Art: The Snobbish Style

It was not so long ago—a matter of 20 years—that art nouveau was considered a minor style, deservedly forgotten. Those tendriled doorknobs and flowing pedestals, that panoply of rare materials (zebrawood, pâte de verre, lapis lazuli, champlevé enamel), that air of hothouse elegance, glazed and nuanced—what did such things amount to but decoration? And what was decoration but a sin against the purity of modern art?

The life of art nouveau was short, about two decades; its climax was the turn of the century, in 1900. But in that brief time the look of...

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