Art Nouveau a Rich & Progressive Movement: Hector Guimard Created Signage as Art . . .

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Plaque de la Rue Agar
1901 Paris, France

Courtesy Photographer:  Salome, Henry, Personal Picture

As the years of the Victorian age wore on, there became an evident backlash against the overly mechanized creations of these times. The Art Nouveau movement  began in answer to curtailing the oversized and rather boorish scale and low quality presented during the Victorian era. As the crude overtures of mass production and the demands for commercialism grew, this gave way to a need for the union between them.

Façade detail of Castel Beranger

Although a variety of names stand out during this time, namely William Morris, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Antoni Gaudi, among others, Hector Guimard was one of the premier architects and overall artisan that created many works attributed to the substantial and colourful content that underlined the movement termed “Art Nouveau.”   Art Nouveau was most popular from 1890-1914 and was apparent in architecture, interior decoration and extended to jewelry and fashion.  The artists of the time looked to merge the practicality and excitement of technology together with the preciousness and appreciation of individualized craftsmanship. The most significant aspect of Art Nouveau was that truly for the first time, design was integrated into the Modern Age. Guimard’s contributions to this movement were many and varied. Like many of his contemporaries, he studied at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris and aspired to be both an architect and overall designer.

In 1898, Guimard was requested to build a section of apartments that became known as the Castel Beranger. He won the award in Paris for the best building façade and became famous for its design that included a somewhat large and massive appeal combined with delicate and fanciful elements. Each of the 36 apartments were differently appointed, in they presented the “synthetic subtleties of his style, in which urban and rustic references could be judiciously mixed together”1 This building is still considered one of the best examples of Art Nouveau architecture in the world.  

Signage on the Castel Beranger

Other notable architectural works of Guimard include the Concert Hall Humbert-de-Romans, built in Paris in 1901 that featured a complex frame designed to produce a perfect acoustical experience; the concert hall was demolished in 1905. He also constructed the Hotel Guimard in 1909 as a wedding gift to his wife. Influenced by the other well-known Art Nouveau architect, Charles Rennie MacKintosh, the building features classical bay windows and balconies with rounded and somewhat disproportionate placement.

Entrance Gate to Paris Subway (Métropolitain) Station, Paris, France
Courtesy MOMA, New York

Guimard was not only an architect, but a designer both in the private and commercial sense. Likely he is most associated with his use of cast iron in signage that was taken to an artistic form. He designed approximately 144 entrances to numerous Paris metro stations. The “Rue Agar” (Image 3 above) and “Metropolitian” (Image 4) are two examples that are considered among some of Guimard’s best creations.   The look of his plaques often included a rather plantlike and flower-bud appeal with the letters being articulated with a variety of thicknesses and serifs. He used the colour green somewhere in these designs in order to create the impression of organic growth even though the materials were often of durable prefabricated elements. Guimard was criticized for his letter forms but it later became instantly recognized as the Guimard Style or Style Metro.

Sadly, only two of Guimard’s original signage examples still exist today, however his designs are replicated throughout the world. What made Guimard an overall Art Nouveau originator were not only his exterior creations, but also his object and decorative pieces, many of which have out survived his other works. Guimard had a capacity and desire to have as much design control as possible so the total look of his designs were obvious. He also was interested to use organic materials in as many ways as possible. Furniture was a natural object for him to create a pearwood leather chair, a decorative plate made of gilded copper, a gild brass wall clock and a cast-iron fireplace surround were some of his other contributions.  Guimard was especially known for his stained glass creations and he often had them installed in the entrance ways and used as canopies in many of his buildings. He particularly liked to use a variety of shapes and colours in symmetrical, but complex designs to compliment the style of his architectural elements.

Two Leaded Glass Window – 78” x 16”
Used in Billiard Room of Les Gvrils
Paris, France
Courtesy Christie’s New York

Guimard had a short-lived reverence when he was alive but, like many architects and artisans he was later considered a genius, particularly by architects and designers. There has never been a museum or permanent installation of his work. Many of the buildings he constructed are either in private ownership or have been demolished. His smaller objects that he had created circulate auction houses worldwide partly due to his emergence in popular culture of the 1960’s. The genius of Guimard and his significant contributions to the Art Nouveau movement will hopefully continue to gain a more appreciative public.

1 Kenneth Frampton and Yukio Futagawa.Modern Architecture 1851-1945Published by Thames & Hudson; Fourth Edition edition, ISBN 0500203954, 2007, Page 70. Other Sources:

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