Art Nouveau design: art and design for the people


So off the bat what do you think when you hear the words Art Nouveau design? Something french, classic, fancy and probably pricey? Well Art Nouveau is French for “New Art.” It was intended to be art for the people and an attempt to move away from traditional art forms that were often restrictive and exclusive. The Art Nouveau movement sought to bring beauty to all aspects of life and to all people.

Art Nouveau
Design by OrangeCrush

In today’s society, we have moved more toward using different art styles from centuries ago without even knowing it. We implement these historic designs, like Art Nouveau, through our branding, graphic design, home decor, architecture and so much more. Looking back at the history of Art, revolutionary works of Art were not just about aesthetics but a reflection of a part of society, a movement and the desires and repulsions within a society.

Today we still use art in the same way, we use it to identify ourselves with a particular movement or a school of thought in order to draw in customers and viewers. So how do brands and design use Art Nouveau today? In this article, we’ll cover the history of Art Nouveau and key characteristics of Art Nouveau to help you spot it in designs today.

The history of Art Nouveau

The Art Nouveau movement began in the late nineteenth century and was coined by British textiles designer, writer and social activist William Morris, along with other collaborators within the Arts and Crafts movement.

The Arts and Crafts movement came before Art Nouveau and aimed to reform quality functional design by bringing dignity to Art being applied to day-to-day life, which was often underrepresented and unappreciated in the art world at the time. That sentiment behind the Arts and Crafts movement can be seen in Art Nouveau: the desire to deconstruct the traditional and often elitist ideas around the hierarchy within art.

Fabric design “Peacock and Dragon” by William Morris
Peacock and Dragon, Woven woollen fabric, 1878. By  William Morris. Via Unsplash

The sentiment of Art Nouveau is the importance of seeing the beauty in all objects: art does not have to be a lifeless painting you hang up but can be functional and available for more than just the few. This was a radical philosophy in the elitist art world. As William Morris said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Keeping in touch with its British, medieval and romantic origins, Art Nouveau drew inspiration from the world of plants and nature quite similar to the imagery associated with the artistic and literary movement romanticism. Romanticism began in the eighteenth century and had an emphasis on individualism, spontaneity and freedom from rules and encouraged people to rely on their imagination. However, one major element that differentiated Romanticism from Art Nouveau was that romantics criticised the industrial revolution while the Art Nouveau movement embraced it and was even fueled by it.

Art Nouveau and the Industrial Revolution

Art Nouveau emerged as a reaction to major world events including the Industrial Revolution which began in the eighteenth century. The Industrial Revolution was the transformation from a handicraft economy to one dominated by machine manufacturing through the rise of technology.

D. Napier & Son Ltd, 'Aero Engine in the Making', England, circa 1918
D. Napier & Son Ltd, ‘Aero Engine in the Making’, England, circa 1918. Via Unsplash

The five key factors of industrialisation are:

  •  Land
  •  Labour
  •  Capital
  •  Technology
  •  Connections

These five elements can also be seen in the Art Nouveau movement. The industrial revolution allowed for faster and cheaper production of materials making new building materials such as glass, reinforced concrete, cast iron and steel, readily available. Art Nouveau artists embraced industrial production and the accessibility of materials to create their work.

Art Nouveau was able to create handmade unique pieces as well as industrially produce items in order for the not so well off to also have access to the finer things in life. This is what the Industrial Revolution made possible and in turn made it possible for Art Nouveau to achieve its goal of providing art for the people.

Objectives of Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau stained glass lamp design
Art Nouveau stained glass lamp design via Etsy

One of the objectives of Art Nouveau was to break down the separation between Fine Art and Applied Art. Fine Art can be described to be art simply due to aesthetics, often lacking concept but judged primarily on its beauty. However, Applied Art embraced art with purpose, art that is applied to everyday and practical objects. This genre of art allowed not just the wealthy to access the beautiful things in life but bring beauty into spaces everyone could enjoy, adding functional purpose, from architecture and interior design to graphic arts, jewellery and much more. Many of the artworks in Art Nouveau were not paintings (which would often only be attainable for the rich), but objects of use such as vases, chairs, lamps and buildings.

The pioneers of Art Nouveau challenged society, including artists, craftsmen and -women of all kinds, to reestablish quality handmade crafts and create modern designs both for practical use as well as beauty. This development made craftspeople reexamine regular objects, and see them as potential masterpieces. With this in mind artists experimented with a range of elements such as creating free forms lines and curves, geometric shapes, all aspects that are now signature elements of Art Nouveau design.

four panels of women illustrated in four seasons
The Seasons (series) by Alphonse Mucha via Mucha Foundation

The Art Nouveau movement also aimed to change educational institutions. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century the academic world of the Arts was dominated by a hierarchy where Fine Art such as paintings and sculptures were seen as superior and therefore given more attention and opportunities. Art Nouveau shone a light on artists of all disciplines and appreciated the vast array of artwork.

The Art Nouveau stairway of Tassel House in Brussels, designed by Victor Horta
The Art Nouveau stairway of Tassel House in Brussels, designed by Victor Horta. Via Wikipedia

Artists of Art Nouveau

Beginning in England with William Morris, word soon spread about the Art Nouveau movement and how it was transforming the art world. One of the artists who expanded the Art Nouveau movement to Belgium was young architect Victor Horta, who built a house in the Art Nouveau style. It’s considered to be one of the first truly Art Nouveau-inspired buildings due to its innovative use of materials.

Art Nouveau Paris Metro sign
Art Nouveau Paris Metro sign via Culture Trip

Influenced by Horta, French architect-designer Hector Guidmard adapted the Art Nouveau style to the entrance of the Parisian Metro “le Metropolitain.”

Art Nouveau design gained more attention after the World Exhibition held in Paris in 1900s. The Exhibition showcased many Art Nouveau artists including another notable artist, Alphonse Mucha, a Czech painter, illustrator and graphic designer. He was best known for his distinct and unique decorative theatre posters. He gained recognition particularly from his posters of French actress Sarah Bernhardt because of how he conveyed Bernhardt from the perspective of the audience as admirers and observers of the star.

La Dame Aux Camelias' by Alphonse Mucha
La Dame Aux Camelias’ by Alphonse Mucha via Wayfair

Other leading Art Nouveau architects and designers included the Hungarian architect Ödön Lechner. He was well known and recognised for his grandiose designs bringing life and color to the buildings of Budapest. Lechner combined Art Nouveau stylistic elements along with traditional Hungarian folk stories rooted in romance.

Elisabeth Sonrel, another Art Nouveau artist, was a French painter and illustrator in the Art Nouveau style with elements of the nineteenth-century British Pre-Raphaelites. Her work included allegorical subjects, mysticism and symbolism, as well as portraits and landscapes. Sonrel depicted idealized women often with religious themes using watercolour paint. Her style was delicate and detail orientated.

Les Rameaux (Palm Sunday) 1897 by Élisabeth Sonrel
Les Rameaux (Palm Sunday) 1897 by Élisabeth Sonrel via ashmolean.org

Key characteristics of Art Nouveau design

Artists from across various disciplines from painters, illustrators, jewellery and glassware designers employed specific techniques that identified them as artists of the Art Nouveau movement. These techniques depicted dreamlike imagery that represented the notion of thinking beyond the mould, illustrating a time of new thoughts coming to life. These dreamlike images were often shown through the following characteristics:

Sensuality

Art Nouveau reflected the sexual awakening that was occurring during that time. Women in Art Nouveau were often depicted with a sense of eroticism and other disciplines used sensual curved shapes and round forms to symbolise the body.

Today, we still use the sensuality and eroticism of Art Nouveau to grab an audience’s attention and to brand sensual products like exclusive food or fine dining, cosmetics, fragrances and alcoholic beverages. Take a look at the designs below to see what we mean.

Japanese inspired flat perspective

Siegfried Bing, a German-French art dealer, introduced Japanese art to the West and this greatly contributed to the development of Art Nouveau design. Eventually across Europe, Japanese art gained popularity in art circles, primarily due to the Exhibition in Paris, where Bing showcased more than 700 prints and more than 400 books all from Japan.

Woman looking of the side, Ukiyo-e style woodblock printing
Ukiyo-e illustration by Takeuchi Keishu via Ukiyo-e.org

The art movement from Japan that influenced Art Nouveau the most was called ukiyo-e, which means “pictures of the floating world.” Ukiyo-e was the elaborate process of creating woodblock prints that created flat perspectives. The use of space, colour and decorative patterns used in Japanese artwork greatly inspired the same elements in Art Nouveau.

Curved and free-flowing lines

Artists in the Art Nouveau movement invented a style where curves were dominant. The Whiplash was an iconic element characterised by a curved ‘S’ in a line often asymmetrical and inspired by nature. We can find these lines in balconies, bannisters, facades, house entrances and frames.

Stained-glass skylight and mirror at the top of the Maison & Atelier Horta
Stained-glass skylight and mirror at the top of the Maison & Atelier Horta. Photo: Alastair Carey-Cox; Bridgeman Images via Apollo Magazine

Today you can see these curved and free-flowing lines used frequently in logo and packaging designs. As shown in the examples below by designers Renata_Costa and Mila Katagarova, the designs give a flowing look and feel. And the decorative and incriticate details in the designs reflect the architectural influence of Art Nouveau.

Floral forms

Many Art Nouveau artists included flowers or elements of nature such as lilies, irises, poppies, rosebuds, swans, peacocks, dragonflies, egg shapes, clouds, or water. Even depictions of women with beautifully long swaying hair were used to create interesting imitations of nature itself, contributing to the harmonious composition.

We see this today when brands use floral forms to convey a sense of luxury, vitality and femininity. Floral designs with an Art Nouveau twist are used anywhere from posters, packaging and product labels to logos and invitation designs celebrating events like weddings or baby showers. They instantly make any design look softer and more natural.

When to use Art Nouveau design in your branding

Art Nouveau design shows us how embracing and combining different cultures with respect and appreciation can reinvent and revive traditional styles. It’s a classic style that has been preserved and is still celebrated in the art world today as it was so inclusive of all artists at the time.

Art Nouveau design is often used for visual identities that want to communicate being organic or original, admiring nature, rooted in bringing life and beauty to all things as well as conveying an air of elegance. If these are some of the elements you want your brand to represent, experiment with Art Nouveau design on your own or with help from a professional designer.

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