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Art nouveau furniture is generally characterized by delicately curving lines and floral motifs. This kind of furniture often has no straight lines at all. Chair backs and table legs curve gracefully outward, often intersecting with decorative crosspieces. Upholstery fabrics are usually hard-wearing and sumptuous, ranging from brocades and leather to linen and velvet. Artists commonly achieve the intricate carving and graceful curves in by using tropical hardwoods.
Furniture, and art in general, began trending toward seamless arches and elegantly ballooned chair backs in the 1880s. Literally meaning new art, art nouveau began in Vienna, where it quickly gained popularity and swept across the rest of Europe, including Belgium, France, Spain, and Germany. Pieces combining the spare elegance of Japanese décor with Gothic extravagance became highly sought-after, despite their high prices. Each piece of art nouveau furniture was handmade and original, though artists used great care to make certain that dining sets matched as closely as possible.
Not only did art nouveau furniture shun straight lines, but it also featured very literal interpretations of natural beauty. Rosettes and curling vines often graced the edges of chair backs and furniture legs. Birds, chiefly doves and sparrows, commonly winged their way around the edges of tables and desks. Unlike Gothic carvings, art nouveau animals were not stiff or stylized. Rather, they matched their living counterparts as closely as possible.
Although very difficult to carve, hardwoods proved the best materials for making art nouveau furniture. Shaping took a very long time, but woods like walnut, oak, and teak hold their shape almost indefinitely once artists twist, carve, and steam them into the proper form. The density of hardwoods, however, generally means that a single mistake necessitates the artist scraping that piece and starting again.
Such highly ornamental furniture could not go bare, so artists commonly called on Victorian upholstery techniques to pad the seats of occasional chairs and sofas. Heavily embroidered brocade, tapestry fabric, mohair, and leather were among the most expensive, hardest-wearing options. Many colors of velvet, linen, and damask fabrics were also available. The fabrics could be tufted or smooth, and popular colors ranged from deep jewel tones to soft mauves and creams.
While the beauty and grace of art nouveau furniture was popular at the time and is still enjoyed by people today, the trend didn’t last. With World War I on the horizon in 1919, this style was largely set aside for cheaper, mass-produced pieces. Some speculate that a world at war simply could not afford original, handmade furniture on a large scale.