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What Are the Characteristics of Art Nouveau Typography?

Debra Barnhart
Debra Barnhart

Art Nouveau was an art movement that developed around 1900. Because Art Nouveau posters were prevalent and widely distributed, a style of typography, or the art and of arranging letters, developed out of Art Nouveau style. One of the key figures in Art Nouveau style was William Morris, who was a master at creating decorative art, such as rugs, furniture and stained glass as well as graphic design and typography. Art Nouveau influenced typography with its ornate features, which is still evident in 2011. Art Nouveau means “new art” but it borrowed elements some older traditions, such as Medieval manuscripts and Persian pottery.

While paintings and architecture reflected the Art Nouveau style, its impact on decorative arts and graphic design — particularly posters — made its influence more widespread and available to the general public. Art Nouveau posters advertised everything from salad oil to theatrical shows. The curved linear patterns featured in the posters were a hallmark of Art Nouveau style, with typography being an integral part of the poster design. The typography of these posters displayed typical Art Nouveau characteristics with flourishing, ornamental elements.

Art noveau often features plant and flower motifs.
Art noveau often features plant and flower motifs.

Art Nouveau typography often contained letters that were elongated, embellished and feminine in nature. Asymmetry, or the use of irregular shapes in design, was an important feature of Art Nouveau typography. The Art Nouveau style was inspired by the curved lines of organic shapes found in nature and was distinctly different from more common geometric typeface designs. Rather than having a manufactured appearance, Art Nouveau typography had a calligraphic or handmade look.

William Morris was a key figure in Art Nouveau style and is considered the founder of the style in England. Morris was influenced by gardens, birds and other elements of nature as well as by Medieval art. These influences are reflected in the typography that Morris used in his posters. He was also fond of creating illuminated lettering — a type of art in which individual letters are surrounded by eleaborate designs.

Modern typeface design is still influenced by Art Nouveau typography. Certain modern typefaces have an Art Nouveau look. The complex, elaborate appearance of these typefaces makes them interesting choices as decorative elements in graphic design, but they are unlikely choices for large bodies of text since they can often be difficult to read.

While Art Nouveau means “new art,” in French, the style actually borrowed many features from older artistic traditions. It is reminiscent of art styles found in Celtic and other Medieval manuscripts. Linear patterns and ornate embellishment were characteristic of these manuscripts. Persian art also influenced Art Nouveau style. The abstract linear designs found in Persian architecture, rugs and calligraphy are echoed in Art Nouveau.

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    • Art noveau often features plant and flower motifs.
      By: Brad Pict
      Art noveau often features plant and flower motifs.