Once again, we’re “moonwalking” through furniture design, so although it looks like we’re moving forward, we’re really moving back into the past…this time, to Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau got its name from Siegfried Bing’s Parisshop, which he opened in 1895. His store eventually expanded to include classes in design and, in addition to furniture; he sold textiles, ceramics, glassware and silverware.
This is a time of great upheaval, greater wealth for the upper classes but also greater poverty for the rest of us, as the industrial revolution migrated folks into the cities and into devastating poverty running the machines of mass production. Art Nouveau, or “new art” as its name implies, was an attempt to combine all forms of art, decorative and functional, under the same umbrella.
Like the arts and crafts movement, art nouveau was a stab at moving away from the shoddy mass produced furniture of industrialization and incorporates more emphasis on inspiration and craftsmanship and earlier influences like rococo. Unlike, say art deco, this style was very widespread, seen in the pieces of furniture that people actually bought, and was less reliant on a few significant designers. This was furniture you could find in a store, not just a design gallery.
Art Nouveau can be recognized by the use of ornate detailing in the work. There was an influence of Louis XV, the incorporation of female figures, lots of hand carving and lots of detail in the fixtures. Gilt or bronzing the corners of chests or of the hardware was common. Tiffany lamps are a signature piece of this age.
The figure of a maiden with long flowing hair is an icon of this movement. Think Aubrey Beardsley without the erotica. Most of the decorations were, not surprisingly, inspired by nature and even the curves on arm supports are homage to plant tendrils.
So, how would you spot an art nouveau chair? Expect walnut or other warm and exotic woods, carving on the legs and arms and if the seat and back are leather, it is likely to have designs tooled into it, often floral patterns.
In England, this style morphed slightly into the Edwardian and it is rejection of the somber, heavy pieces of Victorian times. The republishing of Sheraton’s and Hepplewhite’s books led to a neoclassicism movement that took the earlier pieces and skinnied them down to small delicate pieces, often with crossbanding or wooden inlays to fans or shells. The style was so much in demand, that manufacturers started turning out cheaper pieces of furniture, using finishes to replicate the rarer and more expensive woods like satinwood.
Which doesn’t mean all of the furniture was poorly made, far from it. After winning several prizes for his designs and a bunch of money making furniture for tearooms, Charles Mackintosh opened an art school in Glasgow and started producing furniture with bold straight lines and gentle curves. His real innovation was to look at a room as a single entity and that all the furniture in it should contribute to a single impression.
In the US, Charles Eastlake epitomized the movement and pieces in his style, although uncommon here on the west coast, are still considered attractive items for collectors.
The popularity of Art Nouveau, I suppose, was possible because now machines could make furniture and could make several pieces which would be decorated exactly the same. The downside, of course, is that the popularity of this style led to increased mass production of the items and a decrease in their quality. But, heck, ain’t that the way of the world?