Breaking down the similarities – and differences between two modern kitchen styles

Modern design and mid-century modern design. Same thing, right? Though both styles adhere to the “form follows function” rule, there are a surprising number of differences between them. So before you settle on one of the two design styles for your kitchen, make sure you know exactly which one is right for you.

First, let’s get the two design styles straight. The terms “modern” and “mid-century modern” are often used interchangeably to describe a wide variety of unadorned and contemporary styles. They both, however, are the result of different eras and both evolved uniquely.

“Modern” interior design grew out of the modern art and art deco movements of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Celebrated for its simplicity, purity and lack of ornamentation, modern interior design became popular between the 1920s and 1950s.

What we consider mid-century modern interior design rose to popularity after World War II. It was especially popular from 1945 to 1969. The straightforward design was particularly efficient to create on a mass scale, satisfying the postwar housing boom. Mid-century modern also describes a style of architecture, furniture design, materials and technology.

Today, what we call “modern” interior design is actually the contemporary (or, current) version of mid-century modern design. Now that we understand the two styles, we can break down their differences and point out any similarities.



Modern and mid-century modern architecture is similar at first glance. But a major difference can be seen in the modern kitchen’s strict adherence to horizontal lines. Look closely at a modern kitchen and you’ll see long stacks of cabinets. Hardware is also set long and horizontal to accentuate the lines even further.

On the other hand, mid-century modern kitchens feature more architectural flow. Sloping ceilings and large windows increase the kitchen’s cohesion with the rest of the home – and the outdoors.


Perhaps reflecting the optimism and exuberance of the age, mid-century modern lighting is practically playful. Statement pendant lighting is a big component of the mid-century modern kitchen. Chrome cluster pendants, glass pendants tinted orange, gold or olive green, and the classic Nelson Bubble Lamp are all sure ways to give a kitchen mid-century modern credibility.

Lighting in the modern kitchen, however, is more restrained. Recessed lighting and under cabinet lighting are often used to maintain minimalism.

© Mackenzie Schieck

Cabinet Style

Both modern and mid-century modern kitchens are characterized by sleek and smooth cabinetry. Flat panel or slab panel cabinet doors are typical styles. Frameless cabinets are also very common in both. Sliding doors, however, are a dead giveaway of a mid-century modern kitchen design.

In terms of materials, mid-century modern kitchens favour traditional products like wood or wood veneer. Both are celebrated for their rustic simplicity. Glass cabinets are also a mid-century modern mainstay as they are a great way to show off collectables.

The modern kitchen is more open to alternative cabinet materials. Just as long as they adhere to the sleek and smooth rule. Cabinetry lacquered to a high gloss shine is a contemporary riff on the look. When wood is used, you can often see that the grain is oriented horizontally to appeal to modern architecture.


The modern and mid-century modern kitchen layout favours open concept. In the mid-century modern kitchen layout, however, it is more common to see eat-in dining. That means the dining area is in the kitchen itself, rather than a space outside it. To achieve a mid-century modern dining vibe, invest in a tulip table and Eames-style dining chairs.

Reflecting our busy and more casual lives, modern kitchens more frequently feature breakfast bars. Here, we choose to sit and eat – or grab a meal on-the-go – from sleek high-stools.


Mid-century modern kitchens are generally open to colour. Mint green and burnt orange were favourites of the time and are seen on everything from lighting to textiles. Also, wallpaper was a mainstay, and often in whimsical patterns.

Modern kitchens feature monochromatic colour schemes. White, beige, grey and other cool neutrals are used often. Pops of colour create a more playful space though. While an orange pendant revives the modern kitchen’s mid-century roots, two-toned cabinetry is a 2018 trend.

© Marbodal


In the modern kitchen, accents like chairs and lighting are consistent with the design. They won’t deviate in terms of finish or colour. Whether glass or stainless steel, they are simple, feature clean lines and are unornamented. Industrial elements are also used. Stainless steel hoods and kitchen islands, for example.

The mid-century modern kitchen is the ideal space to showcase funky accessories and eclectic collections. Colourful ceramic jars with folk patterns and sunburst clocks are classic nods to the optimism of the era. Plastic was also used a lot for products that once were made only from natural materials. Like wood. In the mid-century modern kitchen, plastic was being celebrated as a material in its own right. Chairs, for instance, were increasingly made from plastic. Timeless examples we still see in production today include shell chairs, poly side chairs and the Panton Chair.

© Decoist

Textures and Finishes

At first glance, both modern and mid-century modern kitchens look smooth, smooth, smooth. But, that isn’t really the case. The mid-century modern kitchen is apt to show a wider range of textures. Wood grain is prominent in cabinetry. Bold backsplashes done with textured tiles are common. And, love it or hate it, exposed brick made its debut in the mid-century modern home. A big feature in the kitchen, exposed brick, or plaster showcase the functionality and structure of the home.

The modern kitchen, however, is definitely the space where sleekness rules. The consistency of finish and texture is a key feature. That doesn’t mean however that the modern kitchen is entirely devoid of texture. Metals with a pewter or patina finish create depth and visual interest. A tiled backsplash, for instance, may be white, but feature a raised geometric pattern.

Now that you know the difference between modern and mid-century modern kitchen design, which is right for you?