Know your arts: Nouveau, Deco, Moderne

Vintage is in right now. What with prohibition-style speakeasies, and 20s-style electro-swing in the air. Why not take a moment to impress your friends and up your cocktail party chatter, by learning the difference between the three early 19th-century design styles: Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Moderne.

Art Nouveau 1890s–1910s

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Art Nouveau appeared like a flash, from different corners of Europe, between 1893 and 1895. By 1900, the Paris International Exposition was dripping with Art Nouveau.

Where the previous “Arts & Crafts” movement was all about returning to a more restrained, down-to-earth, handmade way of life, closer to nature and the home, Art Nouveau stripped away the twee dowdyness, kept the craftsmanship, and brought highly stylised natural patterns into everyday life.

Where Arts & Crafts had been about the humility and honesty of the artisan and his handiwork, Art Nouveau wasn’t afraid of new techniques or new materials. Exposed wrought ironwork hit the public consciousness via Art Nouveau, as did the use of glass as a major architectural feature.

Art Nouveau was a whole style system, covering art, architecture, design, fashion. You could wear a Nouveau-inspired dress while walking up the sinuous wooden Nouveau staircase in your fashionable Parisian Nouveau flat, while carrying little yellow books of risqué Nouveau illustrations.

Art Nouveau is Paris. Art Nouveau is the Moulin Rouge. It’s Absinthe, Can-Can, the Orient. Art Nouveau is decadence.

In fact, Art Nouveau had always been synonymous, not only with decadence, but with non-conformity. Here in the UK, the Oscar Wilde trial of 1895 had drawn harsh criticism onto the worshippers of the “bohemian” and the “nouveau”.

As it continued into the new century, Art Nouveau’s erotic content became more and more pronounced. Nude women draped over desk lamps, pert naked young boys holding up mirrors. Finally, when the Great War approached, Art Nouveau was seen as immoral, un-patriotic, destabilising. It was also expensive and time-consuming to produce, especially as the war dragged on. By the 1920s, Art Nouveau looked decidedly old fashioned.

Art Deco 1920s–40s

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After the war, a new style (it wouldn’t come to be known as “Art Deco” until the 1960s) appeared in France, borrowing some of the organic motifs of Art Nouveau, but reinvigorating them with new materials, and geometric patterns. Unlike Nouveau, this bold, exuberant style quickly spread to the USA, where a jazz- and consumerism-fueled middle class lapped up the exotic new look.

Art Deco was partly influenced by pre-modern art and architecture, especially ancient Egypt.1 But it also borrowed aspects from highly contemporary art movements like Cubism, Constructivism, and Futurism, whose rich colours, bold patterns, and machine-like aesthetics suited a world just regaining hope after the bloodiest war in living memory.

This was also a period of major investment in highly-visible public works projects. Many of the new skyscrapers in the US were designed in Art Deco style. Hotels across the world adopted Deco as the interior of choice for discerning western travellers. The London Underground expanded during this period, and many of the new stations had Art Deco elements. The Underground headquarters at 55 Broadway (built 1929), as well as the BBC’s Broadcasting House off Regent Street (built 1928), were both thoroughly Art Deco, from the tiles on the floor up to the Epstein and Gill sculptures adorning their rooflines.

In architecture and interiors, the Deco look was all about polished and rare woods, contrasting inlays, and precious metals. Large expanses of glass made up of regular, geometric panes sealed together with fine lead work. Sun-burst mirrors and polished cabinets, all triangles, zig-zags, and trapezoids, like unfurling ornate fans.

Art Deco is the roaring twenties, Jay Gatsby, and Jazz. It’s loud music, moving pictures, and starburst lights.

As time went on, Art Deco increasingly became all about luxury, and that was ultimately its downfall. When the Wall Street crash devastated the US luxury market in 1929, people needed a cheaper, less ostentatious style. Deco transformed into more sensible offshoots—such as Streamline Moderne—until the austerity of a wartime economy put the final nail in Deco’s coffin in 1939.

Moderne / Streamline Moderne 1930s–40s

Wikipedia · V&A

Moderne strips out the splendour and precious materials of Art Deco, and focuses more on the technology. It replaces gold and rare woods with steel, aluminium, chrome, and astonishing new plastics like bakelite. Art Deco’s organic curves and repeating geometric forms (which only a decade earlier were a radical response to the twiddly whiplash swirls of Art Nouveau) are replaced in favour of streamlined swooshes, bullets, and teardrops.

There’s an old saying: “Deco is chic, Moderne is sleek” – Moderne is all about movement, streamlined silhouettes, and chrome. Often even mundane objects like radios, fridges and toasters get the hotrod design treatment (after all, just because you can’t afford your own private plane, who says you can’t own a toaster that looks a little bit like one?)

America led the way in mass-production of new technology, particularly planes, ships, and automobiles. Moderne celebrated this progress. It was all about speed and precision. Buildings suddenly sprouted wings and finnials and tailfins. Sleek, extended horizontal ledges made them look like they were perpetually zooming past.

The seaside towns of Britain, in particular, are packed with 1930s Moderne buildings. Hotels, homes, holiday parks— and cinemas. All with the same smooth rounded white walls, flat roofs, and elongated horizontal features. The poor things get called “Art Deco” all the time, but they’re resultely not. They’re streamlined, optimistic, utlititarian. They’re Moderne.

Although Streamline Moderne was mostly extinguished by the austerity of World War II, post-war styles like Mid-Century Modern owe a debt to Moderne – think of the streamlined, chrome-plated surfaces of the iconic 1950s American integrated kitchen, or the curves, grilles and vanes of a 1950s Vespa.

So there you have it. Curvey and sinuous? Art Nouveau. Triangular and jazzy? Art Deco. Sleek and shiny? Streamline Moderne. Simple. No more must you put up with people mis-categorising the stuff around you.

Use your newfound powers wisely.

  1. This is sometimes called “Tut-mania”. Not only were audiences were still reeling from Theda Bara’s depiction of Cleopatra in the 1917 smash-hit silent movie of the same name, but in 1922, after years of press coverage, Howard Carter finally discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb in Cairo, and Egyptian style sky-rocketed to the forefront of 1920s fashion.