While interpretations of contemporary home design vary from person to person and even country to country, most people know it when they see it. Ask for a detailed explanation of what makes a home’s style “modern,” however, and you’re likely to get little more than a few vague comments about geometric or boxy shapes, flat roofs, big windows, and other common “signature” elements.
This lack of specificity shouldn’t surprise anyone; the human eye and brain tend to hone in first on the overall gesture of what they are seeing, not the subtle details. That recognition comes later, when we’ve had time to absorb more visual information and put it into a context that we recognize and understand.
A lot of modernist architecture tends to evoke a mixed response among Americans, in part because most of us don’t have much exposure to it. And those who do like what they see might have a different kind of problem: How do you learn the essential design details if you don’t get more than occasional glimpses of them?
Enter the book “200 Tips for Modern Interior Design” by Marta Serrats. As thick as a telephone directory (you remember those, right?) from a large city, this compilation brings hundreds of contemporary homes from around the world directly to a reader’s fingertips. It is primarily a collection of photographs (more than 800) that showcase modern residential design in its many forms, with floor-plan illustrations and enough text to ensure readers understand the essential design elements depicted.
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Serrats sets the stage with a brief introduction to the modern aesthetic, emphasizing three key points: First, that contemporary homes, like any other style, are a personal extension of the owner/occupant and thus aim for being a source of solace and individual expression. Second, that other creative disciplines, such as fashion, graphic arts, and industrial design, are increasingly interwoven into modern residential architecture. And third, that the stark minimalism sometimes associated with modern design gets tempered considerably in houses; clean and simple lines still rule the day, but there is enough personal and tactile softness to make it feel like home.
Concrete, steel and glass still make regular appearances in the examples shown, but wood, textiles, copper and other warmer elements are increasingly common. What results is a wider array of colors, textures, lighting and materials that complement the smooth surfaces and simple shapes we recognize as “modern.”
The book’s formidable thickness is made manageable by individual chapters that highlight room types rather than entire homes. Each opens with a discussion of how the larger themes of modernism find small expression in a given space:
Entrances and hallways
These spaces are seen frequently by both residents and guests, but they aren’t “lived in.” Keep the function intact with good lighting and clean traffic flow, and include selective accents (a sculpture or a unique rug) that hint at the personality and decor to be found elsewhere in the house. As in any space, it’s easy for ornate elements to read as visual clutter, so keep the furnishings spare and simple.
According to most 1950s sitcoms, this room sees only occasional use for entertaining formally, but the living room in a modern home should be versatile enough to accommodate guests and everyday activities equally well. Provide plenty of seating in flexible arrangements, use built-in storage and shelving to reduce clutter, and layer the lighting with multiple sources and types of fixtures. If you want the room to reflect your design flair, include bolder colors and contrasts. If you want serenity, lighter tones are fine for a more relaxed ambience, but beige is still too blase.
Here is another room with a shifting historical and cultural role. The earliest human shelters featured a dominant hearth so the fire could provide warmth, light, and intense heat for cooking. As long as structures stayed small and simple, this arrangement continued, but a century or so ago the messiness of food preparation and cleanup got the kitchen demoted to utility room status, out of sight and out of mind. Dining rooms and parlors were the public spaces where guests could be entertained agreeably.
Now, of course, the “hearth” has reclaimed its central role in the form of the efficient and clean modern kitchen. The functions of food storage, preparation and cleanup are still essential, but the social hub has returned.
By their nature, kitchens features a lot of smooth, hard surfaces, so use softer touches to warm things up where you want. Wood or cork flooring, fabric seating, and window coverings can help here, but the look is always no-frills clean. The sleek look of contemporary cabinets comes mostly in custom goods, so budget accordingly, and mix up countertop materials depending on the zone or function of each area. Stainless steel appliances are still a favorite.
The book offers similar advice about decorating other spaces: dining rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, home offices, and even studio apartments and outdoor spaces. Admittedly, a few examples do sport that barren look that makes you wonder how any actual persons might live there, but for the most part these homes are crisp, clean, and user-friendly.