If you love crisp lines, clean palettes, and pared-down décor, then odds are you’re a fan of modern design. Of course, the phrase “modern design” means different things to different people. Some use it to describe the modern design movement that pervaded the early 20th century. Others use the term more broadly, referencing any kind of design that feels new and sleek. But, semantics aside, modern design is a pretty recognizable style—most of us know it when we see it.
What Is Modern Design?
Modern design is a style defined by clean lines, bold colors, and an edited-down, minimalistic approach.
"When I think of modern interior design, the first things that come to mind are clean lines, simple color palettes, open and airy floor plans, and subtle pops of texture introduced through metals, concrete, and other organic materials,” Caitlin Murray, principal designer at Black Lacquer Design, says. “It's a no-nonsense and pared-down style without any kind of visual clutter."
Liz MacPhail, principal designer at Liz MacPhail Interiors agrees: “When we refer to a ‘modern’ aesthetic, we are referencing a clean-lined approach, with streamlined and crisp details, less embellishment, and typically a more simplified material selection.”
Meet the Expert
Since modern design is so clean and crisp, it often leads to interiors that look striking—and feel great to spend time in. Looking for a few modern design ideas of your own? We’ve rounded up 21 stunning modern rooms—and shared an interior design tip worth stealing from each.
“Typically, a great way to begin is to edit and simplify what you have,” MacPhail says. That doesn’t mean getting rid of everything you own and starting from square one. But, it does mean thinking critically about which pieces you want in your new space.
“Pare down what you already have,” MacPhail says. Then, keep the stuff you really love.
Look for Sculptural Pieces
Since modern design tends to be pretty minimalistic, you’ll want every piece you purchase to pack a major punch. Look at the lines and shapes that each piece of furniture creates, and consider how those elements will interact with the rest of your space.
You can pair angular chairs with a circular table—and then hang a lighting fixture that echoes elements from both.
Embrace Negative Space
When decorating, it can be tempting to fill every inch of bare space. But, remember that negative space can have just as much impact as a piece of furniture or décor can. Resist the urge to cover your walls in décor, and instead, let negative space factor into your overall scheme.
Experiment With Sleek Materials
Sleek materials—like cement, metal, and plastic—are a go-to in the world of modern design. And while these may seem like out-of-the-box choices, they can look absolutely incredible when rendered at scale in your space.
Keep Your Palette Crisp
Modern design loves simplicity, and that simplicity applies to your palette.
"Since I tend to wield a lot of color in my work, I often fall on the modern design trick of going with crisp white, gallery-style walls to create a backdrop on which to layer colorful art," Murray says.
Of course, you don't have to go all-white with pops of color, but you should consider what colors you want in your space, and commit to them wherever possible.
Stock Up on Low-Profile Finds
Having trouble finding furniture that looks modern? Focus on snagging pieces with clean lines and low-profile silhouettes. If you know what to look for, you can reliably find sleek items just about anywhere. Keep an eye out for spindly legs, cleanly defined shapes, and minimal embellishment.
Focus on Necessity
Paring down is as much about function as it is about form. Be honest about what you need from a space: if all you need are two over-the-desk cabinets, don’t arbitrarily build in more.
Don’t hold yourself back from getting extraneous items just to achieve a minimalistic look. If you need cabinets, then by all means, buy a couple of cabinets.
Play With Shape
Since modern design is all about clean lines, it gives you the opportunity to play with very clearly defined shapes. Your pendant light becomes a sphere, your chairs become a series of slick curves, and your table becomes either an ellipse or a few straight lines, depending on how you look at it.
There’s no need to keep these shapes consistent—you don’t have to go all-in on circles, for example. But, you will want to keep them in mind as you curate your space.
Give Your Décor Room to Breathe
Most of us find ways to fill an empty space when given one. But, since modern design is about paring down, you won’t want to expand just because you can. Instead, focus on crafting a neat dining room and a tidy living room—and let a little space exist between them.
Invest in Modern Art
Art is the cherry on top of any well-decorated space, and that’s still true even in the pared-down world of modern design. Of course, there’s plenty of modern art out there that stays true to the tenants of modern design, so it shouldn’t be hard to find pieces that feel as sleek, sculptural, and interesting as the rest of your space.
Mix and Match Aesthetics
Crafting a modern space doesn’t mean crafting an exclusively modern space—or at least, it doesn’t have to.
“Thinking all the pieces must match one design style is the biggest misconception we hear from people,” MacPhail says. She recommends stocking up on pieces you love—even if that means mixing and matching different aesthetics. “It creates a more interesting story and a more interesting room,” she adds.
Consider Every Corner
When building out your home’s décor scheme, you’ll want to consider every part of your home, including lesser-appreciated spaces like the bathroom.
Your shower deserves love, too, and since it’s not as visible as your dining room or living room, it could be an excellent place to take a risk.
Go All Out With Your Lighting
Bold lighting fixtures aren’t a necessity in any modern home—but they’re certainly a staple of many modern homes. Consider investing in a few striking fixtures, as these accent pieces can bring a room together and cement your space’s contemporary aesthetic.
Play With Color
Modern design tends to be streamlined and simple, but those words don’t have to mean boring. There are plenty of ways to keep your space feeling both sleek and fun—and playing with color is one of them.
Introduce some bright red chairs to your pared-down dining room, and top things off with a vibrant bowl of fruit. These accents can bring personality into your space, and since they’re cast against such a sleek backdrop, they’re sure to make a statement.
Let a Little Texture In
If you want to fill your space with sleek materials from ceiling to floor, you absolutely can. But, you certainly don’t have to. There’s plenty of room for lush plants, upholstered chairs, and other textured pieces in any modern interior.
Feel free to pair your sleek dining room table with a little greenery or stock up on dining room chairs that combine slick metal with plush upholstery.
Take a Few Risks
Since modern design schemes are so pared-down, any risks you take are sure to stand out, but that’s no reason not to take them. The point of crafting a space of your own is to have a little fun along the way.
So, take a few risks—and be willing to make a few mistakes. If stocking up on curved furniture intrigues you, give it a try. Even in the worst-case scenario, all you have to do is return what you bought.
Create Clusters of Décor
Clustered décor may sound out of place in a modern scheme. After all, isn’t modern design about paring things down? But, when you cluster décor together, you’re actually freeing up space around the décor—which is its own form of streamlining.
Instead of hanging that painting way above your dining room table, consider positioning the two closer together. This will expand the negative space in your room, making it feel bigger, more open, and more pared-down.
Make Space for Coziness
A well-decorated home isn’t worth much if you don’t enjoy living in it, so look for places where you can add coziness and other homey details.
"We had a client request 'modern with a hug,' which I loved," Murray says. "I've found it succinctly communicates the balance I always work towards when crafting modern interiors. I like to add warmth by layering cozy textures and introducing more color, rounded shapes, and pattern than might be acceptable to a modern purist."
Consider the Whole of Your Space
A cohesive interior is greater than the sum of its parts: don’t focus on each piece of furniture and décor in isolation, and instead, keep the entirety of your space in mind as you curate. Doing so can open up possibilities to transform your space into an inhabitable of art.
Your hallway can become a frame for a particularly striking work of art, giving you something to admire when you zoom out as well as when you zoom in.
Keep Your Lines Clean
If you find yourself feeling intimidated or overwhelmed, reset by focusing on the basics. MacPhail recommends asking yourself: “Is this a simple and clean-lined furniture piece, fabric, or rug without too much excess or embellishment?”
Doing so can help you establish whether a piece is right for your space, and it can help to reorient you if you start feeling lost.
Make Sure Your Space Feels Like Yours
Remember, the goal isn’t to craft a picture-perfect modern interior—it’s to craft a space you’ll love looking at and living in. So, keep the focus on what you want, even if that means breaking a few modern design “rules.”
“Buy what you love—which may include modern pieces, traditional, or somewhere in-between,” MacPhail says. “And you'll achieve a balanced and fresh take that allows those more modern pieces to juxtapose and balance with the rest.”