Clarifying Contemporary

by Autumn McGarr

In the design world, the labels “contemporary” and “modern” are often used interchangeably – especially by the general public, but also by some professionals. However, for purists, modern is reserved for early- to mid-20th century architecture, most commonly mid-century modern design from the 1950s and 1960s, whereas contemporary is, as its name implies, current, present-day design.

While they do differ by definition, their sometimes-shared references are understandable given that both are based on a foundation of clean, simple and sometimes minimalist – in short, design that focuses on function over form.

“Contemporary takes from modern and learns from modern,” says Nancy Short, principal, Ansana Interior Design, in Winter Park, FL. “There are similarities such as the marriage of form and function. Neither has purely decorative anything. Everything is fitted into a purpose.”

However, contemporary design likes to think a bit more outside the box, without quite as many rules. It’s this more ‘freewheeling’ mindset that is part of its current appeal.

When designers at Ansana Interior Design feature slab cabinetry, they often like to incorporate other rich materials that will add interest, such as the walnut that frames the high-gloss white cabinets here. The warmth of the wood is carried onto the island, where it contrasts with the white quartz countertops.
Photos: Abby Liga Photography

“People seem to like contemporary design because it gives them freedom to express themselves,” says Matthew Ferrarini, principal designer, Ferrarini & Co. Kitchens & Interiors, in Philadelphia, PA. “We’re living in a time where people are interested in drawing outside the lines. With contemporary design, they can create a space that resonates with them on an emotional, personal level. They don’t have to be worried about whether an element is, for example, modern or transitional.”

Because of its base in clean, simple design, people also seem to appreciate the sense of calm it creates.

“We’ve had a lot of ‘fluff’ for a long time,” says Katie Ott, CKD, Kitchen Studio: Kansas City, in Kansas City, MO. “Now, people want clean and simple, light and bright. As they simplify their lives, they’re getting rid of things. We hear the word ‘purge’ a lot, which is reflective in a lot of contemporary design elements.”

Teri Turan, Turan Designs, in Tyrone, GA, agrees. “Life is so stressful and complicated, and technology adds so much stimulus,” she says. “People need quiet and serenity at home.”

Aaron Popowsky, CEO/founder, Gallery Kitchen & Bath, in Long Island City, NY, indicates that his clients seem to love the timelessness of contemporary design.

“It’s a classic look that stands the test of time, which is important to our clients,” he notes. “They are making a large investment in their kitchens and they want a design they won’t tire of, or that will feel dated.

“Contemporary design also blends well with other styles that may be used throughout the home,” he continues. “It doesn’t dictate the flow of the rest of the space. It’s almost like a chameleon…it takes on whatever is surrounding it.”

For Stephanie Zaharias, Stephanie Zaharias Design, in Menlo Park, CA, contemporary design has an added benefit of being able to meld the indoors with the outdoors, which is a common request for her clients.

“Contemporary design embraces indoor and outdoor living in both architecture and materials,” she explains. “People are seeking harmony, especially in today’s hectic society. Contemporary design is clean, calm and orderly, and it seems well thought out, with intention and purpose. There’s a common theme and end goal with many details that support the aesthetic. My clients in the Silicon Valley are influenced by this methodical approach. They can relate to it and they get that everything has its place.”

Sue Shinneman’s clients love the warmth and contemporary feel of the sapele mahogany veneer cabinetry, which is used in contrast to the ‘cool’ stainless steel column of appliances. Stainless steel is also used for the circular extension at the island, which features a cascade of quartzite.
Photos: Matt Kocourek Photography

Continual evolution

A wider acceptance within the U.S. market can also be attributed to the continued evolution of contemporary design, which, for many people, has currently settled into a style that is ‘warmer’ as opposed to the ‘colder,’ more minimalist Scandinavian and European aesthetic. Monochromatic and neutral are still often used as descriptors, but now it isn’t only focused on white. Designers, too, are incorporating more natural wood, warmer metal colors and finishes, natural stone and even handmade elements. Lighting plays an important role, as well.

“People are open to contemporary in a way they haven’t been for a long time,” says Short, noting that even clients living in traditional homes are pushing the boundaries. “When the Recession happened, we went from Old World where ‘more is more,’ to a point where everything fell away and we were left with a bareness and simplicity that everybody embraced, somewhat out of necessity. But since then, the aesthetic has taken hold and now it is far more sophisticated.”

It is also about more than white. “People are moving on,” she continues. “Maybe they’ll have white upper cabinets but they’ll combine them with dark gray or indigo lowers. We’re currently working on a kitchen with charcoal gray cabinets and a black, glazed tile backsplash. Drama and elements of surprise are part of the current aesthetic, so is anything warm, textured and humanly touched…handmade if possible, such as a light fixture that is unique and artistic. There’s even a place for whimsy, which can keep any style of space youthful.”

As an example, the design team recently finished a kitchen that showcases warmth and texture via quartzite countertops, limestone floors and rift-cut oak cabinetry, the latter of which is carried into the butler’s pantry and combined with white upper cabinets and tall pantry cabinets. Another kitchen showcases walnut cabinets – also mixed with white high-gloss cabinets – quartz countertops and a backsplash of back-painted glass tiles.

“When we use slab cabinetry, there aren’t a lot of details,” she says. “It becomes all about the materials, so we like to use strong, rich ones, such as rift-cut oak, which is my ‘go-to’ wood because of its open grain, and natural stone because it helps ground the newness of contemporary and gives the space a sense of tradition and timelessness.”

Lighting is another key element in Short’s contemporary projects, and she often encourages clients to consult with a lighting company to create maximum effect.

Stephanie Zaharias, who worked in collaboration with architect Moderna Homes, combined several materials in this kitchen to break up the open space, such as a marble backsplash and walnut veneer base cabinets on the island that contrast against the gloss laminate and stainless steel cabinets around the perimeter.
Photo: Bernard André Photography

Marrying masculine and feminine

For Ott, an emphasis on warm contemporary – or American or contemporary transitional, as she dubs it – has been a focus since she opened her firm with Sue Shinneman 12 years ago.

“Kansas City is pretty traditional,” she says. “But when we first opened, we branded and marketed ourselves toward contemporary design so we do quite a bit of contemporary, as well as transitional for people who are tired of traditional design but don’t want to fully commit to contemporary.”

Their brand of contemporary often marries the masculine with the feminine, i.e. hard, chiseled lines of the former with softer edges and lighter colors of the latter. As that plays out in a kitchen, Ott will sometimes add a few elements that aren’t necessarily hard-lined contemporary, such as mixing slab doors with five-piece, flat-panel doors that feature a slightly rounded interior profile. Cabinet construction is usually wood, often walnut or rift-cut white oak, which is gaining in popularity. Black stain is also trending, and white paint is perennially fashionable.

For appliances, Ott usually panels the dishwasher while the refrigerator is hit or miss depending on how much clients want it to disappear into the design. Open shelves, which people sometimes use functionally rather than just decoratively, complement quartz countertops, which are usually a light, solid color, sometimes white, but warmer grays and beiges are options, too. If a stone-look quartz is preferred, it will typically feature light gray veining. Sometimes she mixes the quartz with wood, which she keeps at countertop height to maintain the clean lines of contemporary.

“In general, our clients want light and bright, simple and clean,” she continues. “When the economy tanked, things were dark, ornate and dusty. But now the economy is doing well and people are optimistic, which has made for more cheerful spaces. And, now that white has been popular, people are beginning to explore interesting pale gray stains and lighter woods.”

Matthew Ferrarini designed this kitchen for an artist client, grounding the space with book-matched rift-cut oak that he used as floor-to-ceiling cabinetry along one wall, extending it partway onto the ceiling as a custom detail to resemble an inverted waterfall. The pièce de résistance is the patinaed copper ventilation hood that offers a vibrant touch of turquoise.
Photo: Michael Persico

A warm, natural fit

Like Ott, Popowsky’s clients often gravitate toward a warmer version of contemporary, so he will include many of the same ‘warming’ materials, such as quartz, particularly those that mimic stone, and wood, especially those in light and medium tones for cabinetry and flooring. Laminate surfaces that resemble wood, including those in newer colors such as gray, are also popular choices.

The designer loves to mix wood with paint, especially warm whites, gray with warm undertones and blue.

“I’m a big fan of the two-tone kitchen,” he says. “I love pairing natural, flat-panel light oak cabinets that show a bit of grain, or even walnut that shows a beautiful medium grain, with painted cabinets. Using color, especially bold color, instead of glossy white cabinets makes a tremendous difference. It adds so much warmth and personalizes the space.”

Popowsky often eliminates knobs and handles, choosing fingertip controls such as J- or C-channels, touch latches or hydraulic lifts. If more traditional cabinetry hardware is retained, they are a simple knob or pull that doesn’t ‘clutter’ the kitchen.

“Eliminating the hardware maintains a nice, clean look,” he states, adding that it also helps promote symmetry and supports a ‘less is more’ approach. “Clean lines and symmetry, created when base cabinets line up perfectly with upper cabinets, are very important in contemporary kitchens.”

A warm, contemporary design style also seems to be a natural fit for the space-challenged, urban environment in which Popowsky works.

“We work in Manhattan and Brooklyn apartments, townhomes and brownstones,” he says. “We aren’t blessed with kitchens that are a couple hundred square feet. Our designs are very focused on function, so it can be challenging to create a farmhouse kitchen with ornate details or a stark, uber modern kitchen that is more design driven in 80 square feet.”

Using natural materials creates warmth yet offers refinement in this kitchen designed by Stephanie Zaharias in collaboration with Feldman Architecture. The wood cabinetry veneer was selected to complement the ebony stained cedar walls, and both materials coordinate with the black honed granite. Natural elements were also used in the dry bar in the open dining area where Zaharias chose Sahara Noir black marble for the wall and countertop.
Photo: Paul Dyer Photography

Starting over with contemporary

Zaharias sees a lot of her clients transitioning from traditional to contemporary environments, especially when given the opportunity to start from scratch with new construction.

“They are appreciative of a fresh start,” she says. “We still incorporate family art and heirlooms, but it seems as though they’ve always coveted a contemporary aesthetic and are happy to shed their traditional past, having tired of clutter or bold patterns competing for attention.”

Within those new spaces, she’ll design with a uniform palette, often neutral and tone-on-tone where color, if any, is used in accessories, rugs and art. Other elements include a lot of glass, via huge windows and doors…“often to the point that I sometimes struggle to find enough art walls,” she says. Concrete, stone, wood and metal play a big role as well, with wood featuring minimal graining while natural stones, conversely, are going bold with more prominent veining. Metals will be stainless steel or matte and brushed chrome. “Contemporary enthusiasts have not embraced the brass or gold trend,” she adds.

Technology has also completely changed the way materials look and perform in the home.

“We now have porcelain that looks like stone but is more resilient, countertops that mimic marble but don’t etch or stain and nanotechnology surfaces that don’t scratch,” she explains. “Slabs are also thinner so we use less material, yet they are equally durable.

“Just as textured fabrics are a nice way to provide interest to contemporary furnishings, technology has been driving the same desired interest for our eyes in materials,” she continues. “For example, laser jets groove marble tile, CNC routers groove walnut veneer panels for cabinetry and treatments bleach wood, almost changing them into different species that we haven’t seen before, which can make a potentially boring slab door more interesting. Even laminates are much improved and are now available in matte finishes for a warmer, less harsh aesthetic.”

Zaharias is also a huge fan of using lighting as an artistic statement.

“With the many straight lines and calm surroundings, decorative lighting can provide an unexpected point of interest in a room, adding curves, layers or angles to a predictable setting,” she notes.

Bucking a category

Ferrarini rarely goes into a design thinking it will be a particular style. Instead, it’s more about what works with a client and the home.

“I don’t design within categories,” he says. “A few adjustments and different material choices, and a space could change from modern to contemporary, or from contemporary to transitional. For example, you could have a very minimalist, modern Scandinavian design that is very raw, but then add a unique, ornate ceiling detail. That’s what is really great about contemporary design…you aren’t necessarily stuck in any particular box.”

This kitchen, designed by Teri Turan, has a shared modern and contemporary aesthetic with its glossy white cabinetry, tall appliance columns, integrated hood and waterfall countertop. The design, while seemingly simple, is anything but, offering a play of shape and texture without compromising function.
Photo: Sacha Griffin

Although contemporary designs are a bit ambiguous and tricky to hone in on, Ferrarini does like to include certain elements and materials. Often, they begin with a neutral palette with clean lines that serve as a quiet base. Then he adds organic, natural elements, such as marble and wood, for texture.

“I also love bringing in metals, especially black and wrought iron for windows, door frames and pendants…anywhere I can sprinkle them in,” he says. “I like the feel of concrete, which I bring in with porcelain tile sometimes. And, of course, anything to do with nature, such as greenery, adds to the aesthetic.”

Many of these elements all came together in a recent kitchen where he grounded the space with book-matched rift-cut oak that he used as floor-to-ceiling cabinetry along one wall, extending it partway onto the ceiling as a custom detail.

“It is designed to look like an inverted waterfall that is representative of nature and flow,” he explains. “A natural feel isn’t only about a material, but it’s also about the way it’s configured.”

The oak makes a repeat appearance on the island, where he combined it with marble to showcase a textural combination of veining and graining, finishing it with a waterfall edge.

The pièce de résistance is the patinaed copper ventilation hood that offers a vibrant touch of turquoise.

“This client had her own handmade teal ceramics throughout her home, and we wanted to bring that color into her kitchen,” he comments. “Contemporary design gave her the ability to do that. If she would have been stuck on a particular design category, her kitchen would not have resonated with her on the same emotional level.”

Blurred lines

Living in a relatively conservative area as it relates to design, Turan creates far more traditional and transitional kitchens than those considered contemporary.

“We are very steeped in traditional,” she says. “But I am getting to design more projects that fall under a description of clean, simple lines and pure color palettes commonly categorized as contemporary.”

Turan broadens her definition of contemporary as design that embraces today’s current lifestyle with an inclusive element of technology, family dynamics and material popularity to create a fresh, new and current look.

“I see ‘contemporary’ as more of an umbrella term and less of a style,” she says. “There’s a lot more blurring of the lines in contemporary design, which can be very refreshing because it leaves a lot of fun elements on the table. Your hands are less tied than if, for example, you design a strictly modern kitchen.”

As such, currently popular elements like rustic beams and shiplap would likely never find their way into modern design, yet, when used sparingly and within a realm of clean and simple, they could certainly be part of a contemporary kitchen. Other materials that lend themselves to Turan’s contemporary designs include quartz, both as a countertop surface and a backsplash, the latter of which is particularly dramatic as a full-height, single slab.

“Quartz is a great material for contemporary designs because it is a controllable material, with a controllable color palette,” she says. “Glass is also a fantastic backsplash choice. I think just about any material can be used to achieve a contemporary design, but other ‘go-tos’ of mine are wood with simple graining, reflective surfaces and metals with simple or natural finishes.”

For clients who are brave enough, Turan also likes to suggest the inclusion of bold colors, such as oranges and greens, for cabinetry and even countertops. ▪

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