With no discredit to its merit, Art Nouveau, the nature-fueled design movement that aimed to buck industrialism at the turn of the 20th century, is often overshadowed by its more accessible successor, Art Deco. While the two styles share similarities, Art Nouveau curved (literally) where Art Deco adopted a machinist’s penchant for linearity. Perhaps it’s Art Deco’s association with the 1920s—the raucous decade that rocked the Western world—but Art Deco has remained in the cultural favor while Art Nouveau has mostly faded. That’s not to say Art Nouveau has left designers’ good graces. In fact, more and more designers are turning to Art Nouveau as an unexpected way to add allure to unassuming spaces.

For those not working with a professional designer, however, Art Nouveau can feel unwieldy. Whiplash curves can require taming—which in some cases means the application of even more liberated lines!—a task that hardly seems like child’s play. And yet, modern decorating with Art Nouveau is possible. To get you started, we’ve assembled the work of some interior designers who are in the know about Art Nouveau. We’ve also collected some near-effortless, one-step ways to integrate Art Nouveau without selling your soul to the style. But first, a little history… 

What is Art Nouveau Style?

While hardly rebellious-looking by today’s standards, Art Nouveau has roots as a protest movement. The Industrial Revolution spurred distaste among city-dwelling bohemians, resulting in a collective return to nature for inspiration. What transpired artistically was a movement that heralded organic themes and form, but never fully divorced itself from the modernist mechanics celebrated by industrialization, either. The dichotomy manifested itself in the repetition of bold forms such as circles, parabolas, and the era-defining whiplash curve. The latter was incorporated into an array of mesmerizing motifs such as sailing scrolls and sinuous vines. 

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how Art Nouveau laid the groundwork for the trippy motifs and kaleidoscopic typefaces that came to define the 1960s hippie counterculture. Viewed through a modern lens, Art Nouveau is peripherally psychedelic. Its nymph-dotted Edens (a mainstay of the promotional posters of the era) and abundance of luring, tentacle-like scrolls exude a frank sensuality that precursor the sexual revolution that would take place nearly a century later. 

Free-spirited decree aside, a closer examination of Art Nouveau reveals that most designs are guided by a soothing symmetry. This geometric baseline provides a traceable line from Art Nouveau style to Victorian style, and even later, Art Deco. While Art Nouveau might initially seem tricky to design with, identifying this underlying gridwork makes it infinitely easier to mix and match it with pieces from alternative eras. 

Decorating with Art Nouveau, 2 Ways

Art Nouveau tends to be a style of extremes, with designers electing to go ultra sleek or over-the-top granny chic when decorating with it. Here, we reveal designers’ best takeaway tips for decorating in both respects. 

Eclectic green dining room with traditional wood dining set with ornate mirror and gallery wall
© living4media / Bauer Syndication

The Art Nouveau Maximalist 

Those favoring the Grandmillennial aesthetic are likely to appreciate Art Nouveau’s ability to be incorporated into fussier, frillier designs. In the Victorian era, “more is more” was the epitome voguish, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that Art Nouveau’s sculptural lines play easily with others. Because some of the more statement-y Art Nouveau chairs and Art Nouveau tables often require a pared-down background to truly shine, those who want to layer to the nines should consider Art Nouveau pieces with small collectible appeal. Art Nouveau light fixtures, small case goods, and other Art Nouveau decor like vases are easy pieces to mix and match with contrasting styles like Chinoiserie, Arts and Crafts, and even Hollywood Regency.     

In their toolkit: Tiffany lamps, Jewel-tone Persian and Turkish rugs, gold gilded mirrors, a battalion of brown wood furniture from disapatiate eras. 

Contemporary dining room with wood table, upholstered dining chairs, and herring bone rug
Design by Donna Mondi Interior Design / Photo by Werner Straube

The Art Nouveau Minimalist  

Art Nouveau minimalists tend to come about one of two ways. For many, a built-in Art Nouveau feature, such as a stained glass window, is the gateway. For others, it’s stumbling across a single auction-block-worthy heirloom like an Art Nouveau dining table, or a set of eight stellar Art Nouveau dining chairs. If you are in possession of a gallery-level Art Nouveau specimen, designers will often advise not to try and compete with it—let the scrollwork do what it does best: show off. For a historic renovation she undertook in Chicago, designer Donna Mondi pulled inspiration from the home’s leaded glass-paneled windows to design the dining room’s fireplace surround. Opting to keep everything else in the space simple, she selected streamlined pieces with Arts and Crafts appeal to complement but not compete. “Somewhere between the charm of historical architecture and the excitement of modern design lies a beautiful fusion of styles,” explains Donna. 

In their toolkit: Streamlined seats, pedestal tables (to show off those streamlined seats), refined lighting, modern, graphic rugs.

Brown wood desk with glass lamp and rattan accent chair
Photo by Fran Parente / OTTO

3 Ways to Make an Art Nouveau Cameo

Art Nouveau gets a rap for pricing out novices. But it shouldn’t! Here, we outline three easy, cost-effective ways to integrate Art Nouveau as a one-off item, without breaking the bank.

Art Nouveau Lighting

From pendants to table lamps, Art Nouveau lighting possesses unique curvature seldom seen in fixtures from other eras. Try an Art Nouveau pendant in a powder room. Their scrollwork can help break up the shoebox-like footprint, not to mention, their sinuous silhouette can mimic the curves of both a pedestal sink and the commode. Crave something a bit less snaky? Simple inverted dome pendants, often treated with a frosted or oplaine finish were also common in the era. They can be found in unusual shades like amber, too, making them the ultimate mood lights.

Art Nouveau Bentwood Chairs

Whiplash curves are perhaps no better emulated than by Thonet chairs, the bentwood beauties first designed by Michael Thonet, the Vienna-based cabinet maker who invented steam-bending in the late 19th century. In spite of their head-turning, hair-pin curves, bentwood chairs are remarkably enough easy to drop just about anywhere. Use one to energize an underwhelming corner or add elegance to an entry or hallway that may be feeling too squared-off and stark.

Art Nouveau Textiles 

Translated to one-dimensional mediums, Art Nouveau’s undulating scrollwork seems to take on a life of its own, evolving into intricate yet easy-to-like patterns that can lend even the brightest spaces a cocooning and forested feel. Leading the pack are William Morris’s Art Nouveau wallpapers. Their contrasting jewel tones and pastels make them a fit for a wide range of rooms, from kids’ rooms to master bedrooms. Their flowing lines seemingly invite more flowing lines to join the party, but they can be just as at home among hard edges, too. 

Discover Decorating with Art Nouveau >>

Lead photo by Fran Parente / OTTO


File Under

April 7, 2021

Chairish is the design lover's indispensable online source for chic and unique decor, art, furniture and home decorating inspiration. Shop our expert curation of exclusive and diverse inventory with 1,000+ new arrivals daily. Happy hunting!