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Art Nouveau: Stepping Stone to Modern Design

Art Nouveau: Stepping Stone to Modern Design
Reading time: 10 min

What is Art Nouveau?

Like all great romances, Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil, was fleeting. Its arrival amidst ornamental Victorian design in the late 19th century was met across Europe with excitement and a lust for the revival of craftsmanship, but was soon forgotten when its desirable younger sister ‘Art Deco’ came on to the scene in the 1920s. 

Whilst short-lived, Art Nouveau didn’t fail to make an impact, and even made a come-back in the 1960s during the hippie era, where its floral, decorative designs tied in with the movement's focus on nature and organic movement. Art Nouveau was also an important milestone in the journey towards modernism, as the latter rebelled against jugendstil's frivolous, decorative aesthetic in favor of high-quality, craft-based art and furniture with a function. Without this stepping stone, then, we may have never come to know the innovation of modern design.

Art Nouveau, young and excited, was armed with a vision of the future, rebelling against the hierarchy of the Victorian education system, which favored sculpture and painting over craft and good workmanship. 

Known as, “Jugendstil” in Germany, “Secession” in Prague and “Liberty” in Italy, this movement embraced art as a whole — from decorative jewelry to household silver, utensils, lighting and even architecture. European Art Nouveau designers were enchanted by the philosophy that art was a way of life and prestigious homes quickly became acquainted with Art Nouveau-inspired furniture, silverware, fabrics and ceramics. This flawless combination of craftsmanship and fine art became iconic and it wasn’t long before all of the most striking homes adopted the look. 

How can we identify Art Nouveau style? 

Art Nouveau artists across Europe, fueled by a desire for a modern way of perceiving fine art, drew inspiration from natural forms, plants, flowers and curved lines. New materials such as cast iron, inspired by the Industrial Revolution, were used to create a, “total style” that spanned across modern architecture like artwork in The Grand Palais in Paris and the staircase in Alberta ielā, Riga, Latvia by architects Konstantīns Pēkšēns and Eižens Laube.

Art Nouveau decor design.

Art Nouveau architecture was often characterized by combining materials such as glass, ceramic, iron and brickwork. This exposed metalwork was the defining image of the shift towards a more liberal approach to art both in life and craft. Art Nouveau architecture can be identified now by their use of dramatic curved arches and stained glass, mosaics and plant-inspired sculpture depicting sunflowers, gillyflowers and tulips amongst others.

Art Nouveau artists wanted the world to see design as different parts of one unique whole, often exposing mechanical elements of the building structure and using glass and iron in harmony. Often there were no restraints when it came to design. After all, it was a rebellion and a time for young contemporary artists to shine.

How was Art Nouveau depicted in design and graphics?

We may better understand the movement as a whole by looking at Art Nouveau posters and paintings before exploring the beauty of the historical glass-making, jewelry and home furnishings that define this iconic period.

The popularity of Art Nouveau can be explained by its mass-produced, two-dimensional posters and graphics, which were readily available to the public thanks to advances in color-printing. Jugendstil artists such as Peter Behrens and Theophile Alexandre Steinlen found their graphic artwork on the front of books and advertisements whilst magazines such as Jugend introduced the new and exciting style to Germany.

These graphics were typically highly decorative and finished in hues such as green, orange, yellow, red and ochre. They featured curvy lines coupled with typography in an unmistakable graphic style. The lithographs found their way into stylish homes and survive even today thanks to their statement style and collectibility. These prints explore form and texture as well as color and were often inspired by the Japanese exploration of linear patterns in printing that had become popular at the time.

Art Nouveau poster.

In paintings, the same fascination with rich dark hues and linear exploration was widely apparent. Natural forms were explored without a fear of new materials. For example, Gustav Klimt experimented with gold in a lot of his work. Artists were keen to use machined surfaces and abstraction to create a distinctive appearance that emanated luxury and new ideas.

How to spot an original Art Nouveau ceramic or piece of jewelry

Nature inspired glass-making in the Art Nouveau movement as much as it did architecture and jewelry. The natural world became an unmistakable source of imagination in this movement of expression, often adopting the form of flowers, buds, vine tendrils and insect wings to show linear exploration — whether in the form of straight lines or elegant curves. Moonstone and diamonds would be used alongside glass to make an impactful ornament, often coupled with gold and enamel.

Art Nouveau jewelry was a direct reaction to the era's new paradigm of machine production — instead favoring exquisite, unique pieces that featured precious stones and majestic designs. Hair pins, brooches and pendants introduced opals and even beautiful metalwork inspired by the onset of Japanese art. Dragonflies and grasses, wings, flowers and buds were all equally popular. Imagine a dressing table topped with glass, decadently dressed in Art Nouveau ornaments and jewelry, and you have encapsulated the aesthetic of the age.

Art Nouveau Interiors

Elegant art nouveau furniture featured a wood construction with curves and elegant lines. Often glass and metal would be combined with bespoke wood, and some pieces would favor tapestry and patterns inspired by plants and animals. More was more when it came to cabinets and sideboards, with striking painted glass and multiple doors and drawers for added function.

Painted and stained glass are defining elements of the art nouveau style when it comes to furniture, with dining tables often being adorned with painted glass tops. Lamps with stained glass shades became must-have decorative pieces for the home, best illustrated by the iconic, “Tiffany” lamp by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Even windows are doors were not safe from the stained-glass phenomenon, often being installed with decorative panelling.

Stained-glass design lamp.

Who were the key figures in the Art Nouveau movement?

Art Nouveau design can be more readily explored by looking at the works of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Gustav Klimt was an Austrian artist most commonly remembered for his paintings, murals and sketches. His fascination lay in the female form and inspired much of his work, which has an undertone of eroticism and lust.

Like many Art Nouveau artists, Klimt was influenced by Japanese art and aimed to make an impression in the modern world that was in no way dictated by historical influences. This move away from the limits of Victorian design and towards a “new art” may have paved the way for modernism as we know it and certainly impacted the art world in the late nineteenth century. 

In 1897, Klimt became a founding member of the Wiener Sezession or the Vienna Secession, where he gave unconventional young artists opportunities to showcase their work. The group even published their own magazine, in which they could present the best of the newly discovered. 

As an Art Nouveau artist Klimt experimented with texture and color, as in his world-renowned piece entitled, “The Kiss” where he used gold leaf to achieve that rich, illustrious imagery. He was mostly unfazed by the critical reception he received for the sensual nature of his work.

Klimt remains increasingly popular even today, perhaps because we are drawn to his avant-garde style and the way he experimented with “the new”. Perhaps because of the luxurious reds, metallic golds, ochres and oranges that feature in many of his paintings that provide the perfect nod to history and sophistication in our homes. Or perhaps it’s because we know his images were controversial at a time when a celebration of sexuality was still considered as a boundary not to be crossed. We pick up an alluring sense of freedom and expression from his work that is simply irresistible when we come face to face with it.

The Leopold Museum in Vienna offers an extensive range of Gustav Klimt works, providing a substantial legacy for this irreplaceable figure in the Secession. The stunning collection of Art Nouveau history on offer at the Leopold Museum is a treat for the senses — from Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele pieces to semi-precious artifacts and original Art Nouveau Wiener Werkstatte furniture. 

It is from this incredible view of a historical movement that we gain inspiration for our own homes and galleries, whether it’s a coffee table read or an original artifice to bring an alluring sense of that powerful era into the 21st century. To own a Lötz Witwe Art Nouveau vase in all its glory, for instance, is a privilege that not many will ever have the chance to experience.

Egon Schiele portrait by Klimt.

Egon Schiele, another key figure in the art nouveau movement, was a protégé of Gustav Klimt himself. He, like many art nouveau artists of the time, were frustrated with the constraints of traditional fine art. He sought out Gustav Klimt, who was taken by the artist’s unique style and interest in the human form. Together with Klimt, Egon Schiele showcased his work in an exhibition arranged by the Secession. Schiele’s absorption in decorative eroticism was met head on by the conventional ideals of beauty that challenged the figurative distortions, deformities and general sexual exploration in his work. His work was radical and it wasn’t long before he developed his own distinct style as a result of the influence of Art Nouveau. The Leopold Museum holds the world’s largest Egon Schiele collection.

How has Art Nouveau inspired the 21st Century?

In the 21st century, Art Nouveau continues to have an impact on our contemporary artists and designers. Post-modernist designers use elements of the movement as unrivaled inspiration — such as the call of delicate aspects of nature and the art nouveau-specific colors of olive green and ochre. Floral motifs will still feature on posters and prints mimicking the style and graphic designers even use the iconic female form and recognizable typography in tee-shirt printing and modern design.

Graphic prints that include flowers, buds, wings or nymphs will often be drawing inspiration directly from Art Nouveau. Even in architecture it’s easy to see the influence of this free movement that was once considered compelling and contemporary. If you see a building with a noticeably raised leaf or vine decoration, an ornate spiral staircase draped in exquisite metalwork or vibrant stained glass windows in cafes and brasseries — you’re looking at a small piece of the past in modern form.

Many seek to achieve the interior style of the Art Nouveau or Jugendstil movement by adding original pieces to their decor. Home furnishing turns to luxurious glass ornaments, Art Nouveau vases, stained glass tables, distinctive Tiffany lamps and wooden writing desks or gentleman’s dressers. Art nouveau style often takes on the look of a dreamworld where linear limits are explored using intricately curved bannisters, dark wooden coffee tables with curved legs or a mismatch in textures — like stark, cool metalwork contrasted with warm, bespoke wood. Often spaces are domed with striking beams or enhanced using stained glass panels in doors, windows or even in ceilings.

To bring back this particular style of 19th century art is not just to create a bespoke and exclusive interior, it’s to own a piece of history. Young art lovers in the late 19th century rifled through magazines filled with Art Nouveau graphics long before they started watching moving picture or said goodbye to loved ones tragically lost in the First World War. The beauty of Art Nouveau is as much about the emotional pull of its history as it is about the art itself.