What Defines Contemporary Furniture?

The Oxford Dictionary defines contemporary simply as, 'following the latest ideas.' This fails to grasp the essence of contemporary furniture design. Contemporary furniture, which is often also called modern contemporary furniture or just modern furniture, is furniture created after the 19th century and was heavily influenced by the modernist art movement. The concepts of modernist art were translated directly into the world of furniture. Instead of creating substantially visual furniture, furniture evolved into simplistic visual design. Contemporary furniture design uses the furniture, and the area it resides in, as part of an overall design theme for a person's dwelling.

How is Contemporary Furniture Different from Other Furniture?

In the 1950s, as contemporary furniture was beginning to emerge, the Museum of Modern Art in New York decided to address this trend. They published a booklet written by Edgar Kaufmann Jr., entitled "What is Modern Design?" which established a series of precepts that dictate what constitutes contemporary furniture. Furniture that abides by these precepts can be considered contemporary furniture. His precepts can be broken down into three main categories:

  • Design - Contemporary design takes into account an overall design scheme that the future owner may be attempting to accomplish. Kaufman states that the colors, texture and form of an item should spring directly from the materials used. The design should blend the utility of an object with the beauty of its materials to present a visually satisfying item. The design should be simple, with an apparent structure and no redundant materials.
  • Materials - One of Kaufmann's precepts dictates the furniture must take full advantage of newly discovered techniques for crafting furniture and use cutting edge materials. This precept has created a trend of using pattern free fabric and materials that allow for a functional flat surface. Tubular metal, standard metal, various chromatic materials and a combination of all the above are generally used to create the structure of contemporary pieces. These types of materials allow the creation of crisp lines, pronounced edges, and smooth textures.
  • Philosophy - Designers employ a specific philosophy and spirit when creating contemporary furniture. Kaufmann suggests the furniture must adequately address the practical needs of modern life and express the spirit of modern times. He further states that this furniture should also benefit the advancement of fine arts. It should express the purpose of an object, the beauty of the materials used, and the methods used to create the furniture. It should never attempt to appear as anything that it is not, such as a mass-produced item should not be disguised as hand crafted. Perhaps the most important philosophical precept of Kauffman's is that the item should serve as many people as possible, limiting costs so that it may be affordable and attainable to a wide market.

European contemporary design helped shape these precepts prior to the trend moving to the United States. In Europe, there began to be a shift towards function and massive accessibility of furniture, rather than overly intricate designs. This caught the eye of many designers worldwide and helped perpetuate this style.

Famous Examples of Contemporary Furniture

In art, there are always notable pieces that help define and perpetuate an emerging style. This is also true in the world of furniture design.

  • Wassily Chair - Marcel Breuer created this icon of contemporary furniture in 1926 in a cabinet making shop in Germany.  It embodied a minimalist design that employed tubular steel and leather straps, both combined to create a design of thin geometric shapes and function.
  • Eileen Gray Side Table - French architect Jean Badovici created a simple bedside table in 1927 that embodied her famous characteristic of refusing to conform to the popular standard. It featured a unique utility, allowing a special adjustment for serving breakfast in bed. It is composed simply of metal and glass in a conical design that is visually pleasing and functional.
  • Barcelona Chair - Mies Van Der Rohe and Lily Reich created the famed Barcelona Chair in 1929 as an entry in an international design fair in Barcelona. It features simplistic leather patterns and curved tubular steel to create an aesthetically pleasing chair. The accompanying footstool embodies the Roman numeral for 10 (X) to create its structure.
Contemporary Furniture Is…

Contemporary furniture is quite simply any type of furniture that uses modern materials with a simplistic design. The function is considered paramount. Creating a visually compelling item is secondary. Contemporary furniture strives to be affordable and attainable. There are many places to locate contemporary furniture online. For example, Modern Furniture Classics offers a selection of contemporary furniture that truly embodies a philosophy that would make Edward Kauffman Jr. proud.

About the Author:
Trey Reeves is a freelance writer and self-proclaimed collector and expert of contemporary furniture. His esteemed collection occupies several of his homes, and he someday hopes to open a museum dedicated to contemporary furniture.