While Italian kitchens show beautiful designs, colors and finishes, they lag behind German quality, precision, and stream-lined manufacturing (which facilitates fast lead times). We talk at length about German cabinets in another post.

Characteristics of a Modern Kitchen

  • Layout is less of an L-shape or U-shape, and more of a galley kitchen where most cooking and prepping will happen on a long island.

  • Employs an open concept floor plan where barriers to surrounding areas are removed.

  • Typically allows for 2 cooks in the kitchen (yes, the husbands are now very involved in cooking).

  • Cabinets may be handle-free or installed without fillers on the sides or to the ceiling (known as shadowlines).

  • Refrigerators and dishwashers will be hidden behind a panel.

  • Other appliances feature matching colors and will be installed flush with the cabinet fronts, so they visually disappear.

  • Upper cabinets may be absent completely, or feature horizontal with flip up doors, making the kitchen look more like furniture and less like a kitchen.

Contemporary Kitchen Design

If, based on this article, you are looking for a more contemporary kitchen, European brands are still a good choice. With mirror-like high-gloss finishes, metal laminates, or all-glass cabinet fronts and countertops, the choice is yours! Many European brands or woodworking shops offer custom colors so you could choose Pantone’s color of the year as your cabinet color (Ultimate Gray or Illuminating visit .

If you want a touch of whimsy in your kitchen, add trendy handles to your cabinets, colorful appliances or RGB linear LED lights to light up your kitchen in orange for a Halloween party, or red during a Christmas Dinner. ( )

Common Characteristics

While modern and contemporary design is distinctly different, there are similarities, including minimalistic esthetics, clean lines, and an open-feeling architectural space. Here’s what sets both styles apart from traditional kitchens:

  • Solid color Shaker doors instead of wooden Shaker doors

  • Solid color flat slab style doors instead of Shaker style

  • Handleless cabinet lines instead of cabinet doors with hardware

  • Quartz countertops instead of granite or marble

  • Cooktop and oven versus a range

  • Ceramic tile floor instead of wooden planks

  • A hood hidden inside a cabinet instead of an attention-seeking wall hood

  • Custom paneled appliances versus brands that only offer stainless steel

  • A galley layout with an island instead of L or U-shape layouts with a peninsula

How To Decide Which Style Is Right For You

If you’re not sure which way to go, it helps to look at the architecture and history of your house. What year was the structure built? What original elements remain? Did the homeowner before you remodel without a plan and make it worse by mixing styles?

Do you want to keep the feeling or style, but update the materials? Look at the structural features of your home: are your doors (architectural doors not cabinet doors) paneled or flat slab, wooden or painted? Do you have crown moldings or elements of mid-century modern? Are your doorknobs chrome or brass? What textures and colors are used on the walls? What type of countertop does your kitchen have?

Be aware that the more you move from traditional to modern or contemporary, the more extensive your remodel will be. If you’re switching between modern and contemporary, the cost shouldn’t be as high. Modern and contemporary styles are most similar in the kitchen, but the design difference can vary greatly when styling other areas of the house. Perhaps that will be your deciding factor.

Common Mistakes To Avoid When It’s Decision Time

Do your homework before you start hiring your professional team. Make sure you use the same terminology and have the same vision! A scrap book speaks louder than words but be sure to specify what, exactly, in the picture it is you like. Even save some photos of looks you absolutely despise and explain why.

Your design professionals will support you, but salespeople may try to sell you something that doesn’t fit with your final vision, so don’t fall for a discounted item just because the price is right. Before any big purchase, always concur with your designer and ask yourself: Does this help or hinder me in achieving my goal?


Whatever you decide, modern or contemporary, don’t forget to have fun! An element of surprise can be a way to play with several styles. One client paired a modern, timeless kitchen with an old-fashioned chandelier above the island. Not only did it look great, but it was also a interesting conversation piece!

If you are a history buff or admirer of timeless beauty, you may have a harder time with changes. In this case, we suggest choosing a modern kitchen design. If you are a fashionista always on the hunt for the latest and the greatest, and you don’t mind changing out the countertops or the color on your walls after a while, your arrow points to the contemporary style.

If you choose a European brand or custom cabinets, just be prepared and know the difference. If everyone is speaking the same language, the salesperson or cabinetmaker shares your vision, and their suggestions help rather than hinder your final mission, you’re on your way to a successful remodel!


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