If the difference between art nouveau and art deco had to be encapsulated in a few words, it would be these – the former is flowing, whereas the latter is sharp. Where art nouveau is known for flowery shapes and themes, art deco is known for streamlined, sharp themes (think of the Chrysler Building in New York). Both art nouveau and art deco designs evolved as a response to the culture of the times. The former was influenced mostly by the industrial revolution and the latter by World War I.
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The use of shapes is perhaps the easiest way to tell art nouveau from art deco. Art nouveau incorporated sinewy curves and natural elements. The focus was undoubtedly naturalistic forms, but in a stylistic manner. The art nouveau movement brought in the use of natural forms like fairies, insects and weeds, which is typified by the Tiffany lamps of the time. It’s important to note that art deco designs are not antithetical to the art nouveau style, and evolved from the latter as a response to World War I. Art deco was also heavily influenced by geometric shapes, but in a more streamlined manner. The term ‘art deco’ arose from the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts held in France in 1925.
Art nouveau designs are much more detailed and intricate when compared to art deco designs. Where an art nouveau style brooch may feature an intricate leaf pattern with detailed inlay work (think of the brooches worn by the elves in Lord of the Rings!), an art deco style brooch will employ more geometric shapes to achieve the same intricate and detailed look. Though the design will not seem to be any less complex, art deco designs will invariably be a set of repeating geometric figures in most cases. Why did this change in design take place? Art enthusiasts are divided on the issue. Most consider that art nouveau designs were inspired by the artists’ rejection of the industrial revolution (and hence influenced by natural shapes), whereas art deco was influenced by the realities and hardships of the First World War, which resulted in highly geometric designs emphasizing efficiency and streamlining.
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Both art nouveau and art deco were influenced by industrial elements, but art deco took it one step further. Art deco incorporated the use of stainless steel, glass, metal and plastics in design. It was typified by glossy surfaces, seamless design and the use of horizontal surfaces for a clean, sharp look. Linoleum, glass bricks, Bakelite and extensive use of chrome were the main features of this style. In essence, in the 1920’s and 1930’s these materials and designs were meant to signify all that was modern. Where art nouveau was the beginning of the use of modern elements in design, art deco was its peak.
Photo © Maynard Studios
Many would-be interior designers are often flummoxed by the difference between the two styles, but they aren’t difficult to tell apart if you keep a few things in mind. Art deco designs are invariably more streamlined, use more horizontal lines and are linear in almost every way. As mentioned before, a good example of this style is the Chrysler Building; the Empire State Building is another famous one. The use of chrome, steel and wood is another sure giveaway. On the other hand, art nouveau features more natural forms, and will incorporate more natural shapes and designs. Though both incorporate geometric designs, a side by side comparison will make it clear to any layman that art deco designs have a distinct jagged and linear influence, as compared to the natural, curvy influence ingrained in the art nouveau style.