Contemporary design is quite often confused with modern design. But there’s a big difference between the two, as the former merely means current, design of today. Whereas modern, in furniture design, means possessing design traits from the mid-1900's era, which is implanted forever in history, never to change.
The term modern explicitly refers to design traits of mid century modernism. These mid-century modern traits include geometric shapes, simple minimalism, clean straight lines, as wells the high use of white and neutral colors possibly with a bold color. While contemporary design also adds current design traits and designs which are are always changing.
Mid century modern design both in furniture and architecture got its beginnings in Europe, specifically in Germany. The famous Bauhaus movement of the early 1900's spawned what later became history’s most popular style of design, modern design.
From Germany the design epoch trailed to France where it blossomed under such artists as le Corbusier. And then mid century modernism got its biggest boost from the Scandinavian nations with Scandinavian design. Scandinavian design incorporated the unique style of minimalism. it is the origin of the famous term “form and function”.
Following the enormous success of modern design in Europe, it then exploded in the U.S. with the works of iconic American designers such as the Eames and George Nelson. The Eames Lounge Chair is still one of the world’s most recognized modern chairs.
Contemporary design is the most popular form of design today, and it owes much of its success to modern design as it carries much of its qualities. Contemporary designers don’t have the same name recognition that modern designers do though as they are generally new on the scene. And in time the once contemporary table, or nightstand, that they were know for will no longer be considered contemporary. But if it possesses modern attributes then it will always be considered modern.
I hope this sheds some light on the often misunderstood difference between modern and contemporary design.