Around 1900, an art movement known as Art Nouveau arose. Because Art Nouveau posters were so common and widely distributed, a typographic style, or the art and science of arranging letters, grew out of it. William Morris, a master of decorative art such as rugs, furniture, and stained glass, as well as graphic design and typography, was a key figure in the Art Nouveau style. With its ornate features, Art Nouveau influenced typography, which can still be seen in 2011. Although Art Nouveau is defined as “new art,” it incorporates elements from older traditions such as Medieval manuscripts and Persian pottery.
While the Art Nouveau style was reflected in paintings and architecture, its influence on decorative arts and graphic design — particularly posters — made it more widespread and accessible to the general public. Everything from salad oil to theatrical performances was advertised on Art Nouveau posters. The posters’ curved linear patterns were a hallmark of the Art Nouveau style, and typography was an important part of the poster design. The typography on these posters had flourishing, ornamental elements, which were typical of Art Nouveau.
Letters were frequently elongated, embellished, and feminine in nature in Art Nouveau typography. Art Nouveau typography was known for its asymmetry, or the use of irregular shapes in design. The Art Nouveau style was distinct from more common geometric typeface designs because it was inspired the curved lines of organic shapes found in nature. Art Nouveau typography had a calligraphic or handmade appearance rather than a manufactured appearance.
William Morris was a key figure in the Art Nouveau movement and is widely regarded as the style’s founder in England. Gardens, birds, and other natural elements, as well as Medieval art, influenced Morris. Morris used typography in his posters that reflected these influences. Illuminated lettering, a type of art in which individual letters are surrounded elaborate designs, was another of his passions.
Art Nouveau typography continues to influence modern typeface design. Modern typefaces have an Art Nouveau feel to them. These typefaces are interesting as decorative elements in graphic design because of their complex, elaborate appearance, but they are unlikely to be used for large bodies of text because they can be difficult to read.
While the term “new art” in French refers to the style, it actually incorporates many elements from older artistic traditions. It’s reminiscent of Celtic and other Medieval manuscript art styles. These manuscripts were known for their linear patterns and ornate embellishment. Art Nouveau was also influenced Persian art. Art Nouveau echoes the abstract linear designs found in Persian architecture, rugs, and calligraphy.