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Discover Mid-America— March 2010

Lamps bought the Art Nouveau movement to light

Some say Art Nouveau was a certain feeling as much as it was a decorative art style.

As viewed at the dawn of the 20th century, it was clearly a movement which gave itself to the flow of nature within its unique design. At the time it was a drastic departure from the more structured styles that had preceded it throughout the 19th century. In many ways, Art Nouveau also was a response to the Industrial Revolution.

Six-panel slag glass table lamp with original caramel opaline bent panels, ca. 1910 (photo courtesy
“Nouveau was nature with all its freedoms,” notes Jean Paris author of The Field Guide to Antiques. “It was flowing, growing lines of vines and trailing flowers. It was foliage that grew across page and wall, from chair leg to table top, and wound around the necks and wrists of beautifully adorned ladies in unsurpassed creatively designed jewelry.”

Eventually, the touch of Art Nouveau with all of its flowing lines and floral forms would come to furniture, lighting, glass and pottery as it had to fine jewelry. Its designs were an attempt to create an international style based on decoration.

Historically, the French term for new art, Art Nouveau is said to have originated in the Paris shop of Siegfried Bing in 1896. Purists point out there were actually two “branches” of the movement. One with a strong emphasis on naturalistic floral lines, another with more straight-edged geometric designs.

At any rate it was the flowing serpentine lines that prevailed in most of Europe, England, and to a more limited extent in the United States. From 1890 to 1905, Art Nouveau peaked in popularity to be revived decades later during the turbulent 1960s, then exerting an influence on the psychedelic art of that period.

the 19th century. In many ways, Art Nouveau also was a response to the Industrial Revolution.

Art Nouveau Crown Lamp by Tiffany (photo courtesy New York Historical Society)
Historians generally agree that it was the sweeping exposure of Art Nouveau at the fabled Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 that brought it to prominence. There, it was presented in a vast and emphatic array of lovely objects.

Craftsmen there “saw to it that all the design aspects of a room, from its furniture and its floor and wall coverings to its curtains and its fireplace accessories, were coordinated” in Art Nouveau, writes Christopher Payne, editor of Sotheby’s Concise Encyclopedia of Furniture.

Until the Paris Exposition and the media coverage it generated, well-to-do Americans knew almost nothing of the style. Newspapers and magazines suddenly filled with “new” fashioned lamps, furniture and other ornamentation brought about a near-immediate demand in the stylish circles of the United States for these fanciful winding shapes with their images drawn from plants, flowers and even tree limbs.

For all of its beauty, a Art Nouveau was frankly not a big hit with most American craftsmen. Because it was so stylistic it did not readily lend itself to the mass production, which had moved to the forefront of American industry in the early 1900s.

French Art Nouveau Table ca. 1910 (photo courtesy Old Chicago Antiques Ltd.)
And since it could seldom be mass-produced, most Art Nouveau items presented to the American market were hand-made and fairly expensive. The Tobey Company of Chicago, and S. Karpen and Brothers Furniture also of Chicago were among a few firms that marketed related furniture in significant numbers. Still, it was really not that economical for most families. A six-piece parlor suit in splendid Art Nouveau decor from Karpen Brothers in 1906 retailed at $850.

Some American-made Art Nouveau pottery was inspiring. Rookwood pieces created by Maria Storer were strikingly done, as were some examples from Roseville Pottery, Gates Potteries and Weller Pottery.

Not many American furniture designers, with the possible exception of Charles Rohlfs and a few others, could measure up to the expertise and experience of the European craftsmen in that unique style.

However, one American turned out to be a true Art Nouveau artist. Louis Comfort Tiffany used his unparalleled favorite glass to fashion remarkable shapes in brilliant colors.

Tiffany applied iridescent tones of blue, gold and green to form naturalistic glass masterpieces for his lamps and other objects. Tiffany was said to have coined the term Favrile for this special glass during the 1890s, citing the surfaces of ancient excavated glass for inspiration.

The results were astounding. In 1898 one of Europe’s leading Art Nouveau designers, Henry Van De Velde proclaimed, “Never, perhaps, has any man carried to greater perfection the art of faithfully rendering Nature in her most seductive aspects than Tiffany.”

Among the other immortals of Art Nouveau in addition to Tiffany and Van Delde were Louis Majorelle and Hector Guimard.

Art nouveau opal glass table oil lamp, ca. 1890 (photo courtesy
By 1900, Majorelle was France’s leading producer of this style of furniture. His distinguished pieces were crafted for bedrooms, dining rooms and libraries. Critics at the 1900 Paris Exposition declared Majorelle as an “imaginative artist who is perhaps the most extraordinary virtuoso of our time in his chosen field.”

Majorelle’s furniture was richly ornamented, and he often added various wood veneers and marquetry to his fine desks and similar pieces. At other times he combined silk with mahogany and kingwood to achieve unique naturalistic designs in the early 1900s.

Hector Guimard meanwhile pushed the use of parts of trees, flowers, stems and roots to the pinnacle during the golden age of Art Nouveau. Guimard was said to have been committed to total interior design, with his talents extending from wrought iron entrance gates to wallpaper patterns and from fireplaces to side chats. He even used the style to craft papier-mâché ceiling decorations.

Brooch by Marcel Ring, ca. 1900. Gilt copper used in art nouveau design. (photo courtesy Skinner Inc.)
Like Majorelle, Guimard was talented and creative enough to incorporate contrasting materials into his work, including bronze and light woods. And like Majorelle, he was fond of more unusual woods, in some cases pearwood for special projects.

Other great artists of the period included renowned glassmakers Emil Galle and Rene Lalique, and print artist and jewelry designer Alphonse Mucha. Yet for all of its glory, the Art Nouveau era was relatively short-lived in the United States.

Author John Bowman observes in the volume American Furniture that despite its appeal in America, it enjoyed “only a brief vogue before succumbing to the broader demand for mission furniture.”

By the 1920s, what many had called the idealized world of nature was giving away to more realistic styles and designs which were more in keeping with the “new age” of travel and living.

Today a great many of the very widespread forms of original and appealing Art Nouveau are treasured for their legendary touch of the past.

Robert Reed can be contacted at

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