About Art Nouveau Architecture and Design

A Turn of the Century Style Against the Machine

Art nouveau detailing, carved stone woman's face surrounded by stone flower petals and lyre-like details, in Prague, Czech Republic
Art nouveau detailing in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by David Clapp/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images

Art Nouveau was a movement in the history of design. In architecture, art nouveau is more of an architectural detail than it is an architectural style. In the history of graphic design, the movement ushered in a new modernism. During the late 1800s, many European artists, graphic designers, and architects rebelled against formal, classical approaches to design. Rage against the industrial age of machinery was led by writers such as John Ruskin (1819-1900).

Between 1890 and 1914, when new building methods flourished, designers tried to humanize the unnaturally tall box-shaped structures with decorative motifs that suggested the natural world;  they believed that the greatest beauty could be found in nature.

As it moved through Europe, the Art Nouveau movement went through several phases and took on a variety of names: in France it was called Style Moderne and Style Nouille (Noodle Style); it was called Jugendstil (Youth Style) in Germany and Sezessionsstil (Secession Style) in Austria; in Italy it was Stile Liberty and in Spain it was Arte Noven or Modernismo; and in Scotland it was the Glasgow Style.

A Definition of Art Nouveau

"a style of decoration and architectural detail popular in the 1890s featuring sinuous, floral motifs."—John Milnes Baker, AIA

What, Where, and Who

Art Nouveau (French for "New Style") was popularized by the famous Maison de l'Art Nouveau, a Paris art gallery operated by Siegfried Bing.

Art Nouveau art and architecture flourished in major European cities between 1890 and 1914. For example, in 1904, the town of Alesund, Norway was nearly burned to the ground, with over 800 homes destroyed. Alesund is now characterized as the "Art Nouveau town" as it was rebuilt during this time period of this movement.

In the United States, Art Nouveau ideas were expressed in the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Louis Sullivan promoted the use of exterior decoration to give "style" to the new skyscraper form. In Sullivan's 1896 essay, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, he suggests Form Follows Function.

Art Nouveau Buildings Have Many of These Features

  • Asymmetrical shapes
  • Extensive use of arches and curved forms
  • Curved glass
  • Curving, plant-like embellishments
  • Mosaics
  • Stained glass
  • Japanese motifs

Examples of Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau influenced architecture can be found around the world, but especially in the Viennese buildings of architect Otto Wagner, including Majolika Haus (1898-1899), the Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Rail Station (1898-1900), the Austrian Postal Savings Bank (1903-1912), the Church of St. Leopold (1904-1907), and the architect's own home, Wagner Villa II (1912). The Secession Building (1897-1898) by Joseph Maria Olbrich was the symbol and exhibition hall for the movement in Vienna, Austria.

In Budapest, Hungary the Museum of Applied Arts and Lindenbaum House and the Postal Savings Bank are fine examples of Art Nouveau stylings. In the Czech Republic it is the Municipal House in Prague.

Some call Anton Gaudi's work to be part of the art nouveau movement, especially Parque Güell, Casa Josep Batlló (1904-1906), and Casa Milà Barcelona (1906-1910), or la Pedrera, all in Barcelona.

In the United States, the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri, by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler and the Marquette Building in Chicago, Illinois, by William Holabird and Martin Roche with Coydon T. Purdy stand out as fine historic examples of art nouveau details in the new skyscraper architecture of the day.

What's the Difference Between Art Deco and Art Nouveau?

Nouveau versus Deco
 Art Nouveau Art Deco
Time frame:1890s to 19101920s to 1930s
Major Characteristics:swirling "whiplash curves," lines taking on the shape of a whip; integrating Art with craftsmanshipzig-zags, strong lines, repeating geometric patterns, symbolism
Influenced by:Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris, rejecting mechanization and celebrating craftsmanship and nature.The opening of King Tut's tomb launched great interest in Ancient Egypt designs.
Architecture:Colorful and detailed architectural decoration that ushered in the modern era.Stepped ziggurat geometric styling, as in the stepped pyramid of the 1931 Empire State Building.

Revivals

In the 1960s and early 1970s, art nouveau was revived in the poster art (sometimes erotic) of Englishman Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) and the French Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Dormitory rooms across the United States were known to be decorated with art nouveau posters hung next to Jimi Hendrix.

Learn More

Sources: American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 165; Destinasjon Ålesund & Sunnmøre at www.visitalesund-geiranger.com/en/the-art-nouveau-town-of-alesund/; Art Nouveau by Justin Wolf, TheArtStory.org website. Available from: http://www.theartstory.org/movement-art-nouveau.htm [accessed June 26, 2016]