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 is an architectural detail more than it is an architectural style. 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.

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

Other Names for Art Nouveau:

As it moved through Europe, Art Nouveau went through several phases and took on a variety of names.

  • Style Moderne in France
  • Style Nouille (Noodle Style) in France
  • Jugendstil (Youth Style) in Germany
  • Sezessionsstil (Secession Style) in Austria
  • Stile Liberty in Italy
  • Arte Noven or Modernismo in Spain
  • Glasgow Style in Scotland

Examples of Art Nouveau:

What's the difference between Art Deco and Art Nouveau?

Nouveau versus Deco
 Art Nouveau
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.


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:

  • Art Nouveau and Art Deco: What's the Difference? in the Antiques world
  • Art Nouveau Architecture, Dover 1902 reprint
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Sources: American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 165; Destinasjon Ålesund & Sunnmøre; Art Nouveau by Justin Wolf, TheArtStory.org website. Available from: http://www.theartstory.org/movement-art-nouveau.htm [accessed June 26, 2016]