Art nouveau was the curvilinear, nature-inspired style that dominated everything from jewellery to architecture at the start of the 20th century. As it spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic it followed two main strands: the curvy, whiplash decoration that flowed out of Paris-Brussels and the more linear, geometric style seen in Vienna and Glasgow. East European centres such as Prague, Riga and Budapest merged art nouveau with their own local traditions and the outstanding buildings of the era are found in those cities. By 1915, the craze for art nouveau had been crushed by the advent of the first world war and the arrival of a new style, art deco.
Over the last 100 years the demolition of art nouveau structures has been ruthless. French architect Hector Guimard’s innovative Parisian concert hall was pulled down as early as 1905 and only three of his roofed entrances to the Paris metro remain. While Barcelona, Vienna, Munich and Subotica claim stunning yet isolated art nouveau buildings, other cities have managed to preserve the style as part of their dominant architectural heritage.
Prague’s art nouveau credentials are based around one man: Alphonse Mucha. Ironically, he barely set foot in his Czech homeland until the style was waning. Mucha’s sassy artwork was used to advertise cigarette papers, champagne and Sarah Bernhardt plays, and propelled him (reluctantly) to the forefront of the movement. While Mucha was away in Paris and the US, it was left to architects, Ohmann, Bendelmayer and Dryák to promote Prague’s art nouveau and they did so by combining floral motifs and looping metalwork with a more traditional neo-baroque look. The Hotel Central (rooms from €125 a night) was one of the city’s first art nouveau structures and is still open for business today. As for Mucha, there’s a museum dedicated to him in the Kaunicky Palace, his symbolist murals adorn the Municipal House, and the Zbiroh castle nearby is where he painted a series of giant works about the Slav people.
Art nouveau in Budapest took slightly different turns to the styles prevalent in other European cities. Ödön Lechner, regarded as the greatest of the period’s Hungarian architects, adopted oriental forms including delicate floral imagery and lacquered finishes to his minarets (using local tiles) as a nod to the Asiatic origins of the Magyar people. The roof of his Post Office Savings Bank resembles a Persian textile. Lechner’s Institute of Geology, the Török bank and school on Dob Utca are typical of the merging of the sinuous early art nouveau with Hungarian national romantic traditions. It is celebrated at the Bedö Ház, a Szecesszió museum, which has a coffee shop on the ground floor. Stay at the Hotel Gresham Palace (rooms from €330 a night), overlooking the Danube, which is named after the founder of London’s Royal Exchange and with 179 bedrooms is one of the largest art nouveau buildings in the world.
With less whiplash, less decorative ornamentation, less feathery flamboyance and naturalistic carving, Glasgow offers a different form of art nouveau. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s designs are celebrated for their elegance, geometry and angularity and with his wife Margaret Macdonald, her sister Frances and Herbert MacNair, together known as “The Four”, was commissioned to design the architecture and interior furnishings of a handful of buildings in and around Glasgow. At that time, the city was a thriving yet grubby shipbuilding port, so the moneyed class would have welcomed the temperance of the Willow Tearooms in Sauchiehall Street. Mackintosh and Macdonald turned Glasgow’s tearooms into salons of taste using a refined, linear style, touches of Japonism, purples, creams and leaded-glass decoration. Other art nouveau buildings include Scotland Street School and the Glasgow School of Art – damaged by fire in May 2014, it is planned to reopen in 2018.
A vision of speed and flowing movement was fundamental to the designs established in art nouveau and its era coincided with the firing up of the Italian automobile industry. Fiat (1899) and Lancia (1906) started production in the back streets of Turin. Fiat’s original blue-floral logo and Lancia’s whiplash (characteristic curves), twirling lettering were typical of the movement’s regard for dynamism. Italians termed their own variation of art nouveau Stile Liberty, and after Turin’s international exhibition of decorative arts in 1902, the city was its undisputed capital. Visit the first Fiat factory on Corso Dante and then go to Borgo Pô to see some Stile Liberty villas: architect Pietro Fenoglio’s Casa Fenoglio-Lafleur and Villa Scott (both 1902), the Palazzina Rossi on Via Passalacqua and, best of all, Casa Maffei on Corso Montevecchio, which has flamboyant, double-tiered balcony railings and a semi-naked woman riding an eagle stuck onto the facade.
King Leopold II’s beautification of a vibrant Brussels in the late 19th/early 20th century coincided with the spectacular emergence of art nouveau. Belgian architects Victor Horta, Henry van de Velde and Paul Hankar created buildings where new techniques in manufacturing meant an end to conventional room space, where the underlying structure was often exposed and light could enter through glass roofs onto botany-inspired ironwork, gold mosaics and wavy door handles. Horta’s Hôtel Tassel, completed in 1894, is considered Europe’s first true art nouveau building. It’s the perfect place to start a tour, followed by the Hôtel Solvay, La Maison Cauchie, Square Ambiorix, the Hôtel Van Eetvelde and the Belgian Comic Strip Center, before ending at the Horta Museum via the Musical instruments Museum, all important art nouveau buildings. Diehard fans should take a peek at Stoclet House, too, but Josef Hoffmann’s masterpiece is still occupied by the Stoclet family and not open to the public.
Three of the biggest names in art nouveau, Gallé, Daum and Majorelle had their glassware and furniture manufacturing plants in Nancy. They were part of a dynamic and artistic business culture that had its origins in the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany after the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) when artists, intellectuals and industrialists fled to Nancy. Forty years on, their offspring were enjoying long lunches under the sculpted ferns and stained-glass windows of the Brasserie L’Excelsior. Today, the 1911-built cafe is the centrepiece of Nancy’s art nouveau design with a full assortment of teased ironwork, ornate mouldings, copper sconces and the combination of rare woods and handcarved masonry, which came to be associated with the movement. Take a stroll alongside the pretty, coloured facades of the rue Félix Faure with their intertwined plant designs and embellished lettering. Other art nouveau gems include the villa Majorelle, the Chambre de Commerce, Graineterie, the École de Nancy museum and villas in the Saurupt estate.
Art nouveau buildings tend to be dotted around urban centres but in Darmstadt, 30km south of Frankfurt, there is an entire colony. It was the brainchild of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig von Hessen, the province’s ruler (and Queen Victoria’s grandson), who commissioned seven artists and architects to design and build private houses and workshops in the modern Jugenstil vein at Mathildenhöhe, on a hill above the city. His artists’ colony opened in 1899, each building a complete work of art, inside and out. But after the colony’s final exhibition in 1914, it began to dissolve. Artists departed, the Wedding Tower and Exhibition Buildings left empty. Today, visitors can roam around the Vortex garden and visit some of the refurbished buildings and a permanent exhibition in the Mathildenhöhe museum. The colony is also a reminder of how uninspiring architecture has become in the “modern” Darmstadt next door.
Riga has over 700 art nouveau buildings, more than any other European city. The movement’s golden age coincided with the city’s rapid economic growth and within three years of the industrial and handicraft exhibition of 1901, art nouveau had become the only style of construction. One of the main streets, Alberta iela, has rows of Jugendstil houses. Designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, the Amphora building on Elizabetes iela is a showcase of art nouveau with floral motifs, stained glass, sky-blue tiles, sculpted knockers, peacocks and stern female faces peering out of the top floor. The other great architect of the period was Konstantins Pēkšēns, whose former home is now the Riga’s Art Nouveau Museum, where staff wear period costume. Nearby is the Sienna art cafe (makslas kafejnica) on Streinieku iela, with its elegant drawing room complete with floral-design crockery, screens, chandeliers and large sugary desserts.
When art nouveau ideas began to be incorporated into Nordic architecture, Finland was planning its independence from Russia. This sense of anticipated liberation led to a strong desire to include authentic Finnish traditions and rural mythology in a national romantic style. Art nouveau quickly became the country’s architectural redeemer and there are still around 600 buildings in Helsinki, many built from solid granite. The Wilkman House, Pohjola insurance building and the stock exchange all display the characteristic rough-hewn facades combined with Finnish flora and fauna. The railway station, Helsingin päärautatiesema, designed in 1909 and with two pairs of grim-faced statues lighting up the street outside, is the most celebrated building in the city. Visit the Aschan Café Jugend, constructed as a banking hall in 1904, for live music and to gaze at the tree murals over a fish soup.
Halfway between Porto and Coimbra, Aveiro is a floating city full of art nouveau treasures. Aveiro’s economy still comes from seaweed, salt and ceramics, and it was the revenue from these, plus the wealth of returning emigrants who had grown rich in Brazil at the end of the 19th century, that led to requests for extravagant new residences. Take a tour on one of the gondola-style moliceiros to the Rossio district; try the local ovos moles delicacies in one of the bars where Aveiro’s particular style of arte nova includes pale-shaded tiles, ironwork balconies and floral mouldings. The Museu de Arte Nova is in the Casa Major Pessoa on Rua Dr Barbosa Magalhães and its first-floor tearoom, the Casa de Chá, turns into a cocktail lounge serving caipirinhas in the evening – its floral designs and tiled birdlife motifs masked by mood lighting after dark.
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