The turn of the 20th century brought a number of new ideas and movements in the arts, some conceptual, some aesthetic. A group of European artists gathered around the idea that the traditional hierarchy of arts was obsolete and that craft and applied arts deserved more attention devised a new decorative movement. Art Nouveau, also known as Secession in Austria, Jugendstil in Germany or Glasgow Style in the UK, was an absolute hit in the early 1900s, introducing new visual solutions in architecture, interior design, and art. Art Nouveau artists were inspired by organic and geometric linear forms set in sophisticated proportions, as they created some of the most memorable flowing and floral patterns, elegant figures or romanticized heroic scenes. The palette of Art Nouveau expelled strong color by exchanging them for a range of rich pastels that complemented the schemes perfectly. Showing such a great decorative potential, it’s no wonder that Art Nouveau produced some of the most creative buildings of the early 20th century, establishing the idea of total design. To this date, Art Nouveau visuals continue to inspire artists and designers, growing its way into the modern solutions for the interior or product design.
Although mosaics have always served as decorative images along with their religious, political or other purposes, they are relatively rare in Art Nouveau. When we look at the characteristic designs of the era, we find novelties in architecture, furniture, and jewelry design as well as in sculpture and painting. However, there are only several artists that used mosaic art actively as a method. Perhaps the reason was the cost of this luxurious technique or the thriving of ceramic art and tile design of the time, but mosaic art remained the privilege of the most successful creatives of Art Nouveau.
Today, the situation is very different, because commissioning a mosaic art for home is not reserved for the wealthiest alone. Looking for inspiration in the works of the most famous Art Nouveau artists, we found many solutions applicable in the contemporary space, but it’s fair to say that any image these imaginative aesthetes invented could be translated into the language of tiles.
Antoni Gaudí – The mosaic dragon at the entrance to Parc Güell. The head has been restored after the vandalism of February 2007 – Photo by William Avery
Perhaps the most prolific creator of mosaics at the turn of the century was American artist and businessman, Louis Comfort Tiffany. He is known for creating one of the most famous empires in design and luxury decoration, but the essence of his work was always mosaic art. The main material he used in their creation was colored glass, a signature found in other Tiffany designed objects such as lamps or vessels. A well-read and traveled man, he found inspiration for his mosaic artwork in different cultures he had seen and especially in nature. His dedication to horticulture and landscape architecture is reflected in his glass mosaic artwork, especially in his monumental masterpiece The Dream Garden, created for Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia in 1916. Composed out of thousands of colored glass tesserae, the mosaic murals is 16’ high and 50’ wide, and it represents a harmonious arcadian scene, typical of the era.
Other Tiffany’s designs are still very popular, carrying the spirit of the American classic, but the Dream Garden shows true forward thinking in the spirit of the new style, something that could be interpreted well in a contemporary space.
Celebrated for his architectural achievement, but also his creative genius when it came to decoration, Antoni Gaudi is quoted as one of the most favorite artists today. Having lived his whole life in Barcelona, he dedicated himself to pushing the limits of spatial planning, often exceeding funds that were provided for his projects. Luckily, his brilliant solutions were so popular that he mostly managed to secure patronage, until his untimely and tragic death.
Although his grand design of Sagrada Familia cathedral remained unfinished (expected to be finished in 2026), his other masterpieces testify to the affinity Gaudi had for the mosaic art. His mosaic designs could hardly be called classical, as they were often created by irregular pieces of colorful, broken ceramic tiles, or they were covering unexpected sculptures, park benches or rooftops. He used mosaic art as facade decoration, and a common element in public creations, pioneering a new use of bright color in the architectural exterior. The most famous projects Gaudi embellished with mosaic art are Casa Batlló and Park Güell.
Casa Batlló was imagined as a private villa with an elaborate, organic facade on the outside, decorated with splashes of colorful tesserae. Its innovative design caused much controversy at the time the building started, around 1877 and the house was purchased by the Batlló family only in 1900. This ensured its finish and the development of the original form in the coming years.
Between 1900 and 1914, Antoni Gaudi was hired to design Park Güell, a public park in Barcelona that would become one of its main attractions. This municipal garden is filled with the artist’s mosaics, starting from the famous salamander statue to the many benches covered in colorful broken tiles. The designs of Park Güell are perhaps some of the most inspirational works when it comes to contemporary mosaic design.
Known as the creator of the images of beautiful women in the symbolic scene, Alphonse Mucha grew to become one of the most desired commercial designers of his time. He created many theater posters but also images advertising products to the Belle Epoque Parisians. Czech by birth, he was always dedicated to and inspired by his heritage, while his expression never exited the realm of Art Nouveau. Although his body of work is not known for the mosaic creation, there is one specific decoration project where Mucha’s decorative genius showed in particular.
Since he did enjoy decorating jewelry, in 1900 Mucha took on a project of creating a jewelry shop for his friend, jeweler Georges Fouquet. Although the location itself is not preserved, the shop is recreated entirely within the Musee Carnavalet in Paris and it represents a gem in Art Nouveau total design. The walls are covered in wood, the entire room is adorned with ornaments and sculptures, but the floor is what is of interest here. Seemingly simplified, the floor is covered in a tile mosaics, inspired by peacock feathers displayed on the wall. Its calming palette provides the perfect balance to the opulent interior and can serve as a viable motive for a contemporary design.
The most beloved artist in Austria, Gustav Klimt rose to fame because of his innovative approach to portraiture and aesthetics. Gleaming golden surfaces, beautiful subjects and daring treatment of surfaces all served the Secession ideas he followed, and he was often commissioned to do public decoration projects. Still, the mosaic art was relatively rare within his body of work and the most famous tile piece he designed is the Stoclet Frieze in Brussels, a monumental celebration of life. In 1905, Klimt received an invitation from industrialist Adolphe Stoclet to create a large piece for the dining room of his new palace. Choosing to work in mosaic, the artist used a selection of precious materials from the Leopold Forstner mosaic workshop. Not without much effort, Klimt changed the design several times and reached the solution in 1908. The large Stoclet Frieze is composed out of two parts almost identical to each other, each covering the longer wall of a rectangular room. The main subject of both images is a large, ornamental tree of life, while figures represent Expectation (left) and Fulfillment (right), an appropriate allegory for a luxurious dining hall. Covered in golden elements, floral ornaments, and vibrant details, this frieze was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 2009.
Although the sheer lavishness of the Stoclet Frieze is hard to reproduce today, its elements can be found in different contemporary designer solutions, including smaller-scale mosaic schemes.
A pioneer of Art Nouveau, Belgian architect Victor Horta devoted his life to discovering solutions for interior design. In the process, he resolved numerous problems of modern living and in-house spatial organization, some of which we use even today. In terms of decoration, he was a determined propagator of Art Nouveau, while his designs in furniture and homeware show a particular clarity of form. One of his first buildings of this style, Hôtel Tassel in Brussels from 1893 featured a mosaic floor in the entrance hall. Although a mosaic floor decoration was not so unusual at the time, the way in which Horta choose to decorate it is. It breaks the geometric mold and features simple, linear ornaments following the characteristic soft, floral shapes. Simple enough, this floor remains at the very foundation of Art Nouveau mosaic art decoration and its simple beauty can easily be reinterpreted in today’s circumstances as well.