What Is Art Nouveau?

Origins & Context

Art Nouveau was named after a Parisian shop (Maison de l’Art Nouveau), which opened in 1895, however the style defined in the history books took place between 1900 and 1914.

Life at that time, just before the Great War, was simpler; a horse-drawn carriage was still the main mode of transport and bicycling the latest craze; most women didn’t work though all households had domestic help; electricity and phones were available but TV and radio were not – the gramophone provided the in-house media entertainment. And for those who could afford it, the home was decorated in the latest style – Art Nouveau.

Two Styles in One

The work of the Art Nouveau period – Horta’s Paris Metro sign, Toulouse Lautrec & Klimt’s art, Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, Gaudi’s mosaics – splits clearly into two styles. However, despite looking worlds apart, their essence came from the same place – namely it was organic.


In France, Belgium, Italy and Spain, the Art Nouveau style was curvilinear – everything looked as though it would wake up and grow as soon as you left the room.

Horta’s Metro sign in Paris beautifully represents the curvilinear Art Nouveau style – its organic swirls in the lettering depicting nature and growth. The idea of growing from seed to stem to plant can be seen in the flowing lines of many pieces of furniture and decorative items of this period. Furniture looked like it was growing naturally – handles made to look like tendrils; corners and fronts of cabinet decorated in foliage and balustrades twisted and turned to depict vines.


Glasswork also beautifully represented the natural shapes of the style and Emile Gall and Tiffany produced some graceful and ornamental pieces – lamps, bowls, vases as well as glass pieces designed for furniture. Furniture and accessories alike bloomed with emblems from nature – butterflies, grasses, birds and flowers.

Art & Jewellery

In the art world the works of Mucha, Cheret, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gustav Klimt dominated the period. Long flowing hair, entwined lovers kissing and beautiful women were their subjects. In jewellery, the same organic shapes could be seen; necklaces of flower trails; brooches depicting sirens – there was a sense of poetry and romanticism in every piece.


In Germany, Austria and Britain, however, the Art Nouveau style was distinctly rectilinear – with well-defined lines surrounding even the most delicate of decoration.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

The work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh – the iconic rose framed between strong black lines, the high backed chairs and industrial windows were trademark pieces and the Hill House in Helensburgh, just outside Glasgow, epitomises his residential interior style.

Fitted furniture

The furniture was specifically designed to fit the interior (something unheard of until then), which would have included built-in window seats, cupboards, settles and bookcases made from woods such as cherry, walnut, mahogany, satinwood and light oak.


The colours from this period were peacock blue, turquoise, emerald green, pale lilac, black and silver, white and pink. They were used together to form an ethereal look to walls and quite psychedelic effects in the glasswork.


The Art Nouveau style is still very much in evidence particularly in Barcelona in Gaudi’s work at Casa Batllo and Casa Mila, as well as his unfinished cathedral. In Brussels the style can be seen at the Hotel Solvay and in Paris at Maxim’s and the Vagenode Restaurant. Visit Glasgow and enjoy a stylish cup of tea in the famous Willow tearooms designed by Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh.

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Source by Niki Schafer

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