“Bare-bones” Modern vs. “Thoughtful” Modern: Don’t Fall Victim to These Modern Design Mistakes

Thoughtful Modern Design Ain’t Cheap!

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Homeowners often have the misconception that modern design is less expensive to pull off than other styles like Colonial, Tudor, and Craftsman because there are fewer finishing details like millwork, wallpaper, and ironwork to purchase. Hate to burst any bubbles out there, but this is simply not the case. I’m going to give you the hard truth—modern design ain’t cheap! In many cases, thoughtful modern design is even more expensive to execute than traditional styles because every detail must be carried out with expert craftsmanship. It takes time to build perfectly straight walls and aligned corners without being able to hide imperfections with decorative moldings or patterned wallpapers. I’ve recently seen a trend of big developers slapping the “modern” label on bare-bones spec homes that lack intention and functionality. In many cases, these homes aren’t modern at all! To set the record straight on what constitutes modern design, my team of Austin interior designers and I review the modern design mistakes to avoid and what to look for in thoughtful modern homes.

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What Developers Mean by Modern vs. What Designers Mean by Modern

When it comes to mass housing developments, developers often put making a profit above building a comfortable and well-designed home. I’ve seen a trend where spec homes are slapped together and given the “modern design” label when, in reality, they are just not finished out well. These houses are built to the minimum standard, void of comfortable details, and out of touch with their environments. What’s left is a cold, bare-bones structure that lacks the thoughtful design details that make it a home. Of course, this does not apply to all developers out there. Many developers know the importance of good design and bring in the help of professional interior designers and architects to see it through.

A good designer knows that a thoughtful modern home is actually more challenging to build than a traditional home. Traditional-style homes are full of millwork details that hide the imperfections of construction. Modern-style homes often forgo baseboards, crown moldings, and trim to focus on the structure, which has to be perfect. After all, there is nowhere to hide when you’re naked! Interior designers recognize the importance of including beauty, function, comfort, and, most importantly, warmth in modern design plans.

The Need for Thoughtful Affordable Housing

Now, it’s easy to say, “let’s increase the budget and improve the craftsmanship” when you have the money, but not everyone can afford the design work that goes into a well-executed modern home. However, design at any budget can be thoughtful and intentional with the proper planning. Currently, there is a housing crisis, and homes are needed for people at all income levels. In some cases, a modern design may be the solution, but not always. The key is to streamline the budget while maximizing the enjoyment and functionality of the space. Design firms like LOHA are finding creative ways to develop affordable housing in Los Angeles, utilizing unique building materials like shipping containers and focusing on the use of the site. Bottom line, good design should solve a problem, fit the environment, and provide a comfortable space to live. The bare-bones modern approach ignores these three factors.

Modern Design Mistakes Seen in the Bare-bones Approach

The bare-bones modern approach glosses over the design process and hides behind incorrect labels, pretty photos, and good advertising. Beneath the gilded facade lies a lack of detail, functionality, and warmth. Don’t assume a developer knows how to design a thoughtful modern home just because it looks simple. Simplicity is hard to get right! Here are three modern design mistakes to avoid.

Mixing Incompatible Design Styles and Periods

Modern design actually refers to the style used in the modernist period that occurred between 1945 and 1969. It is rooted in an era that celebrated function, connections to nature, and geometric form. However, today it gets muddled with a mishmash of conflicting styles. The ill-informed mix of styles, such as blending mid-century and farmhouse, results in a disjointed look. Make sure to use architects and interior designers who are well versed in design history and can create a home anchored in a time and place.

Ignoring Proportion and Scale

Without balanced proportions, your home will look more like a cartoon than a relaxing modern retreat. Modern design is a celebration of form and the structure itself. So when a window or roofline isn’t quite right, it shows. In many cases, bare-bones modern homes feel boxy, bland, and unfinished. A well-proportioned home, on the other hand, will look effortlessly balanced and welcoming.

Forgetting Connections to Nature

In the design process, it is essential to consider how the home relates to the site, landscape, and streetscape. Forgetting to include connections to nature can leave the house feeling cold, underutilized, and closed off from the world. When designing with nature in mind, windows will perfectly frame the views, and patios will open up as seamless extensions of the home. In the bare-bones approach, plans are drawn in a void, and a beautiful window may end up showcasing the worst view on the property.

What to Look for in Thoughtful Modern Design

Thoughtful modern design is centered around form, craftsmanship, and natural connections. Most importantly, though, a thoughtful modern home is designed to fit the needs of the homeowner. When you go into the design process, whether with a developer, architect, interior designer, or all three, make sure you know what to look for and the function you need from your home. Good design is meant to solve a problem and create the most comfortable space possible for you and your family. Here are three things consider in thoughtful modern designs.

Celebration of Form and Function

Modern design celebrates form and function, streamlining details to highlight the structure itself and creating spaces that can be used to their maximum potential. Modern homes are typically designed with more open-concept plans made for entertaining and indoor-outdoor connections that expand the livable space to the backyard.

Focus on Craftsmanship and Materials

Craftsmanship isn’t just for Craftsman homes! Designing a streamlined modern home with true corners, smooth walls, and level doorways takes skill. Without extra details to hide behind, the structure is on full display! Modern homes also shouldn’t feel cold or barren inside. Material selections like metal, wood, and stone bring different textures and natural elements inside for a warming effect.

Embrace of Comfort and Natural Connections

Let’s get this straight, designing a modern home does not mean you will live inside a boring white sheetrock box. Instead, modern homes should be designed to welcome the outdoors inside. Large windows, expansive patios, and courtyards are great ways to create indoor-outdoor connections in the home. References to the environment are crucial to designing a home that is healthy and energizing.

Creative Problem Solving is Central to Thoughtful Modern Design

Comfort is not standard. It is customized. Don’t fall victim to the rows and rows of identical bare-bones modern homes that photograph beautifully and look great in the ad but ignore your needs and leave you wanting more. You can’t buy a house off the rack. Working with a builder, architect, and interior designer team inspires the new ideas, innovation, and creative problem solving that are central to thoughtful modern design. If you want a stunning outcome, don’t fit your life into a box. Instead, push for the home designed around you!


Amity Worrel

Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.