Wednesday, November 5, 2014
The Quest for Artistic Furniture
QUESTION: I inherited this chair from my mom but have no information on it. The only markings on the chair are “AT2-232” written with a marker on the bottom of the seat and “678” stamped into the wood on the bottom of the seat. Can you provide any information on the chair?
ANSWER: Your chair is made in the Art Nouveau style. It would have been a dining or desk chair in its day since it doesn’t have a padded seat. The number 678 on the bottom is probably the manufacturer’s model number. Many pieces of Art Nouveau furniture were mass-produced even though your chair looks as if it was handmade.
Art Nouveau or Jugendstil is 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.
Those two names came Gallerie Maison de l'Art Nouveau in Paris and the magazine Jugend in Munich, both of which popularized the style. Maison de l'Art Nouveau, or the House of New Art, was the name of the gallery opened in 1895 by German art dealer Siegfried Bing that featured exclusively modern art. In 1900, Bing produced an exhibition of color-coordinated modern furniture, tapestries, and objets d’art at the Exposition Universelle. Because his decorative displays became so strongly associated with this style, the style, itself, took on the name of his gallery, "Art Nouveau."
Inspired by natural forms, such as flowers and plants, Art Nouveau was a reaction to academic art of the 19th century and artists used lots of curved lines in their designs.
Though the Art Nouveau movement was innovative, it didn’t last long. It was important in American furniture history, however, because it heralded the end of the dismal darkness that was the close of the Victorian era. Rebelling against the overembellished furniture that flooded the furniture marketplace of the late 1890s, some European designers developed new ideas that found immediate approval with wealthy collectors. They began designing furniture and accessories with simple, flowing, fluid lines, taking their cues from nature, with its motion, curves, and endless cycling. Fairylike tendrils wove in, out, and around the leaves and stems of flowers, fruit, and nuts. The entire effect was one of delicate sensuality and naturalness, with faint overtones of sentimental decadence.
The Art Nouveau years found their greatest expression in accessories, not furniture. This was the era that fostered the whirlwind careers of Louis Comfort Tiffany and others 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 period was custom-made and therefore usually of good quality and fine woods, featuring asymmetrical lines, as well as stylized animal and plant forms.
Art Nouveau is a "total" art style, embracing architecture, graphic art, interior design, and most of the decorative arts including jewelery, furniture, textiles, household silver and other utensils and lighting, as well as the fine arts. Artists desired 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.
Like most design styles, Art Nouveau sought to harmonize and modernize forms of the Rococo style, such as flame and shell textures. Artists and designers also advocated the use of stylized organic forms as a source of inspiration, and expanded their use of natural forms with 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 also architects who designed furniture for specific buildings they had also designed, a way of working inherited from the Arts and Crafts Movement. One such designer is Antoni Gaudí, who produced many notable buildings in and around Barcelona, Spain.