Art Nouveau (“new art”) was an ornamental design movement that flourished in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. It enjoyed mainstream appeal for only around a decade, but its impact was forceful — it was a direct contrast to, and defiance of, the classicism that had kept Paris aesthetically in line for the previous few centuries.
Inspired by Mother Nature, Art Nouveau celebrated womanly curves and sinuous lines; it often took the flowing form of flowers, vines and insects, and was built with organic-looking materials, such as ceramics, glass and brick, while its ironwork was painted in plant-inspired shades of green.
Having begun in the art, fashion and interiors domains, Art Nouveau had a certain arts-and-crafts to it — and perhaps it was this emphasis on artisanal individuality over streamlined classicism that meant it ultimately couldn’t survive in the modernising, streamlining, industrialising world.
Fortunately, many examples of Paris Art Nouveau still stand, and are a wonderful snapshot of that lush and joyous moment in aesthetic history.
The first métro line opened in 1900, and architect Hector Guimard’s array of Art Nouveau-inspired entrances made the movement appear the very height of modern at the time. Many of his simpler designs remain, with their fairytale-forest allure — Cité, next to the Île de la Cité’s flower market is particularly fabulous:
It’s also worth a detour to see his more fanciful ones: the elegant canopy of Abbesses …
… and the fantastical creation known as the Libellule (“dragonfly”) model out at Porte Dauphine …
Musée des Arts Décoratifs
The Museum of Decorative Arts, which opened in 1905, is nestled in the Marsan wing of the Louvre, and makes for a delight of a visit, as it is rarely crowded.
Rooms trace Parisian design development from the Renaissance era through to Modernism, and the Art Nouveau section gives a gorgeous glimpse into the interior world of modern-minded Parisians of the time.
Created for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Grand Palais might from the outside appear to be an over-the-top Beaux-Arts palace, but inside it has the whimsical lightness of a fantasy greenhouse.
The main iron-and-glass space, le Nef (“nave”) is usually only opened for one-off events, such as ice-skating in winter, or festive evenings like Fête de la Musique. Check the website regularly for updates.
The well-to-do sixteenth arrondissement was a hotbed for Art Nouveau architecture, populated as it was by wealthy types keen to show off their power to pay for intricately unique designs, not to mention get around building codes. Its most infamous Art Nouveau address is 14, Rue Jean de la Fontaine: the Castel Béranger.
Designed by Hector Guimard (of Métro entrances fame) in the late nineteenth century, this magically madcap castle-like apartment building, with its turret-like touches, accents of verdigris and a front door fashioned from swirling tendrils of iron, was originally dubbed Castel Dérangé, but these days can’t help but make you smile for the fantasy of it.
29, Avenue Rapp 75007
This bizarrely beautiful apartment building, which won archiect Jules Lavirotte a coveted Concours de Façades prize in 1901, was originally commissioned by a ceramic entrepreneur — this explains the ceramic-decorated façade.
Make sure to look up and admire — that is, if you can take your eyes off that minx of an erotic door!