Art Nouveau, a 19th-century architectural and design style, is known for its sinuous lines and flowing organic shapes. Art Nouveau takes much of its inspiration from plant forms—a sort of garden-y offshoot of the Arts and Crafts movement. Art Nouveau’s heyday happened between 1890 and 1910, mostly in Europe and the United States, although you can find examples of it throughout the world. You might also know this style by other names: Liberty style, Tiffany style, Secession, Skonvirke, Modernismo, or Jugendstil.
We don’t see much Art Nouveau in Seattle. The beautiful examples on this page are mostly from Belgium, but they show the range of Art Nouveau, from the elaborate to the simple. You can see more stunning examples here.
Why don’t houses look like this anymore? You can largely attribute that to three factors.
First off: money. Many new houses are pre-fab, contractor homes, built before they belong to anyone. The developer hopes to attract an unknown, future buyer, and therefore designs homes that will appeal to as many possible owners as possible. The result: generic, inoffensive designs. It’s the same reason why homes with neutral paint sell better than homes with hot pink bedrooms or lime green exteriors. For a home today to be as decorative and customized as an Art Nouveau home, for a house to reflect its owner’s tastes and personality, the owner has to hire an architect and plan the home long before any construction starts. That costs buckets of money, which is related to the second reason we don’t see new Art Nouveau homes today: priorities.
Most people who can afford to design an original home tend to prioritize land and location over the house itself. The perfect neighborhood, a large lot, waterfront or hilltop views—these things consistently rank high in what future homeowners want. On the other hand, expensive materials, ornate designs, and laborious constructions tend to appear later in the wishlist. This prohibits styles like Art Nouveau. Consider the homes on this page. The stonework for the sandstone facades alone would cost over a million dollars today. Add the craftsmanship and materials required for the rest of the building—and don’t forget the custom glasswork! Art Nouveau thrived in a culture with different priorities.
The third reason is taste. A cynical interpretation could point to the rise of “McMansions”—garish, ugly homes that cost millions and millions of dollars, designed by a rich homeowner who hired an architect not for the architect’s experience, but simply to put the future owner’s vision onto blueprints verbatim. Here’s a great page if you want to see some truly cringeworthy McMansions, but a more charitable interpretation points to shifting fashions. Art Nouveau had its heyday. Today’s new, well-designed styles seek inspiration not from organic forms and the Arts and Crafts movement, but from contrasting materials and our sleek, tech-based world. Northwest Contemporary homes, for instance, aren’t worse or better than Art Nouveau homes—they’re just different styles.
Although trends have changed, it’s easy to look back and appreciate the beauty of Art Nouveau. It’s a gorgeous style, and I love seeing it in person. If you want to see it yourself, a few Art Nouveau buildings in the United States include New York’s Decker Building and Little Singer Building, St. Louis’s Wainwright Building, and Chicago’s Marquette Building.
More architecture styles in our “Gals and Homes” series: