In A Nutshell
It’s easy to confuse art deco and art nouveau if you’re not sure what you’re looking for; both styles overlapped, and when they did, they borrowed heavily from each other. Art nouveau is much more decorative, flowing, and floral, with art deco thriving on the minimalistic and becoming even more so as the movement progressed through the years. Art nouveau is much more Victorian; art deco is much more streamlined and simplistic.
The Whole Bushel
The art nouveau movement started around 1890 and lasted into the 1920s, but began to lose its extreme popularity by about 1905. The style gave way to art deco, which took many of its key ideas and concepts from its predecessor—flowers remained a popular subject matter. For example, they were just presented very, very differently. Art deco was at the height of its popularity from about 1915–1945. At the time, it wasn’t called art deco—that was a term that wasn’t coined until 1968, when Bevis Hillier gave the style its name in his book about art of the 1920s and 1930s.
One of the biggest differences between the often-confused art movements is the amount of detail in the work. Work done in the art nouveau style tends to be more elaborate and decorative, relying heavily on flowing lines and floral patterns. Art deco is much more stark and simplistic, with more crisp, straight lines.
The art nouveau and art deco movements have a very different set of trademark elements. A typical art nouveau piece has curving, wavy lines, and draws major inspiration from botanical studies. It often features flowers and leaves, and presents the viewer with an overall feeling of something organic. Art nouveau art and architecture often featured very realistic drawings of flowers like water lilies and elegant, dramatic birds like the peacock. While art deco is much more minimalistic, art nouveau often features decorative methods like silver overlay and enameling.
Art deco, on the other hand, favors straight lines and crisp edges. There is also a botanical influence in art deco, but the presentation tends to be in something much more abstract. Frank Lloyd Wright’s work is a prime example of some of the major characteristics of the art deco movement; many of his distinctive windows feature flowers such as the wisteria, but they’re presented in a straight, repetitious pattern rather than the flowing, natural look of art nouveau.
While stained glass windows are common in both styles, art nouveau stained glass was much more common; cabinets were made with intricate, decorative pieces, and Tiffany lamps were all the rage. Art deco utilized glass block in many areas of buildings, favoring the crisp straight lines to the flowing art of its predecessor.
Art deco truly took off after World War I; in an era when everything was becoming much more streamlined, it was natural that art and architecture trends follow suit. Art deco began in Europe and was heavily modified in America; later art deco pieces are much easier to separate from art nouveau than earlier pieces.
In architecture, art nouveau buildings tended to have many more embellishments, giving structures a more gothic feel. Buildings—and their many embellishments—tend to flow. Art deco buildings, on the other hand, are much cleaner and much more utilitarian-looking. Lines are straight, the roof is flat, columns are straight and unadorned. There’s also a practical difference between buildings done in two styles; upkeep and maintenance on an art deco building is often much easier and much less costly because of the straightforward design.