Art Nouveau

How new printing technology made new art out of arts and crafts

The artistic assertions of the late 19th century reintroduced the organic and colourful to the stark industrial world. But what started as a rejection of industrialization soon became an era-defining aesthetic, thanks to industrialization. New printing technology allowed artists to print graphics with vivid colours and natural shapes—letters could flow, sinuous and organic, through images like they did through everything else. 

The development of this solitude started with the dissolution of black and white into all the shades between.

Printing pictures calls for different skills from printing letters. Clarity in letters is achieved through legibility—clean lines, distinct figures, a balance of black and white. These virtues matter in printing images too, but to reproduce an image true to what we see, the printer has to recreate the innumerable shades of grey between black and white, not to mention colours. Theodore Low De Vinne was a master at printing both text and pictures—a sensible type designer and a talented woodblock printer. But he was willing to set aside his established skills in woodblock printing in the face of a great invention.

Frederick Eugene Ives was the great inventor behind it. He was an early inventor of colour photography. Later, he’d even develop the first autostereoscopic 3D image system. But an earlier, humbler invention was his greatest commercial success: half-tone printing. It so completely changed how we printed images that the fundamentals of the Ives method remain in use today.

Ives’s half-tone method used photoengraving, a process similar to lithography. Both involved etching a partially protected surface, but photoengraving protected a metal surface with a bitumen film that hardened when exposed to light, rather than with an oil applied by hand. By the time Ives began experimenting with it, photo etching was an old trick—it actually predates the first commercially viable form of photography, the daguerreotypebut it was too slow a process to make photos. It also wasn’t particularly useful for printing—images produced with photoengraving were full black and full white, like letters, very much not like realistic pictures.

Borrowing from hand etching methods, the obvious solution was to break up the etching into smaller parts, producing the illusion of gradients. Various inventors came up with ways of doing so with photoengraving but each was cumbersome and slow. Decades passed. Finally, in the 1880s, Ives developed a method simple and robust enough to use alongside letterpress printing. A few years later, not even satisfied with his own epoch-making work, he developed an entirely different and even simpler system.

Somehow, despite successfully developing both half-tone printing and colour photography, Ives never combined them. That was the work of a different photographer, a German transplant to New York named William Kurtz. Kurtz purchased American rights to yet another German photographer’s method of dying photographic emulsions to change their sensitivity to colour, then applied that method to Ive’s half-tone system. In 1893, Kurtz released the first wide reproduction of a colour photograph. The printed world exploded into colour.

This opened new frontiers for artists. Ruskin and Morris had cast a long shadow on the arts—hand craft, natural shapes, and vibrant colours remained popular. Their rejection of modernism did not. How could it? Morris had wanted to deliver the drab industrial world into one of florid colour. William Kurtz had done just that, and it hadn’t required laborious craftsmanship, just new technology. The lesson to the printing world was clear: as valuable as rediscovering an older aesthetic was, the promise of technology was too great to ignore. Rather than reversing the march of industrialization, Ruskin and Morris had affected a pause, a deep inhale, a tensioning of creative energy. That had given technology time to catch up to their ambitions.

The artistic movement that emerged across Europe in the 1890s synthesized Morris’s retrospective bent with the capabilities of new printing technology.  It felt like an antidote to the loud, hard-edged display types that had dominated the century. The style went by a different name in every country: Modern Style in Britain, Jugendstil in Germany, the Vienna Secession in Austria. Arguably the movement's most iconic artist, Czech painter Alphonse Mucha, worked in France. And many of us know the movement best by its French name, Art Nouveau. 

As the 19th century ended, Paris prepared to open its underground rail system. The entrances to the underground stations posed a particular design challenge: they had to fit in compact urban spaces, they had to be quick and affordable to make, and they had to not be ugly. The Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard landed the job, designing visually light canopies and light stands, built from iron and glass. Their forms, vineal and lively, resembled plants—he even painted the iron verdigris green to emphasize the effect. The word ‘Métropolitain’ announced each entrance, rendered in a Guimard-designed type, all asymmetrical capitals, undulating above and below the constraints of cap height.

The Guimard Métro entrances were the perfect representation of turn-of-the-century Paris. His work captured all of the imposition of machine on human, human on nature, order on chaos, and the slippery flourishing of all things given time to adjust. The story of the 19th century ended there, on the Paris sidewalks: industry, branding, ordered public space, emergent aestheticism, technology, synthesized in the stage upon which the 20th century would stomp, its imprint in one word, ‘Métropolitain’.

Naturally, the public hated it. Today, little remains of Guimard’s architecture at all. A more just world might remember Guimard as the Gaudí of Paris—an architect so on-brand his name would instantly conjure scenes of the city. Sadly, Guimard is not Paris’s architect. But he is Paris’s type designer. His Métropolitain type couldn’t be from anywhere else; whatever else they’re supposed to express, Art Nouveau-inspired fonts still say Paris.

It’s an early case study in the synchronicity of place and type. The early 20th century would provide rich ground for designers across Europe to explore the expressive potential of display types.