Art Nouveau (1890-1915)

The Hill House in Helensburgh

Hall of The Hill House in Helensburgh, designed by C. R. Mackintosh

Art Nouveau (new art) deserves its name. After a long period in which artists and architects took their inspiration from the past, this confident new movement dared to be different. Seigfried Bing opened a shop in Paris in 1895, called L'Art Nouveau, which displayed paintings, furniture, furnishings and ornaments which were deliberately and consciously modern. The success of the shop ensured that the style was strongly associated with the decorative arts. Since the impetus was to break with the past, it was more a wave of stylistic experiment than a single unified style. There was a great attraction to undulating forms inspired by nature. Yet Art Nouveau also included simple, uncluttered geometrical forms. The Japanese aesthetic had an influence. So did the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Architects embraced the style more wholeheartedly in Continental Europe than in Britain, where few complete Art Nouveau buildings were created. Its best-known British exponent was the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. While some Continental Art Nouveau architects made bold use of curvilinear, organic forms in exteriors, Mackintosh projected an image of pure, clean geometry. Undulating forms were mainly restricted to decorative detail. His colour palette was light. Like another influential Scottish architect before him - Robert Adam - Mackintosh designed integrated interiors, complete with furniture and fittings.

Everard's Printing Works, Bristol

In Bristol Henry Williams designed an astonishing Art Nouveau building for Everard's Printing Works (1901). The facade (left) is decorated in tiles to a design by W. J. Neatby of Doulton's. It celebrates the history of printing, with portraits of Gutenberg with his press, and William Morris with his alphabet design.

Neatby was also responsible for the tile-clad exterior of the Fox and Anchor public house, Islington, London (1898), the tiling of the Royal Arcade, Norwich (1899) and the meat hall at Harrods department store, Knightbridge, London (1903).

Glass panel by MackintoshFor the most part Art Nouveau found its way into British homes as a novel touch here or there: perhaps a wallpaper, fabric or decorative object from Liberty and Co. Arthur Liberty opened his first shop in London in 1875, selling oriental and Arts and Crafts objects. His second store opened in Paris in 1890. He was open to new influences and developed a range of designs that we recognise now as Art Nouveau, though he did not use the term. Liberty's influence was such that that in Italy the style was known as Stile Liberty. Other makers of fixtures and fittings also sold ranges in the new style, usually under the label artistic. See the bibliography of interior design for works specifically on interiors.

Decorative stained glass or metalwork could give a new look to a conventional exterior. Art Nouveau fanlight grilles were sold to fit standard Victorian doors. Coloured glass panels could be set into sash windows. The American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany created dazzling pictures in stained glass, which were widely imitated in the US. In Britain Mackintosh also designed stained glass windows and panels influenced by natural forms, but in his own style. Tiffany used a rich colour palette in an opulent naturalism. Mackintosh veered more towards the abstract. His rose and foliage motifs are set against expanses of clear glass, which creates a cooler look than Tiffany's.

Illustrated studies