Art Nouveau and Art Déco, from the Belle Epoque to the Roaring Twenties


The expression "Art Nouveau" was coined in 1884 by the Belgian lawyers Octave Maus and Edmond Picard in their journal "L'Art Moderne", founded in 1881. This term would be used to describe the creations by avant-garde architects and designers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It all began with the Arts and Crafts movement developed in Britain. This was a reforming artistic movement in the fields of architecture, the decorative arts, painting and sculpture. Emerging in the 1860s, it developed from 1880 to 1910 at the end of the Victorian era. It can be seen as the basis for modern style, the English-speaking world’s counterpart to the Franco-Belgian Art Nouveau style. The big idea of its pioneers was that art would occur everywhere and first and foremost in the home by reforming everyday objects such as dishes, silverware, book covers, carpets and lights. The Arts and Crafts movement was the first to bring the Fine Arts and the applied arts closer together. At the same time, in the field of painting, the Pre-Raphaelites sought to revive the Italian renaissance in a progressive spirit. The movement therefore echoes the concerns of the artists and craftsmen in the face of progress: anxiety, a need for individualism, the search for real values in a context of contested British global domination and rapid changes in the landscapes and societies under the momentum of the industrial revolution. Criticism of the harmfulness of industrialisation reached its peak under the pen of the aesthete and art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), who championed a Middle Age characterised by a profound harmony between social organisation and production processes. The movement manifested itself internationally, extending from London and Glasgow to Vienna and Chicago, its name would differ depending on the country, but would always reflect rebirth, modernity, youth and a break with the past: Art nouveau (in Belgium and France), Jugendstil (in Germany), Sezessionstil (in Austria), Nieuwe Kunst (in the Netherlands), Stile Liberty (in Italy), Modernismo (in Spain) and Modern (in Russia).

In Belgium, Art Nouveau is primarily characterised by the use of sinuous lines, curves and organic forms. The first two dwellings built in this innovative style were works by the architects Victor Horta and Paul Hankar that date from 1893. They would quickly be followed by other buildings and other architects and designers would win fame through this art. In Brussels, the numbers of such buildings increased, earning the city the title of "capital of Art Nouveau". Unfortunately, this style fell into disuse just as quickly as it appeared and up until the late sixties, many of these types of buildings were knocked down without the slightest remorse. The movement, which had lasted a good thirty or so years from 1880, came to a definitive end with the First World War. As it ended, it had already evolved towards the more geometric shapes that would characterise the style that would follow it, Art Deco.

The Atelier de Recherche et d’Action Urbaines (ARAU) non-profit organisation (Studio for Urban Research and Action) organises guided tours that help participants to understand the place of Art Nouveau in Brussels and the originality of this movement which revolutionised architecture and the decorative arts in the late 19th century. If you are interested, please go to for more information.

The Art Deco style takes its name from the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts held in Paris in 1925. It appeared in Belgium immediately after the First World War when Victor Horta embarked on the design of the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels in 1919.

This was a return to a strict classical style: symmetry, classical orders (often highly stylized) and cut stone (with no attractive effect). The decor, generally still very well-represented, no longer enjoyed the freedom of the 1900s; it was strictly supervised by its creators and its design was inspired by the geometric aspects of cubism. Its stylistic unity stuck to the use of geometry (geometrisation) the purposes of which were mainly decorative. Art Deco flourished in the 1920s through buildings as diverse as the Centre for Fine Arts, private hotels, bourgeois houses and the first apartment buildings. Art Deco conveyed the values of a bourgeoisie "drunk on its rediscovered freedom after the war". This was the era of the "Roaring Twenties".

One of the most charming constructions in the capital is the Residence Palace which was built between 1922 and 1927. Its developer, Lucien Kaisin, wanted to make it a luxury building containing both an apartment complex and a hotel. The architect Michel Polak was responsible for the project. The Residence Palace, a jewel of the Art Deco style, was divided into ten "districts" and offered 180 apartments of varying sizes to providing homes for several hundred people. It also boasted a whole range of facilities (hot and cold water, electricity, central heating, a lift), which made it a building at the forefront of modern comfort, not to mention its leisure facilities (roof-top tennis court, a fencing room, swimming pool, theatre, restaurant, shops).

The Maison de la Radio (also called Flagey) is a building with rounded corners which soften the massive volume of this building of ochre yellow brick and blue stone. The horizontal aspect is emphasised by a continuous window and an awning overhanging the ground floor. The work is similar to an ocean liner with its bridges and long corridors. The interior has retained its original Art Deco style furniture. The construction took place from 1935 to 1938, making it one of the first radio studios in Europe.

Brussels also has the world's only Art Deco basilica, the Sacré-Cœur Basilica commonly known as the Koekelberg Basilica by Brussels residents.

These are just a few striking examples, but our capital offers an incredible wealth of inter-War buildings including breweries and restaurants. The Atelier de Recherche et d’Action Urbaines (ARAU) non-profit organisation organises guided tours that help participants to discover this exceptional heritage. If you are interested, please go to for more information.