Collecting guide: Art Nouveau design

The greatest makers from this period found singular ways to interpret nature through their craft, whether it be glass, enamel, or metalwork

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Left: Émile Gallé, Floriform Table Lamp, c. 1900. 14½ in (36.8 cm) high, 7½ in (19 cm) diameter. Estimate: $10,000-15,000.; Middle: Gallé, Monumental ‘Glycines’ Vase, c. 1920. 24½ in (62.2 cm) high, 9¼ in (23.5 cm) diameter. Estimate: $6,000-8.000. Right: Daum, ‘Iris et Libellule’ Vase, c. 1895. 16 x 6¼ x 6¼ in (40.6 x 15.9 x 15.9 cm). Estimate: $5,000-7,000, All lots offered in Modern Collector: Design and Tiffany Studios from 25 February to 11 March at Christie's Online

At its height from 1890 to 1910, Art Nouveau swept through the world with its sinuous curves, cross-cultural ornamentation, and stylized floral and foliate forms. Influenced by the 19th century’s rise of Japonisme and England’s Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau was particularly marked by an experimentation with materials that allowed for highly individualistic expressions to convey the beauty of the natural world. Many of the movement’s leading figures immersed themselves in nature or travelled to gain inspiration from exotic plants, insects, and animals. The challenge and brilliance of Art Nouveau is, therefore, the artists’ ability to render the organic, delicacy of natural forms in otherwise rigid materials.

‘This was a pivotal moment for glassmaking, and woodcarving and marquetry were extremely important as well. Whether making a wooden side table or a lamp’s metal mount, Art Nouveau designers found different ways to manipulate structured materials to emulate movement in nature. Their forms are what you’d expect to see from a stem of a flower or leaf,’ says Victoria Tudor, Head of Sale for Christie’s Design department in New York, who adds that fruitwoods, mahogany, and satinwood were frequently employed.

‘The true masterwork of Tiffany, Gallé, or Daum is that each knew how to work with the materials they had,’ Tudor continues. ‘Art Nouveau is about finding inspiration and discovering how you could recreate it, not word for word or piece by piece, but through your own vision. It’s a type of poetry where a theme or emotion is created whether that be by words, or glass, wood, and metal.’

Below, discover what distinguishes the key figures of this period and how their subject matter and technical innovations inspired generations of artists to come.

Tiffany Studios

After a successful career as a painter and interior decorator, Louis Comfort Tiffany decided to focus on the design and production of stained-glass windows, which resulted in his iconic leaded glass lamps. Working with some of the finest artisans in the United States, Tiffany Studios produced decorative pieces for almost 40 years from its factory in Queens, New York, which gave rise to several patented processes, such as that for iridescent Favrile glass.

Tiffany Studios, 'Laburnum' Table Lamp, c. 1918. 28½ in (72.4 cm) high, 21½ in (54.6 cm) diameter of shade. Estimate: $50,000-70,000. Offered in Modern Collector: Design and Tiffany Studios from 25 February to 11 March at Christie's Online

The designer gleaned much inspiration from Laurelton Hall, his scenic country estate in Oyster Bay that was built between 1902 and 1905. Tiffany ensured every inch of the property, from its fountains and flowers to the peacocks that roamed its grounds, would reflect his vision. The estate also hosted a summer residency for artists who, too, would be inspired by its interior and exterior wonders. In 1957, a fire devastated Laurelton Hall, but its enchanting legacy endures through Tiffany Studios’ luminous, vibrant lamps that depict wisteria, laburnum, dragonflies, and more.

Tiffany Studios: beyond the lamps

Using glass, ceramics, enamel, and other materials, Tiffany Studios produced countless works beyond lamps. Vases and every tabletop accessory imaginable — candlesticks, envelope openers, picture frames, magnifying glasses, card boxes, et cetera — continue to be treasured by collectors today for their ability to conjure the majesty of the designer’s grand windows on an intimate scale and typically at a more accessible price point.

Among the most iconic desk set styles today is the etched metal and glass ‘Grapevine’ motif, designed around 1900 and produced until the 1920s. Rather than be mass produced, these sets could be customised to meet the user’s needs, should they need one or two pieces versus a full set, and were available in several styles.

René Lalique

In terms of Art Nouveau jewellery and decorative objects, one name reigned supreme: René Lalique. After gaining wide-spread acclaim for his highly artistic, modern jewels, Lalique began experimenting with glass around 1890. In 1905, he opened a new shop at Place Vendôme where his glass objects made in his workshop at his estate in Clairefontaine, near Rambouillet, would also be displayed.

After revolutionising the perfume industry with his glass bottles, Lalique eventually devoted himself exclusively to glassmaking in the 1920s and developed a signature technique of using clear and frosted glass to create contrast in designs. Over the years, Lalique crafted countless models, ranging from the ‘Poissons’ vase to the ‘Bacchantes’ vase, which were mass-produced in different treatments and colours of glass. The artist embraced subsequent styles, including Art Deco and Modernism, and his business still thrives today.

Émile Gallé

Born in Nancy, France — a capital for glassmaking — and a founder of the École de Nancy, Émile Gallé produced works prized for their beautiful forms, rich colour palettes, and inspired decoration, often featuring nature, botany, and insect motifs. The experimental techniques Gallé pioneered, such as glass marquetry, or acid etching (which alters the glass’s texture to have a softer hand) enabled his company to create some of the most refined glassware on the market. His studio’s designs frequently used layers of glass or glass that had inclusions, such as gold leaf, to add to their complexity.

Another unique part of Gallé’s œuvre, which also included ceramics and furnishings, was his verreries parlantes (‘speaking glassware’). These designs incorporated a literary or poetic quotation, typically wheel-engraved and placed in such a way that necessitated the handling of the object by the viewer.

Daum

Jean Daum, a lawyer, founded his company when he bought a failing glass factory in Nancy and employed his son Auguste. Initially they produced tableware in clear or translucent glass. However, a new era dawned in 1887 when Auguste’s brother, Antonin, joined the business and formed a creative department to produce floral designs in coloured and cameo glass. In 1894, Henri Bergé, the painter, was hired as a designer for the company. His naturalistic designs, inspired by Art Nouveau, included botanical drawings and landscapes, and infused a new artistic life into Daum. The range of designs and items produced significantly increased.

Louis Majorelle (1859-1926) and Daum, Rare ‘Nénuphar’ table lamp, c. 1900. 23½ in (59.7 cm) high, 5 in (12.7 cm) diameter of the shade. Sold for $200,000 in Design on 8 December 2021 at Christie’s in New York

In 1899, Daum began creating lighting. A significant collaboration had begun in the 1890s with Louis Majorelle, a family friend, who helped form the École de Nancy with both Daum and Gallé. In December 2021 at Christie’s New York, one such collaborative piece between Daum and Majorelle — a rare ‘Nénnuphar’ table lamp — — sold for $200,000, ten times its low estimate.

Louis Majorelle

While Louis Majorelle also worked with metal, it is the decorator and designer’s woodwork, in the French tradition of the ébéniste, or cabinetmaker, whose curved furnishings are synonymous with Art Nouveau. Louis Majorelle ran a substantial atelier with a production that ranged from standardised designs for a broad market to sumptuous works, such as the ‘Lit aux Nénuphars’, that fulfilled the most exclusive of commissions.

Louis Majorelle (1859-1926), Grand lit et paire de chevets 'aux Nénuphars', c. 1905. 74¼ in (188.5 cm) high, 89 in (226 cm) long), 70¾ in (179.5 cm) width. Sold for €1,162,600 on 31 March 2011 in Les Collections du Chateau de Gourdon at Christie’s in Paris

Working with a palette of international woods, Majorelle often created tonal designs and gradients, as well as floral marquetry, akin to fine art. He went on to become a vice president of the École de Nancy and had multiple shops in France.

Art Nouveau designers experimented with all scales — and their impact was international

Art Nouveau spawned many variations, such as Italian designer Carlo Bugatti’s highly architectural furniture, as well as localised movements, including the Vienna Secession, whose key figures range from Gustav Klimt to Otto Wagner. Simply visiting Austria’s capital, or other cities, such as Barcelona, where Antoni Gaudí’s creativity is on full display, or Paris, where designer Hector Guimard’s many contributions include Métro entrances, provides a sense of how ambitious Art Nouveau creators were.

Hector Guimard (1867-1942), A painted cast-iron section of a guard rail from the Paris Métro, c. 1900. 40½ in (103 cm) high, 47 in (119.5 cm) wide. Sold for $27,500 on 25 March 2009 in 20th Century Decorative Arts & Design at Christie’s in New York

Regarding why many Art Nouveau designers experimented with both individual objects and all-encompassing environments or buildings, Tudor says, ‘Especially for cabinetmaking, it’s really important to have an understanding of architecture as well as furniture. They inform each other.’

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