Art Nouveau and Art Deco: What's the Difference?

Two Very Distinctive Design Styles from Different Periods

Art Deco vase from Czechoslovakia (Ditmar Urbach airbrushed design) shown at left; Pair of Art Nouveau opposing vases (Ernst Wahlis) shown at right

Morphy Auctions

Someone once said if Art Nouveau is about curves, Art Deco is about angles. While that’s certainly a very simplified-yet-true way to distinguish these two periods, and also quite distinctive, that’s not all there is to know about them. Add the transitional objects made during the World War I era, and the ubiquitous revivals that have been made in these styles through the decades, and the water really muddies up for the novice antiquer.

Not to worry though, once you know how to distinguish these periods using various style elements, you’ll get the hang of identifying and dating your antiques and collectibles as you practice the skill. Here are some introductory elements to look for when examining a suspected Art Deco or Art Nouveau piece, along with some information on transitional and revival pieces.

Elements of Art Nouveau

As mentioned above, Art Nouveau pieces made during the late-Victorian era are all about the curves whether as a part of art, design, or architecture. This style grew from the Arts & Crafts and Aesthetic movements and looked to nature for much of its inspiration.

Extremely popular in the late 1800s into the early 1900s, this style emphasizes flowing lines and ethereal beauty incorporating natural elements such as flowers and vines whether literal or stylized. Animals and insects, both real and imagined, decorate many pieces with bats, dragons, birds, and dragonflies as popular motifs. Some of the curls and curves were inspired by newly documented sea-dwelling creatures as well.

Women depicted in Art Nouveau pieces will often have flowing hair. Those in more provocative poses may have their hair down or even be nude draped in billowy folds of fabric. 

Elements of Art Deco

Geometry plays a big part in Art Deco works made during the 1920s and ‘30s. Rectangular lines and squares combined with circles appear frequently in these pieces along with pyramids and zigzags. Many antiques from this era could be divided down the middle and the resulting halves would be mirror images of one another. Remembering this basic fact will serve you well identifying many Art Deco designs. Bold colors and vivid hues combined with black also appear prominently in many Deco works.

Other elements frequently seen in Art Deco pieces are those denoting speed and/or wealth both serving as iconic symbols of the Roaring ‘20s. These include airplanes, fancy cars, gazelles, and women similar to “flappers” walking sleek dogs.

Transitional Pieces Between Art Nouveau and Art Deco

The period between Victorian (Art Nouveau is essentially a subset of the Victorian era, which lasted from 1837-1901) and post-World War I design featuring Art Deco elements was bridged by the Edwardian era. Dating from the early 1900s through about 1920, the Edwardian period is one of transition. It is also one of the hardest to pinpoint in terms of nailing down an production date when it comes to objects made during this timeframe.

Pieces made in around 1910 tend to have more Art Nouveau influence, while those made closer to 1920 will oftentimes have Deco geometric elements added in. If you run across an object that seems to combine flowing or filigree elements and angular components, it could very well date to this period.

Art Nouveau and Art Deco Revivals

Both of these periods have seen many incarnations as designers through the decades have been creatively inspired by them. You’ll find some Victorian revivals made during the 1920s and 1930s, so looking at components and construction is paramount in determining age.

Color can also play a part because an object can have Art Nouveau design elements but the colors are indicative of later pieces. Later Victorian revivals like those so popular in the 1970s and with the more modern Steampunk movement will also have telltale newer materials and construction techniques.

Art Deco fell out of favor for a number of decades after the onset of World War II, although some transitional items do carry over Deco influences into the early 1940s. But by the late 1960s designers and craftsmen were looking back to this era for inspiration. Again, looking at construction techniques and materials will often tell the tale in terms of dating, as well as investigating marked pieces to see when a company or artist was plying their craft.

It’s also wise to keep in mind that some pieces in both these styles that have been copied as closely to the originals as possible. These reproductions are sometimes meant to deceive collectors, so take care if you’re not sure about determining the age of an antique or collectible.