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17 September 2014
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Mackintosh living room

Art nouveau (c.1880 to 1910)

Art nouveau could be said to be the first 20th century modern style. It was the first style to stop looking backwards in history for ideas, taking inspiration instead from what it saw around it, in particular the natural world.

Art nouveau needlework

When art nouveau was showcased first in Paris and then in London, there was outrage; people either loved it or loathed it. Within the style itself there are two distinct looks: curvy lines and the more austere, linear look of artists such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Some aspects of art nouveau were revived again in the 1960s.


  • sinuous, elongated, curvy lines
  • the whiplash line
  • vertical lines and height
  • stylised flowers, leaves, roots, buds and seedpods
  • the female form - in a pre-Raphaelite pose with long, flowing hair
  • exotic woods, marquetry, iridescent glass, silver and semi-precious stones


  • arts and crafts - art nouveau shared the same belief in quality goods and fine craftsmanship but was happy with mass production
  • rococo style
  • botanical research

The names

  • Charles Rennie Mackintosh - architect and designer of furniture and jewellery
  • Alphonse Mucha - posters
  • Aubrey Beardsley - book illustrations
  • Louis Comfort Tiffany - lighting
  • René Lalique - glass and jewellery
  • Emile Galle - ceramics, glass and furniture
  • Victor Horta - architect

At the time

  • 1859 The Origin of the Species is written by Charles Darwin
  • 1865 War and Peace is written by Tolstoy
  • 1867 Disraeli is prime minister
  • 1899 aspirin is first marketed
  • 1901 Marconi transmits first radio signals across the Atlantic

Mackintosh high-backed chair, silver picture frame, Mackintosh rose, Tiffany lamp

Get the look

  • Floors - are parquet and should be stained and varnished.
  • Colour schemes - are quite muted and sombre and became known as 'greenery yallery' - mustard, sage green, olive green, and brown. Team these with lilac, violet and purple, peacock blue. Mackintosh experimented with all-white interiors.
  • Walls - can either be painted in one of the colours of the palette or off-white, or papered.
  • Wallpaper - designs are highly stylised flowers, particularly poppies, water lilies and wisteria; branches, tendrils, leaves, stems, thistles, pomegranates; peacock feathers, birds and dragonflies.
  • Tiles - use in panels and intersperse patterned ones with white. A technique called tube lining was used to make the design stand out from the surface - think of piping icing on a cake.
  • Furniture - Mackintosh is renowned for extremely high-backed chairs in glossy black lacquer. If that's not your style go for curvy shapes upholstered in a stylised floral fabric.
  • Stained glass - panels went in doors as well as furniture - wardrobe doors, cabinets, mirrors etc, with curved leading for the stalks and leaves, ending in a flower made from pearly enamels or semi-precious stones such as amethysts.
  • Door handles - beaten metal for door handles and light fittings are perfect for that handmade finish.
  • Lighting - you've got to have a Tiffany lamp - the beautiful umbrella-shape rainbow of favrile glass with bronze and metal latticework. Original ones cost the earth but most of the high streets stores produce very good imitations.
  • Fireplaces - look for cast iron hoods with the raised sinuous curves of flowers growing up each side and tiles. Many original ones can be picked up in salvage yards but make sure you know whether you're buying a repro or an original. If you're unsure whether a salvaged item is art nouveau, study the design carefully: it should grow from the ground upwards with a continuous organic movement.
  • Ornaments - in silver, pewter and glass. There are hundreds of outlets selling Mackintosh-style clocks, frames, jewellery boxes etc. Typical art nouveau glass is iridescent with patterns of liquid oil. Lalique glass is usually a pearly opaque with etched designs.
  • Flowers - and peacock feathers are the epitome of art nouveau style.

What to invest in

Due to mass production, many art nouveau items are not valuable although still highly desirable. However, if the pieces is by a known designer, the price soars.

  • Original Tiffany lamps - have a marked pad on the shade.
  • Emile Galle glassware - usually have a cameo or signature.
  • Posters - especially ones by Alphonse Mucha, Jules Cheret and J M Cassandre. To see whether they're reproductions, feel the quality of the paper. Reproductions will be on thick, modern paper. Use a magnifying glass: if you can see tiny dots making up the colour it's probably a reproduction. Genuine ones have flat areas of colour.
  • Glassware by the Daum Freres - look for the marking Daum Nancy.
  • Silverware - pill boxes etc, particularly anything marked Liberty & Co.

Where to see it

  • The Hill House, Upper Colquhoun Street, Helensburgh, Nr Glasgow - designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh
  • Glasgow School of Art - also by Mackintosh
  • tiles in the food hall in Harrods
  • Paris metro - some of the station entrances still have the signs designed by Hector Guimard
  • Musée D'Orsay, Paris - has a large collection of art nouveau
  • Criterion Brasserie, London
  • Victoria and Albert Museum

Further reading

  • Essential Art Nouveau by Paul Greenhalgh (V&A Publications)
  • The Life and Works of Rennie Mackintosh by Nathaniel Harris (Parragon)
  • Art Nouveau Architecture & Furniture by Trewin Copplestone (Grange Books)
  • Art Nouveau Glass & Ceramics by Trewin Copplestone (Grange Books)
  • Art Nouveau Jewellery & Metalwork by Trewin Copplestone (Grange Books)
  • Turn of the Century Style (Middlesex University Press)

© Image copyright:
Mackintosh embroidery image courtesy of the Antiques Roadshow finds database.
Silver picture frame image courtesy of the Antiques Roadshow finds database.
Tiffany Lamp image courtesy of Bonhams

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Elsewhere on the web

National Gallery of Art - art nouveau
Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture - collection of fabrics, wallpapers
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