T.S. sent me the result of her recent outing up in the mountains off Gibraltar Road: some hand-picked wildflowers. And she found her great-grandmother’s yellow vase in which to place them on her table.
She wrote me, “What is the era and style?”
This vase is pure Jugendstil, the German version of Art Nouveau, which, almost overnight, revolutionized modern design forever.
The years were right around 1890-1910 when a magazine called Die Jugend (The Young) featured organic decorative art design for objects in the home, such as those on T.S.’s vase.
As with many high-minded artistic movements, there was plenty of philosophy behind the style, which emphasized that designs in decorative objects should have “no reason for being” and little representational art. (Compare this to the era before, which was highly representational.)
For this reason, you will understand that it was an easy step for identification as the beginnings of the 20th century progressed from Jugendstil to geometric (think Bauhaus). And so, we see in Jugendstil the beginnings of abstract, modern design, beloved by every millennial today.
Her great-grandmother’s vase would have felt at home surrounded by German Expressionist art in 1910.
Later in the first quarter of the 20th century, the Bauhaus would expand on the theme of non-representational design, and this would lead the 20th century forward thinker to believe in the non-organic design motifs of modernism.
The journey, therefore, from Jugendstil to the Bauhaus was a short but interesting one. Jugendstil was a branch of European Art Nouveau, but, as in all German design there was a linear quality as well as a practicality of form behind it. The design may be free flowing, but the form had a purpose. And it could be created in a factory.
I am proud to say that I come from a Germanic heritage, and this is typical: a blend of design and practicality, which I see in my family today (many of whom are engineers!).
There is a certain common sense, yet sentimental frivolity in Jugendstil. Notice the contrasting colors that are anything but subtle.
I believe you can see that personality in the colors and also in the fact that it is not a piece of art, but a vase meant to hold flowers.
Along with the era’s British designers, the Jugendstil designers believed the aesthetic of interiors of houses and buildings should blend creatively, and they should blend artistically, for the education of those inside. The Germans called this a “Gesamtkunskwerk”: a total environment of art.
Because of this (and later like the artisans of the Bauhaus), all artisans were skilled in many mediums.
What was different about the German version of this European-wide aesthetic movement was that the Germans aimed to make products that could be artistic, but that could be factory-produced — respectfully, of course — and commercially viable.
The history of Jugendstil is interesting because the leading architect in 1890 was schooled in botany, and in this way, we see a relationship to Art Nouveau designers in France. Hermann Obrist designed and made furniture and ceramics for the 1899 Paris Exposition, to great acclaim.
So how does one recognize Jugendstil? We see whiplash curves, and yet we see them set in a commercially produced format, like T.S.’s vase. We see the marks of something hand-made but factory-produced.
And we see fresh but strident colors, as well as a certain unsubtle brashness that we would never see in French Art Nouveau. We will also see repetition of a theme and repeating symbols.
We see all this in T.S.’s little vase.
Closely related to this was the Wiener Werkstatte, the Austrian answer to the synthesis of avant garde aesthetics and machine manufacturing. The Wiener Werkstatte borrowed and expanded upon the theme of the British Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they borrowed from the French Art Nouveau artists, but unlike the British Arts and Crafts Movement, the Wiener Werkstatte artisans favored the machine made, and were superior architects.
Ironically, the result was the same: to make something by hand that was perfection, or to make something in design that was carried out by a machine and was perfection, was expensive, and the designs that were made to “lift up” the people were unaffordable.
T.S.’s great-grandmother’s vase, apart from giving me a taste of the Santa Barbara wildflowers in the mountains, is worth $400.