Art Nouveau Architecture and Design

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

Art Nouveau was a movement in the history of design. In architecture, Art Nouveau was more a kind of detail than it was a style. In graphic design, the movement helped to usher in 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 like John Ruskin (1819–1900). Between 1890 and 1914, when new building methods flourished, designers tried to humanize the unnaturally tall, box-shaped structures by using 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, for example, it was called "Style Moderne" and "Style Nouille" (Noodle Style). It was called "Jugendstil" (Youth Style) in Germany, "Sezessionsstil" (Secession Style) in Austria, "Stile Liberty" in Italy, "Arte Noven" or "Modernismo" in Spain, and "Glasgow Style" in Scotland.

Jon Milnes Baker, member of the American Institue of Architects, defines Art Nouveau like this:

"A style of decoration and architectural detail popular in the 1890s featuring sinuous, floral motifs."

Art Nouveau: 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. The movement was not restricted to France though—Nouveau art and architecture flourished in many major European cities between 1890 and 1914.

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

In the United States, Art Nouveau ideas were expressed in the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan promoted the use of exterior decoration to give "style" to the new skyscraper form; in an 1896 essay, "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," he suggested that form follows function.

Art Nouveau Characteristics

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

Examples

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

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

In Barcelona, some consider Anton Gaudi's work to be part of the Art Nouveau movement, particularly Parque Güell, Casa Josep Batlló (1904–1906), and Casa Milà (1906-1910), also known as la Pedrera.

In the United States, an example of Art Nouveau is found in the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri, designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. There is also the Marquette Building in Chicago, Illinois, created by William Holabird and Martin Roche. Both of these structures stand out as fine historical examples of Art Nouveau style in the new skyscraper architecture of the day.

Revivals

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Art Nouveau was revived in both the (sometimes erotic) poster art of Englishman Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) and the work of Frenchman Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901). Interestingly, dormitory rooms across the United States were known to be decorated with Art Nouveau posters as well.

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