The Art Nouveau style has always fascinated me, and as I learned more about it I was even more enamored with it. Taking a step back, I was a historian in my previous life, and I guess I still think like one from time to time. In that vein I have developed the theory that the Nouveau style might be the apex of skill in western furniture making. Not the apex of style or design mind you, but cultivated, learned, and refined skill in its purest form. The economics of the pre Great-War era were such that labor was still quite cheap and material had become quite cheap through the rise of industrialization and the spread of ocean shipping and rail cargo before 1914, so the styles of the time reflect that. Nouveau is often marked by sumptuous and conspicuous use of material matched to a hugely laborious process.
I think this because the people designing and making that work came up in the last era of true pre-industrial apprenticeship. I’m talking starting with a master around the age of 8 to 12, and learning from then on (I’m not advocating child labor here). Think about all the things we learn as children; those things stick with us long into our lives, particularly mental skills and methods of thinking. Take language as an example: A child can learn a second language and speak it as naturally and fluently as their native language, but if that same person learns that same second language as an adult they never escape their native accent. The same goes for hand skill: Learning young and keeping at it creates a mental acuity for the work that can make it natural and effortless.
By the beginning of the Nouveau period between 1890 and 1910, woodworking machinery had developed to a point that all of us would recognize a woodworking shop and be mostly at home around the machinery. Certainly guarding and safety has come along way, but the roots of our modern shops are clearly formed by the Nouveau period.
So I submit that the confluence of a pre-industrial apprentice system and the emergence of modern woodworking machinery came together to create an era of unparalleled skill, quality, exploration, and artistry that we have not seen before or since.
-Bob Miller is a custom furniture maker and woodworker based in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. In addition to his own line of work, Bob manages The Charlestown Furniture Makers, which is an 18-tenant co-op, solar-powered woodshop located in the Sullivan square area of Charlestown.
Bob also teaches for the continuing education department of North Bennet Street School, primarily teaching Bowl Turning and The Fundamentals of Fine Woodworking.