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20th Century American Furniture: History & Styles

Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

The 20th century held exciting prospects for America. New innovations allowed American designers to look to the future for their inspiration, and their designs have endured the test of time. Let's see some examples of these styles and learn who designed them.

A New Way

As America entered the 1900's, designers began to explore new ways of interpreting furniture. Some styles were fighting the heavily ornamental and cluttered look of the Victorian era. Some styles were revolting against the Industrial Revolution by returning to hand built furniture that was more ornamental than functional. Other styles embraced the Industrial Revolution by mass producing practical furniture.

What Does 20th Century Furniture Look Like?

There are four major styles of 20th century furniture. They are Art Nouveau, Mission, Art Deco, and Modern. Let's take a look at each one.

Art Nouveau - 1890-1914

Art Nouveau, or 'New Art' in French, embraced the idea of art and design being a part of day-to-day life. This style was applied in most art forms including the decorative arts, such as furniture, accessories, and textiles and architecture. Many saw Art Nouveau as a total art style, with no separation between fine art and decorative art. Developed in Europe and North America, Art Nouveau designs were influenced by natural, organic shapes such as leafy vines, flowers, animals, and curvaceous women with long, flowing hair. Exotic woods, sometimes mixed with metal and glass, were the choice for Art Nouveau furniture.

Some of the premiere artists of the Art Nouveau style were Louis Tiffany, Antoni Gaudi, William Morris, and Louis Sullivan.

Art Nouveau Chest
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Mission - turn of the century

The Mission style is so named because it was influenced by Spanish Missions of the southwestern United States. The term was coined by New York furniture maker Joseph McHugh who designed a chair for a west coast church using the Spanish missions as inspiration. Mission furniture is also the American version of the British Arts and Crafts Movement.

This style of furniture is simple in its design and materials. Oak was the wood of choice, typically rough sawn and with a medium to dark finish with copper or iron hardware. Upholstered pieces were covered in leather or plain cloth. Clear and stained glass accents were also used.

Designers of importance for the Mission period were Gustav Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Greene brothers.

Mission Style Cellarette - Liquor Cabinet
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Art Deco - 1925-1940

The Art Deco movement began in Paris in 1900. Twenty years later this style flourished in the United States. The style wasn't actually called Art Deco until the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925. The term Art Deco was seldom used, though, until Bevis Hillier's 1968 book Art Deco in the 20's and 30's was published.

Art Deco uses geometric shapes and stylized, streamlined florals and animals rather than the organic shapes of the Art Nouveau period, and it used more embellishing than the Mission style. The Cubist art movement also had an influence on Art Deco. Like Art Nouveau, Art Deco stylings permeated all facets of life, including fine art, decorative art, furniture, architecture, jewelry, textiles, and the like.

New materials, made possible by the Industrial Revolution made Art Deco items unique. Glass, aluminum, stainless steel, plastic, and lacquer finishes give variety and style to Art Deco furniture.

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