Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Design, 1900–1925

During the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of forces transformed the avant-garde design scene. Two in particular played an important role: a reaction against the prevalent taste for academic historicism; and the rediscovery of the arts of Asia—in particular Japan, after trade was reestablished in 1853. Machine-produced pastiches of historical styles were increasingly shunned in favor of new designs that derived forms and decorative motifs from nature. Designers also began to reject superfluous surface ornament, often applied simply for the novelty of its effect, and focused instead on the total integration of form and decoration, recalling Asian prototypes.

By the turn of the twentieth century, a new stylistic vocabulary—with distinct regional characteristics—had been firmly established. Whether realistic or abstract, exuberant or restrained, curvilinear or geometric, there was a consistency in the purposeful rejection of outmoded tastes and exploration of new design influences.

Art Nouveau flourished in France and Belgium in the years around the turn of the twentieth century. Organic forms inspired by nature, frequently accentuated with asymmetrical curves or elaborate flourishes, characterize its decorative vocabulary. Though purportedly antihistoricist, its elegant forms often evoke the Rococo style of mid-eighteenth-century France. The term Art Nouveau derives from the name of Siegfried Bing’s Parisian shop L’Art Nouveau (“The New Art”), which opened in 1895. Bing sold exceptional works by many of the best-known designers working in this mode. In response to popular demand, however, poor-quality mass-production hastened the demise of this original style in the years after 1900.

Austrian and German Jugendstil, or “youth-style,” took its name from the popular illustrated magazine Jugend that was published in Munich at the turn of the century. Contemporaneous with and related to Art Nouveau, the most innovative Jugendstil designers replaced the exuberance and naturalism of French and Belgian design with a comparatively restrained and abstracted aesthetic. Forms and decorative motifs, while thoroughly integrated, often were treated in a linear or geometric manner that rendered them almost unrecognizably derived from nature.

Originating in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century, the utopian ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement exerted considerable influence well into the twentieth century. Primarily through publications, the movement quickly spread across Europe (it was notably influential in Austria and Germany) and to America. Reacting against the perceived dehumanizing effects of industrialization, nineteenth-century British design reformers such as William Morris advocated a return to handcraftsmanship. These reformers believed that quality of life could be considerably improved by elevating applied arts to the level of fine art: one could take pleasure and pride in owning and using well-made, beautiful everyday objects. The necessary handiwork, however, proved to be time-consuming and prohibitively expensive, and designs could only be produced in limited numbers. Making well-designed objects accessible to a wide public required the assistance of machines, and in the years around 1900, designers began to reevaluate the importance of mass production as they attempted to forge a new and positive alliance of art and industry.

At the turn of the century, a number of Viennese avant-garde designers made an abrupt switch from the flowing organic lines of Jugendstil and Art Nouveau to a strict yet vigorous geometry. In 1903, these designers banded together to form the Wiener Werkstätte, literally “Vienna Workshops”—a designers’ cooperative under the direction of the noted architect/designer Josef Hoffmann. Founded on the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Wiener Werkstätte strove to provide a wide range of well-designed, often handmade products for a sophisticated audience, and indeed could supply everything from an architectural setting to the smallest decorative accessory. The renown of the company was such that by the early 1920s they had opened shops in Paris, Zurich, and New York.

Disillusioned by the failure of Art Nouveau and competing with advances in design and manufacturing in Austria and Germany in the early years of the century, French designers felt the need to reestablish their role as leaders in the luxury trade. The Société des Artistes Décorateurs, founded in 1900, encouraged new standards for French design and production through its annual exhibitions at the Salon d’Automne. In 1912, the French government voted to sponsor an international exhibition of decorative arts, promoting French preeminence in the field. The exhibition, scheduled for 1915, was postponed on account of World War I and did not take place until 1925. It was this fair, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, that gave its name to the style now commonly known as Art Deco.

Held in Paris between April and October 1925, the exposition drew over 16 million visitors. The primary requirement for inclusion (more than twenty countries were invited to participate) was that all works be thoroughly modern; no copying of historical styles of the past would be permitted. Nevertheless, most of the works exhibited were firmly rooted in the traditions of the past. The stylistic unity of exhibits (which ranged from architecture to perfume bottles) indicates that Art Deco had become an internationally mature style by 1925—one that had flourished following World War I and peaked at the time of the fair. The enormous commercial success of Art Deco ensured that designers and manufacturers throughout Europe would continue to promote the style well into the 1930s.