What is Modern?

When I tell my friends I’m building a modern house, here’s how it usually goes:

friend: “So have you found a house plan you like?”

me: “No, we haven’t been able to find anything we like. We want a modern house and there aren’t very many existing modern plans out there.”

friend: blank stare

*me: *“You know, clean lines, lots of glass, maybe a flat roof.”

This is where the conversation usually ends awkwardly because they’ve lost interest and I’m out of ways to describe what we’re going to build. It’s actually embarrassing to fail so miserably at describing the kind of house we want to build. I honestly find it a little odd that I have such a hard time putting into words just what modern architecture is.  I can do better than this.  I just needed to do a little research so, off to Wikipedia to read up.

I always had a sense of what’s Modern; it’s one of those “know it when you see it” things. Modern architecture, or more specifically Mid-Century Modern architecture which is what I think most of us generally mean when we say “modern” can be characterized as:

  • Simple
  • Honest
  • Functional

These are the most basic principles behind Modern design.  Sure, there’s a lot of history to it and this is not an academic definition, but this is what it boils down to.


Modern architecture should have simplicity of form. Usually you will see a structure composed of simple, often rectangular volumes. As a whole, those volumes might come together to form a complex space, but the overall aesthetic should simplicity.  This also means no unnecessary added adornments.


I first heard this word used to describe architecture from Rich Brya at 3GD when he described their design philosophy. “Honest use of materials” is what he said. We don’t want to take something and make it look like something else. Don’t paint steel to look like wood, don’t add non-functional elements as adornments. Modern design avoids anything that can be characterized as “faux”.


Form should follow function.  A building should derive its design from its purpose.  In the same way that we don’t want to add elements as adornments, the very form something takes should not be pre-conceived for its own sake, but the result of studying its intended use.  Let’s take garage doors as an example.  The Renlita Soverign is a slick, modern garage door.  It uses modern materials, it’s simple, honest, and functional.  Contrast that with the faux carriage doors that are so popular right now.  They can look great on traditional homes, but would be totally out of place on a modern home.  They violate all three principles.  They’re not simple with all of the hinges, handles, and added detail.  They’re certainly not honest; they appear to swing open, but instead are traditional overhead doors.  Finally, the added details aren’t functional.

What about contemporary?

What about “contemporary” design?  Is contemporary the same as modern?  A lot of people use the term interchangeably.  Opinions vary, but I tend to believe that Contemporary isn’t really a specific style, but rather simply adjective to describe something that is current or trendy.  Often times a contemporary piece may have modern influences.  So in that sense you may have contemporary modern – those elements of modern design that are in vogue right now. I prefer Modern.

So, if you’re not familiar with modern architecture, I hope this was a good introduction for you. We’ll explore the world of modern design further here at Raising Modern as we go through the process of building a home.

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