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Who was one of the most versatile artists of the Art Nouveau Movement?

Victor Horta
Vincent Van Gogh
Emile Gallé
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Art Nouveau
by Uta Hasekamp

Art Nouveau was a phenomenon with many faces. Between 1890 and 1910, artists developed a variety of styles from the plant-like forms of the Belgian-French Art Nouveau to the ornamentation of the Viennese Secession. They were all striving to create a new, modern style and pursued a comprehensive renewal of art and, in some countries, a renewed national identity.

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Art Nouveau—
Goodbye Art-Academy

Although the Art Nouveau style wasn’t around for a long time, its influence affected every form of art, from architecture to pottery to furniture design and even glass and pottery. This short video gives a brief overview of the Movement.

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La Plume Poster Alphonse Mucha

In Search of the Controlled Curve
by Bob Brooke


Flowers and insects, leaves and vines, and other natural motifs formed the basis for a Art Nouveau furniture. But underlying it all was the search for the controlled curve.

The Relationship of Architecture and Furniture Design
Furniture in the Art Nouveau style closely resembled the architecture of the buildings which contained it. In fact, the architects, themselves often designed it, as well as the floor coverings, light fixtures, doorknobs, and other decorative details. The furniture was often complex, featuring fine finishes, usually polished or varnished and regarded as essential. And furniture from the Continent had curving shapes that were costly to make. Unfortunately, the owner of an Art Nouveau home couldn’t change the furniture or add pieces in a different style without disrupting the entire effect of the room. For this reason, when Art Nouveau architecture went out of style, so did the furniture.

Organic shapes and curved lines characterized Art Nouveau furniture, with designs influenced by nature and given shape by excellent craftsmanship. It usually had no straight lines. Chair backs and table legs curved gracefully outward, often intersecting with decorative crosspieces.

Furniture designers wished to create a total effect based on a unity of style which would be distinct from the confusion and eclecticism which had preceded it. Like Morris and Viollet-le Duc, they felt that art should be extended to the smallest detail of the environment. Art Nouveau designers felt it their social duly to introduce art into everyone’s daily life.

Mass production hadn’t yet become so widespread that it caused a problem. Machinery helped the artisan without influencing the process of manufacture. Although designers could have their furniture produced in quantity, they often finished them individually so that no two pieces looked identical.

Furniture makers designed pieces and accessories with simple, flowing, fluid lines, taking their cues from the motion and curves of nature. Fairylike tendrils wove in, out, and around the leaves and stems of flowers, fruit, and nuts. Foaming ocean waves broke over nude women, and graceful tree branches swept the earth. The entire effect was one of delicate sensuality and naturalness, with faint overtones of sentimental decadence.

And although Art Nouveau furniture designers selected and “modernized” some of the more abstract elements of the Rococo style, such as flame and shell textures, they also advocated the use of very stylized organic forms, expanding the “natural” repertoire to use seaweed, grasses, and insects.

But unlike the craftsmen-oriented of Arts and Crafts, the artists of Art Nouveau used new materials, machined surfaces, and abstraction in their designs. The stylized nature of Art Nouveau design made it expensive to produce, therefore, only the wealthy could afford it. Unlike handmade Arts and Crafts pieces, the artisans of Art Nouveau produced their furniture in factories using standard manufacturing techniques. However, they finished their pieces by hand, giving them a highly polished appearance.

The most important architect and furniture designer in the Art Nouveau style was Hendrik Petrus Berlage, who denounced historical styles and advocated a purely functional architecture. And like Victor Horta and Gaudí, he was an admirer of the architectural theories of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. He designed his furniture to be strictly functional and to respect the natural forms of wood, rather than bending or twisting it as if it were metal. He referred to the features of Egyptian furniture and preferred chairs with right angles.

The earliest pieces of Art Nouveau furniture, made by Louis Majorelle and Henry van de Velde, featured the use of exotic and expensive materials, including mahogany with inlays of precious woods and trim, and curving forms without right angles. It gave the pieces a sensation of lightness.

French and Belgian furniture designers embraced the style with more enthusiasm than those in other countries. Though it by no means entirely replaced other styles of furniture, which continued to be popular, Art Nouveau furniture stood in the expensive "art furniture" category.

In Belgium, the pioneer architects of the Art Nouveau movement, Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde, designed furniture for their houses, using vigorous curving lines and a minimum of decoration. The Belgian designer Gustave Serrurier-Bovy added more decoration, applying brass strips in curving forms. In the Netherlands, where the style was called Nieuwe Kunst or New Art, H. P. Berlag, Lion Cachet and Theodor Nieuwenhuis followed a different course, that of the English Arts and Crafts movement, with more geometric rational forms.

The reason the Art Nouveau furniture style took off in Belgium was that the industrial bourgeoisie was able to afford sumptuous houses and furniture in the new style.

Though Gustave Serrurier-Bovy and Henry van de Velde originally used native woods such as beech and oak, as did Victor Horta, they also imported woods from the Belgian Congo, which King Leopold II encouraged. All three favored fine-grained woods such as citrus and mahogany which allowed a clean line, as well as fluidity and precision of form.

The main characteristic of Belgian Art Nouveau furniture was its architectural quality. , Furniture designers created most of their pieces to fit in with a particular architectural scheme, so pieces didn’t look very good out of context. This is particularly true of both Horta and Van de Velde, and to certain degree to pieces made by Serrurier-Bovy.. Serrurier and Horta sought to achieve unity between architecture and furniture, and Van de Velde, a self-taught man, concentrated on the home and its decor at the same time each of these designers showed expressed their individualism. Horta believed the curve of the furniture represented not so much the flower but the stem while Van de Velde believed in the smooth sensuousness of waves.

English furniture design first influenced Serrurier-Bovy. He visited London and imported Liberty furniture and accessories for his shop in Liege. His encounter with the Paris Exhibition Universelle of 1900, where he decorated one of the restaurants, the Pavilion Bleu, modified his style and signaled a new feeling for movement and the controlled curve. He was perhaps the first to break away from the era of workshop technology. He designed a suite of completely collapsible “Sliex” furniture in birchwood. Serrurier-Bovy never used artificial aids or paint, and kept all decorative fantasy and ornament for the walls or windowpanes. A true follower of Viollet-le-Duc, he maintained rigorous standards of logic and solidity in every piece that left his workshops.

Horta based his furniture designs on the same principles as his architecture. He held that the form of the building should determine the form of the furniture. He believed each part should fit properly and logically into the whole. Before handing over his design to craftsmen to be made, he crafted a plaster model in precise detail. He emphasized the rhythm of curve and counter-curve which was typical of his work and which often occurred in the rounded angles of his furniture by the restrained and subtle use of molding. Also, he designed the tones of the woods he used as features in the general style of the house, so there was a harmony of mass and color in the door frames. panelling and painted decoration. He was the uncompromising creator of a homogeneous and forceful style.

Van de Verde, on the other hand, approached the problem of furniture design in an experimental way. He was the most linear of designers. For him, the curve as an element of design was “dynamographique et structural.” He used it first as a series of parallels, and then to encircle larger areas which he edged with subtle carvings. Van de Verde thought deeply both about the form and construction of furniture and also about its emotive effects. And at all times, he remained influenced by the two-dimensional work he had done as a painter.

Nancy was the center of Art Nouveau furniture design in France. Two designers, Émile Gallé and Louis Majorelle had their studios and workshops there, along with the Alliance des industries d'art—later called L’Ecole de Nancy, founded in 1901. Both designers based their structure and ornamentation on forms taken from nature, including flowers and insects, such as the dragonfly, a popular motif in Art Nouveau design. Gallé became especially noted for his use of marquetry in relief, in the form of landscapes or poetic themes. Majorelle became known for his use of exotic and expensive woods, and for attaching bronze sculpted in vegetal themes to his pieces of furniture.

Both designers used machines for the first phases of manufacture but finished all of them by hand. Other notable furniture designers of the L’Ecole de Nancy included Eugène Vallin and Émile André; both were architects by training, and both designed furniture that resembled the furniture from Belgian designers such as Horta and Van de Velde, which had less decoration and followed more closely the lines of curving plants and flowers.

Germany and Austria
Continental designs were much more elaborate, often using curved shapes both in the basic shapes of the piece, and in applied decorative motifs. In Germany, the furniture of Peter Behrens and the Jugendstil featured straight lines and some decoration attached to the surface. Their goal was exactly the opposite of French Art Nouveau—simplicity of structure and materials for furniture that could be inexpensive and easily mass-produced. The same was true for the furniture of designers of the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna, led by Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, Josef Maria Olbrich and Koloman Moser. The furniture was geometric and had a minimum of decoration, though in style it often followed the Biedemeier style.

For Art Nouveau architecture and furniture design, the most important center in United Kingdom was Glasgow, with the creations of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School, whose work was inspired by Scottish baronial architecture and Japanese design. Mackintosh gained a major reputation as a furniture designer and decorator, working closely with his wife, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, herself a prominent painter and designer. Together they created striking designs that combined geometric straight lines with gently curving floral decoration, particularly a famous symbol of the style, the Glasgow Rose."

The United States
Unfortunately, furniture designers in the U.S. looked more to historic American furniture design and that of the Arts and Crafts Movement rather than Art Nouveau. Charles Rohlfs of Buffalo, New York, however, was one designer who embraced Art Nouveau through his use of Celtic and Gothic art motifs in his pieces made of white oak.

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