Every spring, don’t you feel as if it’s the first time you hear birds chirping, watch flowers blooming and feel the gentle warmth of the sun? It’s as if a few months of winter made us forget the countless wonders of nature.
Every year, spring brings us a sense of possibility. We become receptive once again to nature’s language, enchanted by its boundless beauty and resilience. This year more than most, after spending a year under pandemic quarantines, restrictions, and even on-occasion lockdowns, spring’s presence brings an immensely heightened and renewed appreciation for life and the freedom nature affords.
The life and emotion of Art Nouveau, which is first and foremost inspired by nature, is just what we've been missing to shake up the doldrums of COVID.
After having spent the last 12 months mostly at home, our spaces blend together. Though furniture surrounds us at every moment of our lives, we often don’t pay much attention to its forms and forget how much it can say and do. Just like spring, looking at Art Nouveau furniture is like seeing furniture for the first time: it immediately engages us with its choreography of untamed curves set in motion. It is a departure from routine furniture design, it feels alive.
Art Nouveau, which translates to “New Art,” was a short-lived movement that developed between 1893 and 1910, primarily in Europe. Despite regional differences, Art Nouveau artists shared a common source of inspiration: the unruly forms of nature.
Motifs drawing inspiration from flowers, leaves, crawling vines, butterflies, and peacocks combine to bring life to the wood frames, metal structures, lithograph prints, hand blown and stained glass lamps, and other mediums of expressions.
Art Nouveau’s roots derive from two distinct influences: the first was an aesthetic direction in opposition to what was believed to be excessively ornate and often ‘‘cluttered" compositions of Victorian-era decorative arts. In addition, the proliferation of Japanese art, and specifically Japanese woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e, largely inspired the Movement, following the United States’ forced opening of Japanese trade in 1854.
Ukiyo-e depicted floral, bulbous forms and string-like or “whiplash” curved elements which would become hallmark designs of the “New Art” of Art Nouveau.
You may recognize Art Nouveau in either the prolific lithograph prints that made the Movement globally recognizable, like Czech painter Alphonse Mucha’s poster below, or via Hector Guimard’s “Métro” subway entrances around Paris depicting glass and iron “edicules,” or canopies.
One of the most prodigious and celebrated examples of the aesthetic vocabulary however is the stairway of the Hôtel Tassel designed by Victor Horta in Brussels. Hôtel Tassel is widely thought to be the first Art Nouveau building and one of the most prolific examples of the style due to its architecture and decorative elements.
Even though the most widely known artists of Art Nouveau closely observed nature, they did not provide a realistic rendition of the vegetal and animal worlds. In France and Belgium for example, they developed an abstract vocabulary based on abundant, asymmetrical and elaborate curves (with the “whiplash” signature pattern - a sinuous, asymmetrical line usually depicted as an S-shaped curve), and in Germany and Austria, more restrained, linear and geometric shapes. Gallé’s Ombellifères (cow-parsley) cabinet featured below graciously depicts this vocabulary with its whiplash motif, butterfly decor, and asymmetrical composition enhanced by erratic wood veins.
Though the level of stylization reached in Art Nouveau may sometimes make it difficult to recognize literal forms inspired from nature, Art Nouveau always succeeded in creating works that conveyed a spring-like impression of life, growth, and fulfillment.
Through Art Nouveau, artists brought about a new age in furniture design with the ambition of breaking away from the historical styles that had defined the arts in the 19th century (neo-gothic, neo-classical, etc). By giving the design of a chair the time, attention and creative energy that was normally given to a sculpture, Art Nouveau artists challenged the rigid hierarchy between the supposedly lesser “decorative arts” (defined as objects that also serve a function) and the higher, more expressive “fine art” (that is, painting and sculpture). Art Nouveau artists offered a radically new understanding of “decorative arts,” not as imitation of past styles, but as the individual expression of artists who owned their right to experiment and express themselves in parallel to nature's entropy.
Art Nouveau artists created jewels, lamps, vases, tableware, rugs, furniture, posters, door knobs, paintings, wallpaper, stained glass windows, homes, churches. They did not form an organized movement with meetings or declarations, but their artworks themselves acted as a manifesto: Guimard, Gallé and Majorelle (in France), Horta (in Belgium), Mackintosch (in Scotland), Gaudi (in Spain), Bugatti (in Italy), and Colonna (in Germany) created novel and deeply individualized design languages that highlighted the expressive power of furniture. In 1902, at the International Exhibition for Modern Decorative Arts in Turin, Bugatti presented his soon nicknamed Camera a chiocciola (“snail room”) furnished with four of his Cobra Chairs and a snail-shaped sofa. When the Queen of Italy congratulated him on his "Moorish" style, he responded: "You are wrong, Majesty, this style is mine.”
Because their revolution took them well beyond the traditional codes of furniture production, atypical material, shape and scale are characteristic of Art Nouveau furniture. Artists sometimes stretched the dimensions of furniture as if nothing could stop their sprawling natural forms: Serrurier-Bovy’s 1899 bed (conserved in Musée d’Orsay) is seven by eight feet large, (for reference, a California king size mattress is six by seven feet), and more than nine feet tall!
In the living-room Charpentier designed in 1900 for a banker (also at Musée d’Orsay), the eleven foot tall wood panels that cover the walls naturally extend into consoles. Or is it the consoles that extend into wood panels?
Not only did Art Nouveau furniture blur the line between furniture and sculpture, but also between furniture and architecture.
Art Nouveau’s unfettered originality was never fully accepted in its time and only supported by a handful of commissioners. It was quickly replaced by Art Deco which provided a more measured, even, and “acceptable” vision of design. But looking at Art Nouveau furniture remains a refreshing experience: it renews our appreciation for furniture more generally and reminds us that furniture can be a profoundly expressive art form when freed from aesthetic and classical expectations. In addition, its natural vocabulary brings the outdoors in, a magnified and important aesthetic choice today, given the pandemic and our continued, albeit lessening, isolation. The beauty, bucolic ideas and arcadian-inspired furniture of Art Nouveau, a design movement from over 100 years ago, is very much a panacea for the unusual spring we find ourselves in today.Maud Leclair studied art history at the Ecole du Louvre before holding a curatorial position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A specialist in South and Southeast Asian Art, her current focus is on the history of furniture and design.
Bring Nature Home with Furniture from ZZ Driggs
Each board used for the Ivy Table is handpicked by designer Ethan Abramson for visual quality and durability. The legs of the table are carefully sculpted by an experienced woodworker to create the branch-like effect that adds a sense of lightness to the table. Buy or rent it on ZZ here ➞
This Hand Carved Wooden Trunk Table was hand carved and joined by Indonesian craftspeople from local teak wood. Its flowing form seems to suggest the growth, harvesting, and finishing of wood all at once. Its design allows light to play off its hard and soft edges, hiding in natural recesses and shining from polished surfaces. Buy or rent it on ZZ here ➞
This sturdy and gorgeous work of Indonesian craft is a testament to the millenia-old technique of mortise and tenon (that holds the joints together) that has allowed us to continue to enjoy this daybed more than a century after it was constructed. The floral motif interlaced with curving lines was hand carved. Buy or rent it on ZZ here ➞