“Nature is the greatest builder of all, and nature makes nothing that is parallel and nothing that is symmetric,” said the French architect Hector Guimard. His Castel Béranger apartment building in Paris — where swirling vegetation and sinuous curves of cast iron, glass and ceramic animate every surface — is a flamboyant manifestation of those words, and of Art Nouveau style.
Guimard also built the city’s Metro entrances, their graceful arches still today wonderfully humanising as you emerge blinking from the dispiriting depths. Art Nouveau is preserved all over Paris, at swanky restaurants Maxim’s and Le Train Bleu, in Jules Lavirotte’s fantastical villas — where windows resemble Martians’ eyes, bison heads support balconies and lizards slither over door handles — and of course, in the fabled Eiffel Tower, the embodiment of the style.
From the 1880s until the first world war, Art Nouveau bestowed exoticism and glamour worldwide under various names — the Jugendstil in Germany, the Glasgow School, the Vienna Secession, America’s Tiffany Style. It infused interior design, furniture, textiles and jewellery, the graphic art of Alphonse Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec and the glassware of Lalique.
This mahogany writing bureau is an example of Art Nouveau’s more restrained English cousin. In place of continental floridness it has simple, stylised flowers in stained glass and wood inlays, and was made by a humble draper, James Shoolbred, who would go on to open a department store in Tottenham Court Road, one of the first in London.
Art Nouveau was born of disillusionment with industrialisation. Artists and intellectuals decried the resulting uniformity and loss of craftsmanship, epitomised by Haussmann’s standardisation of Parisian streets. It sought to bring spirituality and femininity to design and to challenge a traditional hierarchy that saw fine arts as superior to decorative arts.
But the very thing that underpinned Art Nouveau would guarantee its demise — a reliance on craft at a time when mechanisation was dominant. As the Dutch architect Lars Spuybroek has written: the “poor, underpaid artisans quenching, bending and hammering iron into fabulous ornament that ended up in the palaces of the middle class in Brussels and Paris” would soon be redeployed in factories.
A similar fate would befall writing bureaus like this one — once a staple of every middle-class home, with its warren of drawers containing household business and family secrets — as it gave way to the sleek piece of metal we call the PC, reigning supreme on our kitchen tables.
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