The Best Classic Contemporary Furnishings

Dear Laurel,

While I appreciate your traditional dining chair and table combos, I have to say, that’s not really us, even if you paint the chairs and put a slipcover on them.

Unless I’m missing something, I’ve noticed that there aren’t many posts about modern rooms and furniture, if any. Or is the term more like classic contemporary furnishings? But, then, what is transitional furniture?

I’m not sure what the exact terminology is. All I know is that a bunch of old mahogany furniture, which I’m sure would look cool in your home, reminds me of the heavy, dreary dark furniture my grandparents had in the 70s.

So, could you explain the difference and maybe talk about some rules and proportions for the above terms?


Maude Dern




Hi Maude,

That’s a great topic, and I do understand the confusion. That’s because I’m confused too. However, I can’t guarantee you’ll have better clarity after reading this post. Hopefully, it will explain why most of us find these terms confusing.

Strictly speaking, the “modern period” took place in the mid-20th century, from the 1920s – the 1970s, with variations each decade. At its best, modern pieces are pared down and sleek.

Mies Van Der Rohe Barcelona chair

Some styles are square. However, furniture pieces like the well-known Barcelona Chair (above) have exquisite sinuous curves. These chairs are supremely comfortable. My aunt had a couple in her living room, and I loved sitting in them.


Contemporary furniture, strictly speaking, is ANYTHING current.


These days, the terms modern and contemporary are often used interchangeably.

One of my favorite posts is Contemporary Interiors. Are They Trendy or Timeless?


In the distant past, there were times when I showed a client a sofa, and one said the sofa was too modern, and another one said the SAME sofa was too traditional. Styles can be in the eye of the beholder.


So, what are transitional furnishings?


Excellent question.

Many of you already know that I’m not fond of this word because, in many cases, what is deemed to be “transitional” is actually quite traditional. It’s become a catch-all word to categorize all furniture these days. The more I hear it, the more disdainful I become of the word used to describe furniture because it can be misleading.


Furthermore, many of these so-called “transitional” pieces are very big, bloated, and boxy. That isn’t transitional; it’s furniture that shouldn’t have been manufactured, to begin with.

To tie this up a little better, I feel most transitional furniture is really the same as contemporary furniture.


Thus, The Laurel Classification for home furnishings is as follows:


  • Traditional furniture that is a replication of 17th – 19th-century furnishings.
  • Modern furniture that’s part of the 20th-century modern movement. Or, current-day replicas of these pieces.
  • Classic Contemporary Furnishings. This is furniture that is beautifully proportioned but more pared-down than most traditional furniture. However, some gray areas exist where contemporary furnishings aren’t quite contemporary or traditional. That is what I might call “transitional.” A furniture brand that specializes in a lot of this is Modern History. They have many pieces I think are quite beautiful. You can see the Modern History line at Perigold here.


And finally, the last category is:


  • Drek – Drek is all of the horrid furniture I can’t stand that is an assault to my eyes.


At this point, I would like to address an important idea for those who don’t like or don’t want any beautiful, classic vintage or antique furnishings.

I fully get having an aversion to a room filled with dark brown furniture, particularly if it’s not authentic and also if that’s ALL there is. Other bad associations might exist, such as poor lighting or a musty smell.

In the past, I’ve shared posts about not going 100% modern or 100% traditional. IMO, the most successful and interesting rooms are primarily one or the other, but also 10% – 20% of the opposite style.

The reason I’m mentioning this, is like a lot of things, it’s the way furnishings are used. In a better context, maybe a stunning vintage piece is what will bring your room to life. The opposite also holds true. I guess it’s best to keep an open mind.


So, what are these classic contemporary furnishings? What do we need to look for?


Classic contemporary furnishings are, first and foremost, beautifully proportioned. When it comes to upholstery, nobody did better than Billy Baldwin.

But, is Billy considered a contemporary interior designer?

Decorator Billy Baldwin NYC Apartment - human scale living room furniture

Yes, I think so.


The above is from Billy’s NYC apartment, which I believe was decorated in the 1960s or maybe even earlier. The photography aside, if I walked into this room today, I wouldn’t be able to tell when it was created. There’s no thought as to what’s the latest trend or the color of the year. The colors and furnishings are what Billy loved.

I would classify the style of furniture he designed as classic 20th-century classic contemporary. That style still holds today. The beauty of his furniture is that it also blends beautifully with 18th-century antiques and vintage reproduction pieces.

However, it also mixes with pieces from the modern period.

Please check out the trick to mixing modern and traditional furniture.

Not to make it even more confusing, at times, it’s a matter of perception to determine the line between classic modern furnishings and classic contemporary furnishings.

Below is a short list of some of the top modern period designers.


  • Alvar Aalto
  • Marcel Breuer
  • Mies Van der Rohe
  • Le Corbusier
  • Ray and Charles Eames
  • Vladimir Kagan
  • Florence Knoll
  • Isamu Noguchi
  • Eero Saarinen
  • Hans Wegner


Below, I created a widget to share some of the iconic mid-century modern pieces, you’re most likely already familiar with. In addition, I’ve included some more unusual mid-century modern pieces.

The furniture I’m sharing is largely authentic vintage items. Some are new licensed items. And, a few are replicas, AKA knock-offs, for a lot less money. My feeling is if one can’t afford the more expensive pieces, but love the look, then that might be a viable option unless you get lucky in an estate sale or something like that.

Many designers will mix these mid-century pieces with an antique piece or two or classic contemporary furnishings.

In addition, and we touched on it, another category of modern furnishings belongs to the Hollywood Regency Style. This mid-century style is full of color. There are also strong influences of Asian and tropical themes, painted Chinese Chippendale and classical references as well.


Photo: Michael Arnaud, Courtesy of Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc._via Gallerie-Upper-Lobby
P,h photo Michael Arnaud, Courtesy of Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc. via Galerie Mag – Upper Lobby of the Greenbrier Resort.

One of the notable designers of this style was Dorothy Draper. You can see Dorothy Draper’s masterpiece, the Greenbrier, and many other examples of Hollywood Regency here.


So, let’s look at a final widget of some of my favorite classic contemporary furnishings.


This way, I think it’ll be easier to see how classic contemporary differs from classic modern furnishings.

By the way, I feel that all of these styles, if done well, are timeless. The common denominator should always be well-proportioned furniture with beautiful lines, whether it’s traditional, modern, or contemporary in styling.

Please enjoy the classic contemporary furnishings below.


Wait a sec, Laurel. This is all very nice, and I noticed some new items; overall, it looks pretty much like most of your other home furnishings collections, such as you’ve had in other posts and on your HOT SALES pages.

Great observation! ;]

That’s because I feel that the new-traditional, an eclectic mix of traditional pieces mixed with classic, contemporary furnishings, IS also the new contemporary.

In fact, many of the pieces could go in either the modern or contemporary categories. One great example is the Jonathan Adler Lampert Sofa. It’s the beautiful deep green velvet sofa in the modern widget.

I think the bottom line is to create rooms with an eclectic mix and, if possible, avoid overscale furniture. The proliferation of bulky, bloated furniture wears me down.

Please read “Does Your Furniture Need to Go on a Diet?”

Other posts you might enjoy are:

Club Chairs and the Newest Trend We’ve Been Waiting For


The 12 Best Sofas You Will Love Forever

Okay, I hope this post made sense. The apartment is 90% ready for reno. Cale was a tremendous help, but he’s back in Western Mass now. I’ll be able to do the rest this week easily.

I’m getting the keys to my new place tomorrow!



PS: Please check out the newly updated HOT SALES! Some Memorial Day sales are still going on, but some are ending very soon.


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7 Responses

  1. In the last couple of years I’ve taken on a few renovation projects, and they were an eye opener, for sure. Before I starting doing everything myself, I wondered what the heck was taking my contractor and his crew so long. I don’t wonder any more. Those little details that make a room look good and finished take a really long time and quite a lot of thought and care.

    I think the scope of the project you’re doing would be a shock to most of us, and a lot of us wouldn’t have had the sense to pick up and move out while it’s happening, either. We’d exchange our sanity for “saving” a little money–mostly that comes from husbands who should just be happy they’re not was-bands.
    Lord love a duck, why are men soooo cheap? I always say if men truly ruled the world, it’d look like crap, but there would be plenty of money in the bank. If women ran it, bank accounts would be empty, but everything would look wonderful.

  2. Laurel, so glad to hear your reno is well on its way. This was a fascinating and useful post that I have bookmarked and expect to return to time and again. Recently I ran across the Billy Baldwin Studio website and certainly agree that the Godfather of the Slipper Chair was a genius. His upholstered pieces are simple, comfy looking, compact and timeless. His table designs (coffee, lamp, console and bookcase) are crisp, light yet substantial and can be customized as to finish, for much less than an RH chromo.

  3. How would you categorize Arts and Crafts furnishings? Chronologically, they span the range from the 19th century to the early years of MCM. In their hearkening back to medieval forms and techniques, they seem to belong on the traditional widget, but in their principled and explicit rejection of Victorian work, they seem more modern. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Maybe put the British school in the traditional camp and the American school in the modern one?

  4. First of all, I’m in month nine of a kitchen reno done by a friend who has fallen ill. I should have had a baby by now! So, I’m praying that your whole house reno will be done in a shorter time than that! I absolutely love all this furniture which is my style. Finally I had to laugh at the Rush House Original rug. I grew up in Florida in the 50s and 60s and we had that over terrazzo in our house. I wonder where it was made back then? It very quickly got torn up by kids running around. I’d love to get a small one for the memories but my cat would quickly destroy it!

  5. Such lovely examples you’ve given us, Laurel! While I appreciate modern furnishings (especially in a modern home), my heart just loves a more traditional look. I love your classic contemporary widget! I’m so glad Cale was able to help you with your move. Wishing you well on your upcoming renovation work. I love going along for the ride, so thank you for sharing your journey with us :]

  6. Hi Laurel. It’s been some time since I commented. I just wanted to pop in and wish you every success with your renovation. Congratulations on achieving a beautiful design. It’s been a treat to watch the process.

  7. Hello Laurel, I love many of these pieces you mention, and cannot understand why so many interiors I see on the internet have no personality (other than the obvious reason that they are not readers here). Another modern furniture designer I like is Robsjohn-Gibbings. He also wrote about style, starting out rather light in Goodbye Mr. Chippendale, but becoming increasingly sour in his opinions (however, the illustrations by Mary Petty are absolutely amazing, including a transparent Chippendale chair!).

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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