Liberty art | Wiener Werkstätte | Michael Thonet 6° lesson

Design in Europe between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Art Nouveau

Let’s analyze in detail the situation in Europe between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s: it was a period of strong changes, as I said earlier.

There was a huge industrialization and indiscriminate exploitation of the raw materials offered by nature.

Furthermore, the first workers’ unions began to emerge. It was a time in which workers were considered as slaves: they faced extremely stressful working hours, without breaks, nor any incentive that could help them. Images of the late nineteenth century in London, still circulate where you can see child workers carrying coal underground. Prolonged work in these conditions led to numerous respiratory diseases, because there were no protections, and also caused damage to the spine due to the position assumed.

Another very important thing to take into consideration during this period was the role assumed by women. A strong attempt at social emancipation began through suffragettes: a term that indicates women belonging to the women’s emancipation movement born to obtain the right to vote for women (from the word suffrage in its meaning of vote).

This word later ended up indicating more generally the woman who struggles or works to obtain the recognition of the full dignity of women, thus partly coinciding with the term feminist.

It was a time of strong social and technological changes such as the arrival of electricity, cinema and cars that profoundly changed society.

Electricity changed life in all the cities that could afford this technology: the streets were certainly more illuminated than before and as I mentioned before this type of technology could be used inside homes for both lighting and heating. It was a real revolution.

Cinema was born from a technology capable of printing about 24 frames in a second and was invented by the brothers Auguste Marie and Louis Nicolas Lumière in the late 1800s. For the first time people could observe images that seemed so real to their eyes, to the point that one day a train arriving at the station was projected and the public ran away in terror thinking they could be hit by the moving train.

It was the first approach to this type of technology that gradually began to evolve up to the present day. It became essential in order to observe the world outside one’s own cities, to be able to know new realities, new customs and new worlds, which previously could only be told through photography or books.

Finally, the car replaced the horse as the main means of transport: it was considered more reliable and faster, being able to travel a greater distance in the shortest possible time than animals.

In addition, the car brought people closer, reducing distances: it could reach places where the train had not yet arrived, and was also used to transport basic necessities.

Gradually the car changed the appearance of the world, creating all the services necessary for its operation, such as asphalted roads, service stations, etc.

In this period of strong technological changes a new style was born called Art Nouveau, also known in Italy as floral style, Liberty style or new art, which was an artistic and philosophical movement that developed between the end of the 19th century and the first decade of 1900 and which influenced the figurative arts, architecture and applied arts.

The Liberty movement had its maximum diffusion during the last period of the so-called Belle Époque.

The name Art Nouveau (“new art”) was coined in France, a country in which the movement was also known as Style Guimard, Style 1900 or École de Nancy (for art objects).

In Great Britain it was known as Art Nouveau together with the language definitions of Modern Style or Studio Style, while in Germany it took the name of Jugendstil (young style).

And so on, in Austria Sezessionstil (Secession), in the Netherlands Nieuwe Kunst (translation of Art Nouveau in Dutch), in Poland Secesja, in Switzerland Style sapin or Jugendstil, in Serbia and Croatia Secesija, in Russia Modern and, in Spain, Arte Joven(young art), or more frequently, Modernism.

Art Nouveau was configured as a wide-ranging style, which embraced the most disparate fields such as architecture, interior and urban decoration, jewelry, furniture and fabrics, tools and objects, lighting, funerary art.

N°14 Michael Thonet Chair
Drawing Art Nouveau
The Nouveau Art

The movement takes its origins from the Anglo-Saxon style of Arts and Crafts, which had placed the emphasis on the free creation of the craftsman as the only alternative to mechanization and mass production of objects with little aesthetic value.

Art Nouveau, by reworking these principles, paved the way for modern design and modern architecture.

An important point for the spread of this art was the Universal Exposition held in Paris in 1900, in which the new style triumphed in every field.

But the movement also spread through other channels: the publication of new magazines, such as L’art pour tous, and the establishment of schools and craft workshops.

Art Nouveau, with its large exhibitions, established itself in the great capitals such as Paris, where the architect Hector Guimard designed subway stations, such as Berlin, where the secession around the artist Munch was born in 1898, and Vienna, where the Secession architects gave a new aspect to the city.

Art Nouveau in architecture and interior design overcame the eclectic historicism that permeated the Victorian age.

Art Nouveau artists selected and modernized some of the elements of Rococo, such as flame and shell decorations, in place of the classic Victorian naturalistic ornaments.

Instead, they preferred Nature as a source of inspiration but evidently stylized its elements and expanded this repertoire with the addition of algae, blades of grass, insects.

Ultimately, the most revolutionary character of architectural research was the complete renunciation of the classical order which, despite some experimentalism, had retained its dominant role throughout the 19th century in the entire architectural panorama, not just the academic one.

This renunciation had a permanent character and will continue in proto-rationalism and rationalism.

In the world of design and craftsmanship, this style followed the following characteristics: organic shapes, curved lines, with ornaments with a preference for plants or flowers.

Oriental images, especially Japanese prints, with equally curvilinear shapes, illustrated surfaces, contrasting voids, and the sheer flatness of some prints, were an important source of inspiration.

Some types of lines and curves became clichés, later used by artists all over the world. Another factor of great importance is that Art Nouveau did not deny the use of machinery as it happened in other contemporary movements, such as that of Arts and Crafts, but they were used and integrated in the creation of the work.

In terms of the materials used, the primary source was certainly glass and wrought iron, leading to a real form of sculpture and architecture.

In Italy too, Liberty asserted itself in the design of furnishings; numerous furnishing solutions were presented at the 1906 Milan International Exposition.

So it is possible to synthesize the art nouveau in a style that was inspired by nature, using the best technologies available at the time with a design philosophy aimed at craftsmanship.

One of the most representative figures of that period was Michael Thonet: a cabinetmaker, designer and entrepreneur, who thanks to his work deeply marked the society in which we live and also numerous pieces born within his company in the middle 800 are still present on the market today.

In the 1830s, Thonet carried out his experiments with strips of veneer softened in boiling glue before creating the “bentwood furniture”, taken from the Bopard style, a company in which Thonet had previously worked.

In 1842, Prince Metternich, impressed by the talent of the Rhine cabinetmaker, called him to Vienna. Here Michael Thonet dedicated himself together with his children to creating parquet and furniture for the Liechtenstein Palace and the Schwarzenberg Palace.

With the creation of the chair No. 14 for the Daum café on the Kohlmarkt in Vienna, he soon conquered the Viennese café scene, laying the foundations for the development of the furniture sector for the “community”, ie public environments.

Thonet’s work revolution consists in having created a collection of bentwood products that could be modified and replaced to create other new products.

It has been calculated that Thonet chairs reached 50 million units sold by the end of the Second World War, and if you look at some paintings by famous French artists who lived between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, you can see numerous pieces of furniture which bear the signature of Michael Thonet.

The most famous chair No. 14 costed like 3 coffees during the art nouveau, and was considered extremely reliable and durable, in line with the company’s pre-rationalist philosophy.

This product has become the symbol of art nouveau, even if it preceded the movement by over 40 years.

Another protagonist of the time was Hector Guimard a French architect, a leading exponent of this style.

In the international panorama of liberty architecture, Guimard was a singular and isolated figure: he had no disciple who continued his work, nor any school.


For this reason he was at first, long considered a secondary exponent of this movement.

This scarce inheritance, however, contrasts with the great variety and imagination of his fifteen-year architectural and decorative work.

Probably the most famous work of this artist was the construction of the entrance kiosks of the Paris metro stations: elaborate and voluptuous structures in wrought iron and glass, influenced by the style of Viollet-le-Duc.

They have become real artworks, still visible today along a part of the Paris metro station.

In other European cities such as Barcelona, ​​in the same period as Hector Guimard, the figure of Antoni Gaudí y Cornet stood out. He was a Spanish architect of Catalan culture, the greatest exponent of Catalan modernism, although he was the least tied personality to this artistic movement, of which he nevertheless shared the ideological and thematic assumptions, complementing them however with a personal inspiration based mainly on natural forms.

Gaudí was an extremely fruitful architect: seven of his works in Barcelona have been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1984.

Gaudì’s work is still present today in the Catalan city, and it is possible to recognize his architectural style by the use of very bright colors, and by the plastic forms that transform the interior of the houses into dynamic and unprecedented shapes for the time.

Among the most important examples of the work carried out by the architect are the Park Güell, La Sagrada Família and the Casa Batlló.

Moving to another nation such as Austria, we must mention the capital Vienna which, at the beginning of the 20th century, was one of the most important cities in Europe.

In that context, the Wiener Werkstätte was born in 1903 which was an innovative Viennese production community, linked to the world of design, and founded by the architect Josef Hoffmann, the banker Fritz Wärndorfer and the painter Koloman Moser.

This collected the results of the Viennese Secession, Arts and Crafts, English Liberty, Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, reworking a new classicism, leading to the birth of proto-nationalism.

Hoffmann and Moser in 1905 founded the Wiener Werkstätte program as follows:

  • Close relationship with the public, the designer and the craftsman
  • Produce simple and quality household items
  • The primary concept is functionality.
  • Excellent quality of workmanship.
  • When appropriate, add ornaments.
  • The production of this company was aimed at fabrics, ceramics, jewels, furniture, postcards.
  • It is not considered low-priced production since this is to the detriment of workers and the worthy existence of man.

This association was made up of 100 workers, very few of them were specialized craftsmen.

Vienna’s major artists and the pupils whom Moser and Hoffman taught in their school, became part of this new productive vision.

The goal was to have as many experiences as possible with artists and objects, linked to a single style.

With his works, Hoffmann was able to produce two completely different objects with the same shapes.

The Wiener Werkstätte is perfectly equipped with everything the business needs, the machine does not dominate but helps the man: the creative spirit belongs to the hands of the artist.

The energy and creativity of the young people, trained in the school of the two founding masters, represented a benefit for the association.

The Wiener Werkstätte participated in almost all the Expos that were held, from the year of its foundation until its failure.

The first branches and sales points began to open all over the world and this will eventually influence American Styling.

The products made by the Wiener Werkstätte were displayed in shops, in catalogs, in Expo, to increase the number of buyers.

Moser though, insisted on working only on commissioned projects, like a freelancer.

Years later Moser resigned because for him the business was no longer what it once was, it depended too much on the taste of the customers even though they had no idea of ​​the product they wanted.

He did not understand that his craftsmanship policy would never reach a large audience, as manual labor was too expensive and not everyone could afford it.

The success of the Wiener Werkstätte was essentially due to the bourgeoisie, who greatly appreciated the luxury products that the company produced.

The association’s design was famous for being essential and simple, despite being of great value.

The great limitation that led to the gradual failure of this initiative was that of not being able to move towards a less expensive market, due to the design philosophy, which envisaged the use of man for most of the cases, limiting as much as possible the work of machinery.

Industrial machinery was still seen as a system for the production of extremely cold and emotionless objects.

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