Art Nouveau Furniture: History & Characteristics

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What do bugs, vines, and high-quality furniture have in common? What makes a style modern? In this lesson, learn about the history of Art Nouveau furniture and explore some of its characteristics.

What is Art Nouveau?

Sometimes, design styles influence many creative pursuits. Art Nouveau furniture, which features curving lines and organic shapes, was a result of ideas that merged nature, design, and craftsmanship.

Art Nouveau was a decorative style that became popular in Europe and the United States between 1890 and 1910. It impacted, among other things, architecture, illustration and graphic arts, jewelry and glass design, and furniture design. The term 'Art Nouveau' is French, meaning literally 'new art.' And that's exactly what its creators wanted to make. Art Nouveau was a desire to create a new style for the coming century, and a conscious attempt to abandon any notion of the dated styles of the past. Its goal was a new art for a new age.

History of Art Nouveau Furniture

The Art Nouveau movement began in France and spread throughout Europe, encouraged by similar ideas among groups of artists focused on a desire for quality craftsmanship and a reintegration of all the arts. Because it emerged in a brief period of time in so many places, Art Nouveau was known by different names in different parts of Europe. For example, it was called Glasgow Style in Scotland and the Vienna Secession in Austria.

The artists and designers who worked in Art Nouveau wanted to rekindle an appreciation of good craftsmanship in an age of growing industrialization and mass-production. They wanted to create art for everyday life, which is why Art Nouveau influenced decorative arts and interior design, arenas that brought objects into people's homes and environments. Artists who created Art Nouveau furniture, like Charles Rennie Mackintosh of Scotland and Hector Guimard of France, often worked in more than one arena of design. Several were architects who branched out into interior design and also designed objects like lamps, furniture, and other items for the home.

Example of Art Nouveau furniture, a buffet cabinet designed by Hector Guimard
Art Nouveau furniture by Guimard

Art Nouveau furniture was popular but it never completely superseded other furniture styles. Why? It was expensive to create and required a high level of skill. The furniture's most distinctive elements, elaborative curves, and twists had to be done by hand. Creating and carving those curving forms from hardwoods wasn't easy. The result was a style that most people couldn't afford. Art Nouveau fell out of favor by 1910, so it was relatively short-lived. But it proved very influential. Sometimes called the first 'modern style,' it fed into later art and design movements including Art Deco and Modernism.

Now let's look at a few characteristics that identify Art Nouveau furniture.

Characteristics of Art Nouveau Furniture

One of the first things you notice about Art Nouveau furniture is a sense of long, sinuous line. It snakes around shapes and curls in organic, stylish ways. Some of this comes from the flattened space and linear quality of Japanese art, which was a popular influence among artists at the time. Some of these lines come in the form of whiplash curves, elongated curving lines that bend back on themselves.

Example of Art Nouveau furniture. Notice the emphasis on curved and elongated shapes.
Art Nouveau furniture

Art Nouveau furniture is often made of materials like hardwood, especially walnut, oak, and teak. Some surfaces are decorated by a process called inlay, where small pieces of hardwoods are cut and pieced together to form a flat decorative surface. Furniture pieces can also incorporate metals that also curve and bend in elegant ways.

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