Monday, 2 September 2013

Art Nouveau on the Beeb

I've been enjoying BBC4's current programme about Art Nouveau. Last week saw presenter Stephen Smith exploring the seamy Parisian underworld where Art Nouveau originated; it was all about sex, death and decadence.This week the focus was on the British version of the style, with Aubrey Beardsley and William Morris making an appearance.

As is often the case with television, the programme concentrated on big-name designers, those who set the trends rather than followed them. There was not much mention of how, or indeed whether, Art Nouveau filtered out to the massmarket. Here at MoDA, the Silver Studio collection provides evidence of the attempt to reinterpret ideas and motifs derived from Art Nouveau, and make them acceptable for a wider audience. Clearly, a style that had its roots in the bordellos of Paris was going to require some watering down before it became acceptable for English drawing rooms...

This curtain fabric was designed by the Silver Studio in 1897. It features the flowing sinuous lines and stylised floral motifs of Art Nouveau, but given a slightly more naturalistic feel, and without the overtones of sex and decay...
Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (ST4298)

The Silver Studio became adept at producing designs for wallpapers and textiles which hinted at Art Nouveau, but which were less sexual and subversive, and therefore more 'mainstream', than the work of the designers featured on the BBC4 programme.(Much more of the bower than the bordello, one might say!). They were catering for the sort of customers who wanted to show they were aware of fashionable trends, but who didn't want to embrace them in their entirety.

It's interesting to consider how the designers who worked at the Silver Studio got access to these new and exciting ideas. After all, if Art Nouveau ideas originated in France, how did they filter across the channel, to a small design studio based in Hammersmith?

The Silver Studio's designers seem to have been avid collectors of visual source material, and this aspect of the collection is something that we have only recently begun to explore.

Image from a publication called 'Style Nouveau: fantasies florales'
published in Paris, probably at the turn of the century
(Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, SM175-1)

The Silver Studio's collection of portfolios include many French and German volumes. They contain wonderful illustrations which embody the new spirit of Art Nouveau including flowing lines, and stylised flowers and other natural forms. These volumes must have seemed fantastically exotic and exciting when they were first seen by the Silver Studio designers. I like to imagine designers receiving new books with eager anticipation, perhaps tearing the wrappers off the parcels sent by the book dealer. I hope they would have been excited about the new visual ideas embodied within them, and keen to incorporate these ideas into their own work.

I've only just begun to map this fascinating 'collection within a collection', but it seems to me to that these volumes, and the many others like them were an important part of the means by which Silver Studio designers familiarised themselves with new ideas. By doing so, they were able to interpret fashionable trends for designs for wallpapers and textiles for the wider market.


  1. Beautiful fabric! Hope to see more!

  2. Do you mean that the silver studio designers kept scrap-books, or what we might call "look-books" today? I love the process of keeping a visual record of inspiration - I think it's one of the reasons why Pinterest is so popular.

  3. Yes the Silver Studio did keep scraps of newspaper and magazine clippings stuck on card - I guess this was an early kind of 'pinterest'-type activity! But we often find cuttings tucked into books as well; so it's clear that they were using the books and portfolios very much as a design resource.

  4. My museum has a length of the 1897 Silver Studio textile pictured in this post! It's so exciting to see another example of this pattern. We are researching this textile for a blog post and for our database. I am in the US, so can't easily watch the BBC show you mention. Was this pattern featured in the show? Any additional info you can provide would be so helpful!

    You might enjoy our blog, which also works to bring objects in our collection to light:

    Rachel Harris
    rharris [at] fidmmuseum [dot] org

  5. Hi Rachel - how exciting that you also have a piece of this Silver Studio textile. We'd love to hear more about how you came to have it etc. The fabric was not featured in the BBC programme, I just used that as an excuse to write about one of our favourite objects.

  6. I agree with Felicity, image bookmarking sites like Pinterest are certainly the modern day scrap book. We use it a lot to showcase our silver and jewellery and I think for people in the arts and crafts industry is is def a great resource. They do have some fabulous examples of the Art Nouveau styles it's definitely worth a look.