Every story needs an important kind of death in order to provide the audience with a sense of risk and anxiety. Sometimes the hero of the story dies, goes down to hell, and then resurfaces. That death, and its subsequent defeat, is what gives us fictional pleasure, catharsis. The payoff from reading the story.
In our particular case, furniture (the very concept of it) died sometime in the first decades of the 20th century, but don’t worry, it’ll come back soon. You just have to wait a little.
I’m not sure if furniture went to hell, but it definitely resurfaced. Telling you how it did so at this point would be like giving you a spoiler from part four of this series, so be patient.
Art Nouveau is also a strange term. It’s French for ‘new art,’ and it was the next weird thing. It started quietly at some point in the late 19th century, gaining a lot of traction until the onset of World War I. For those of you who aren’t big on history, WWI began in 1914.
Art Nouveau emerged from something we kind of missed in part two of the series (for article length reasons), the British Arts and Crafts Movement from 1880.
The BAACM, for short, was a new way of looking at traditional craftsmanship. Even though Chippendale had helped shed the notion that craftsmen were poor, dumb people, that concept never fully disappeared from 19th century societies. One of its most famous representatives (in furniture) was an American designer called Gustav Stickley.
The BAACM wanted to go back to the traditional ways of making art (and furniture), but it also wanted the artistry behind those ways to become more apparent and celebrated. They believed industrialism was hurtful to the arts (and they were right), so they wanted to achieve a new kind of artisanship, a new way of looking at art.
Art Nouveau, many historians agree, began with the work of a Czech guy called Alphonse Mucha. In this story, he’s kind of the villain. He might be the guy who put the last nail in 19th century furniture’s coffin. But he didn’t intend to do so, he was just a painter.
His influence, though, reached every corner of the art world and helped pave the way for new types of furniture design, along with the BAACM.
Most of Art Nouveau’s furniture was produced in an industrialized setting, which meant that the BAACM was actually at odds with the style. This clash of ideologies is very important because it would remain a distinct issue in furniture design until the 21st century. Should furniture be industrial, mass produced? Or should it be artistic, free, and individual?
Interestingly enough, furniture from the Art Nouveau period was really expensive, which actually opposes the idea of an industrial process. I mean, a lot of expensive things are made on factories, but the most expensive things are usually made by hand, or in smaller factories run by expert craftsmen.
Craftsmanship and Industrialization were mortal enemies for most of the 20th century, but of course, technological advancements, population growth, and other elements eventually blurred the line between the two.
Alphonse Mucha himself designed a few furniture items, but he never actually produced any of them. These furniture designs were as important, nonetheless, as the ones created by his buddies, the actual furniture designers from that period: Charles Mackintosh, Louis Majorelle, and many other names. Instead of naming every Art Nouveau designer, it would be better (for the purposes of the story) to name a few of its institutions.
The first one is the École de Nancy in France, the second is the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna, and the third one is the Deutscher Werkbund in Germany, which might be the one you should pay the most attention to in this part of the series.
Established in 1907, the Deutscher Werkbund (German for ‘Association of Craftsmen’) helped Art Nouveau grow and develop, but it also helped another style, one that had to do more with architecture and design itself.
That style was simply called ‘modern,’ and that should excite you, because we’re finally getting to that part of the story where the hero resurfaces, this time, finally, as ‘modernist furniture.’
If you’ve been paying attention, you know we are getting to everyone’s favorite part: the one that starts with a huge ‘B’ and ends in… Well, you should know by now. I’ll see you guys in part four!