What is Art Nouveau? Designers explain this elaborate and whimsical design style that dates back centuries

Inspired by the natural world, this design style feels otherworldly

Art Nouveau architecture and interior styles
(Image credit: Getty Images, Heritage Images / Contributor)

Design movements of the past will always be the most enduring sources of inspiration, not least Art Nouveau: a design style dating back to the 19th century. 

Unlike today's familiar decorating styles – think farmhouse or midcentury modern – Art Noveau is far more of a specific design style relevant to its time that is less about recreating it exactly, and more about appreciating its eccentricity. 

Here, we're taking a closer look at Art Nouveau, exploring its origins and how its elaborate features can still be referenced in decorating ideas today. 

What is Art Nouveau style?

Art Nouveau entryway with staircase and large curved windows

(Image credit: Getty Images, Heritage Images / Contributor)

Forming part of the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau is a design style that rose to popularity in the 1880s across parts of Europe and the United States, and endured until around the 1910s, preceding the later Art Deco movement. 

Embraced across many avenues of the design world during this time including architecture, interior design, textiles, and graphics, Art Nouveau is internationally recognized as an iconic design style defined by distinct characteristics. 

Inspired largely by the natural world, some of the main characteristics of Art Nouveau are curvature, floral motifs, sinuous lines, and asymmetry. It is both eccentric and whimsical, displaying intricate details and patterns that reflect an elegant and otherworldly feel. Colors used in Art Nouveau further display its inspiration from the natural world, reflecting muted variations of warm-toned, earthy hues. 

'When I think of Art Nouveau, I think of organic forms drawn from nature like florals, vines, and small animals, swirly patterns with a whimsical element to them,' explains Eugenia Triandos, Principal Designer at Hibou Design & Co. 'I can't help but instantly think of Antoni Gaudi and all of the beautiful architecture he created in Spain that we're so fortunate to still get to experience today.'

How to decorate with Art Nouveau 

Art Nouveau bedroom with patterned wallpaper and wooden bed and nightstand

(Image credit: Getty Images, Heritage Images / Contributor)

Unlike other interior design styles, Art Nouveau is not a style that can be easily recreated in modern homes. Art Nouveau places much of its focus on the elaborate and highly intricate architecture of its time and so the historical nature of these buildings is how it's categorized. 

Having said that, you can certainly pay homage to this highly decorative design style in interiors by referencing its eclectic look with ornate fixtures and furnishings. Eugenia shares below some of the ways Art Nouveau can be referenced in home decor today. 

'Although Art Nouveau is not necessarily a style that we strongly use today, we see elements of it in a lot of the spaces we design,' says Eugenia. 'These days, we incorporate this aesthetic into contemporary design with patterns brought in through fabrics, wallpapers, and artwork that lend to an upscale, traditional aesthetic.'

'Morris & Co. is a fabric and wallpaper manufacturer that does this so well. The patterns that we find in some of their collection really feel like a modern take on Art Nouveau that can easily make any room pop in a timeless and elegant way.'

Interior designer Kathy Kuo adds below that referencing the core features of Art Nouveau design is a good way to reflect the natural world through decor, especially with the use of Art Nouveau-inspired colors and curved furniture. 

'Adding Art Nouveau touches to your interior design is a lovely way to bring elements of nature into your home in fun and eye-catching ways. Try a palette of earth tones and opt for furniture that is more curvy than angular. Add floral motifs with your wall art, rugs, and decorative objects.'

If your own interior design style embraces maximalist decor and traditional decor, incorporating references to Art Nouveau design can be an effective way to add a whimsical and decorative feel. 

Below, we've rounded up a selection of Art Nouveau-inspired decor items for you to shop. From floral wallpaper ideas to eccentric lighting ideas, these pieces are a subtle nod to this iconic design style. 

Emily Moorman
News Writer

Emily Moorman is a News Writer at Homes & Gardens, working across a range of topics spanning interiors, celebrity and emerging trends. With a background in the fashion industry, Emily is well-versed in the world of design and trend cycles. Her undergraduate degree was in Fashion Communication and Promotion which she studied at Norwich University of The Arts, specialising in writing and digital communications.