• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: The Coming of Spring and the Design of Art Nouveau

It was created as a style of all seasons, but Art Nouveau (and its derivatives) remain, first and foremost, the design style of spring.


The first of the fin de siecle Mmodern applied and commercial design movements, Art Nouveau is known for the transfiguration of intricate organic forms into stylized floral patterns. Art Nouveau intrigued artists, captivated designers and attracted consumers during the late 19th century. It mesmerized minds through a kind of floreated madness. In 1896, Art Nouveau was born in Paris, heralding the early stage of the Modern art age. Throughout Europe, and to a lesser degree, the United States, too, graphic artists, architects, product, furniture and fashion creators combined floral motifs with other natural elements, like intersecting twigs, branches, stalks, tendrils, petals and blooms—and various sensual nymphs and satyrs as well. By World War I, the time its luster had faded, the style had conquered the world.


The distinctive curvilinear elegance during the first decade of the 20th century, however, grew like a weed, with inevitable ultra-over-saturation propagated by manufacturers, marketers and advertisers. Early Art Nouveau had a certain abstract aesthetic integrity—it was a disciplined style that celebrated the elegance inherent in classical balance and symmetry, but without copying treasured antique forms.


Every time I see a piece of Art Nouveau, I am amazed that the natural aesthetic could go out of style and become passé, only to be resurrected by psychedelic poster artists 70 years later. The DIY sensibility of the 1960s enabled illustrators and letterers to use the mix-and-match method of creating seeming typefaces. Psychedelic artists utilized the dominant contemporary style that dove deeply into the past for architectural inscriptions and ornamentation that could be effectively revived and, if you will, recycled. Scripts and Gothics with inlines, outlines, shadows, twirls and swerves were common style-isms of type.

In psychedelic design, a young generation followed and copied the original approaches; by the early 20th century, Art Nouveau motifs were growing like wildflowers and were simply free for the picking. Art Nouveau was a toolkit with vintage yet at once timeless offerings. Why dismiss such a beautiful wealth as the examples below (from a rich and rare c. 1900 Henderson Litho Co. label printer's sample catalog), just because new approaches were usurping the old? Old can always be made new again, just as year after year, spring always resurrects the dead and dormant.


















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