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Arts & Crafts:
From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright

by Arnold Schwartzman

The author focuses on a British craftsmen, such as William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who turned their backs on the mass production of the Industrial Revolution to form a ‘Round Table’ in order to establish a means of returning to hand-crafted products.

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The Quest for Artistic Furniture
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As the Victorian Era of the 19th century transitioned into the modern era of the 20th, a new style burst on the scene—a total style that encompassed everything from architecture to furniture to accessories. Known as Art Nouveau or Jugendstil, it was an international philosophy and style of art and applied art—especially the decorative arts—that was popular from about 1890 to 1910. Art nouveau literally means "new art" in French.

The new style was an outgrowth of two19th-century English movements—the Arts and Crafts and the Aesthetic Movements. The former emphasized a return to handcraftsmanship and traditional techniques. The latter promoted “art for art’s sake” a concept that applied to abstract paintings. It further drew upon elements of Japanese art or “japonisme,” which flooded Western markets, mainly in the form of prints, after the U.S. established trading rights with Japan in the 1860s.

Maison de l'Art Nouveau, or the House of New Art, was the name of the gallery opened by German art dealer Siegfried Bing in 1895 that featured modern art exclusively. In 1900, he produced an exhibition of color-coordinated modern furniture, tapestries, and objets d’art for the Exposition Universelle in Paris, which captured the imagination of visitors. Because his decorative displays became so strongly associated with this style, the style, itself, took on the name of his gallery, "Art Nouveau."

Though antiques experts credit Bing’s gallery for the popularization of the movement and its name, the Art Nouveau style reached an international audience through the vibrant graphic arts printed in such periodicals as The Savoy, La Plume, Jugend, Dekorative Kunst, The Yellow Book, and The Studio.

The style became especially associated with France, where it was known as variously Style Jules Verne, Le Style Métro, Art belle époque, and Art fin de siè. However, even though the Art Nouveau style was most popular in Europe, its influence was global. Before the term "Art Nouveau" became common in France, le style moderne, or "the modern style," was how people referred to it. It went by similar designations all across the continent—Arte joven in Spain, Modernisme in Catalonia, Arte nova in Portugal, Arte nuova in Italy, and Nieuwe kunst in the Netherlands—all essentially meaning “new art.”

The origins of Art Nouveau can be traced back to the resistance of William Morris to the cluttered compositions and the revivals of the 19th century and his theories that helped start the Arts and Crafts Movement. The flat perspective and strong colors of Japanese wood block prints, especially those of Katsushika Hokusai, also had a strong effect on the formulation of Art Nouveau. Hokusai’s references to the natural world influenced many artists and designers fro the 1880s through the 1890s.

Art Nouveau was a "total" art style, embracing architecture, graphic art, interior design, and most of the decorative arts including jewelry, furniture, textiles, household silver and other utensils and lighting. Artists strove to combine the fine arts and applied arts, even for utilitarian objects, such as tableware, cigarette cases, and silverware. Art historians consider it an important transition between the eclectic historic revival styles of the 19th-century and Modernism.

Three international art exhibitions—the Barcelona Universal Exposition of 1888, the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris, and the Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte Decorativa Moderna of 1902 in Turin, Italy— showcased an overview of this modern style in every medium.

Though the Art Nouveau was innovative, it didn’t last long. It was important in American furniture history, however, because it rebelled against the overembellished furniture of the Victorian Era. Some furniture makers began designing furniture and accessories with simple, flowing, fluid lines, taking their cues from nature, with its motion and curves. 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 craftsman-oriented Arts and Crafts Movement, the artists of the Art Nouveau Movement 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 furniture handmade by the craftsmen of the Arts and Crafts Movement, that of the Art Nouveau Movement was produced in factories by normal manufacturing techniques. Finishes were highly polished or varnished, and designs in general were usually complex, with curving shapes.

Several notable designers of Art Nouveau furniture were architects who designed furniture for specific buildings they had also designed, a way of working inherited from the Arts and Crafts movement; these include Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Antoni Gaudí, Hector Guimard and Victor Horta. Mackintosh's furniture was relatively austere and geometrical, marked by elongated dimensions and right-angles. Continental designs were much more elaborate, often using curved shapes both in the basic shapes of the piece, and in applied decorative motifs. In many ways the old vocabulary and techniques of classic French 18th-century Rococo furniture were re-interpreted in a new style. Luxury veneers were used in the furniture of leading cabinetmakers Georges de Feure and others.

But Art Nouveau found its greatest expression in accessories, not furniture. This was the era of Louis Comfort Tiffany and other designers who worked in glass, china, pottery, and metal. Those substances were far easier to shape into the undulating styles of the time than was wood. Most wooden furniture during this time was custom-made and therefore usually of good quality and fine woods, featuring asymmetrical lines, as well as stylized animal and plant forms.

It also tended to be expensive, as furniture makers regarded a fine finish, usually polished or varnished, as essential, and continental designs featured complex, curving shapes that were expensive to produce. It by no means entirely replaced other styles of furniture, which continued to be popular, with Art Nouveau styles largely restricted to an expensive "art furniture" category. French and Belgian furniture designers embraced the style with more enthusiasm than those in other countries.

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