An Unknown Man in Paris | Art Nouveau — Stories on the History of Design

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I was sitting outside in a cafe enjoying a cup of coffee and scanning through the latest edition of La Plume. Everything felt new and exciting as I had just arrived to Paris the evening before. It was quiet and hardly any people were passing by during the early morning hour.

I felt a bit out-of-character sitting outside this marvellous structure. I was a poor young aspiring designer lucky enough to be at the center of the modern design world. I could tell immediately that the exterior of the cafe was inspired by nature, even though it was presented in a flat and abstract way. It looked as if someone had pulled out a frozen bush and placed it directly on the wall with its roots still intact. Perhaps it had still continued to grow and form more sinuous lines. It looked very decorative, elegant and curvy.

Back home the style of this cafe was referred to as Jugendstil, though now being in Paris I should refer to it with the term Art Nouveau, or “New Art”. There were different names around the movement, such as Le Style Metro, Tiffany Style, Style Jules Verne, and many countries having a different variation. I decided I was going to stick with Art Nouveau as I was now a Parisian.

The first time I learned about this style was from a Belgian art journal called L’Art Moderne. I was mesmerized immediately. My specialization was furniture design with craftsmanship learnings during the Arts and Crafts movement, but I was always drawn to the studies and illustrations featured in Ernst Hackel’s Kunstform Der Natur. I was drawn so much in fact that it inspired majority of my designs.

At the time there was a certain atmosphere that fine arts were seen as superior to applied arts. I was deeply against this mindset of dividing the arts, and in high hopes of finding like-minded people to challenge these perceptions. I read about the Exposition Universelle (Paris World’s Fair) on a journal a few years earlier and it was then when I really got interested in the Art Noveau Movement. I decided at that moment that I should move to progress my career in France.

Foliage
Foliage

I had a sip of coffee, when suddenly something caught the corner of my eye. I turned around and saw the most attractive woman I had seen in all of my life. She was playing with what I think was a harp.

The sound was very soft, and she was singing in a language I couldn’t comprehend. It sounded very beautiful and fit perfectly the sunny morning. She had long red hair with nose features that made her slightly resemble a bird. I couldn’t figure out how she managed to appear at her current spot two tables left of mine. She would have had to first walk by mine, and I’m sure I would have noticed her. Perhaps I was too fatigued and dozed off for a second.

She wasn’t drinking or eating anything and the waiter was also just ignoring her as if she wasn’t there. To me, she was just what Alphonse Muncha depicted as a “Nouvelle Femme” — a confident and independent woman who didn’t follow the ideals of the present day. A truly modern woman by the way she dressed, acted and carried herself.

There was a certain mystical aura about her, but I couldn’t really fanthom what it was. I didn’t speak French well at the time, but decided to try to strike a conversation anyways. I made a very general remark in French about how nice the morning weather was. To my surprise, she responded directly in German for some reason. Perhaps I had a stereotypical look.

Her name was Hera. It was hard to keep a conversation with her and she hardly responded any of my questions. Mostly what I got was a yes or a no. Perhaps she was focused on her music, or just wanted to ignore me.

I continued to sat in silence and enjoy my coffee that was starting to get cold. When I had my last sip of coffee, I heard Hera’s voice whispering “Porte Dauphine station”. I turned to look, but she wasn’t there.

Perhaps I was just imagining everything, although what she said made perfect sense to me. The designs from Hector Guimard for the Metropolitian entrances was something I had wanted to explore now that I was in Paris. The design with iron and glass was truly remarkable. If Hera was real or just a creation of my imagination, it didn’t matter. I decided to head directly towards Porte Dauphine from the cafe.

Entrance to Metro — Porte Dalphine
Entrance to Metro — Porte Dalphine

When I arrived at the station, to my surprise, I saw Hera standing by the entrance. It looked like she was waiting for someone. When our eyes met she smiled and waved me over. This time she didn’t have her peculiar music instrument and was more engaging in conversation.

She was talking a lot without revealing anything about herself. It seemed more like she was introducing the city and its lifestyle to me. We would discuss art, design, philosophy and the state of Europe in general. However, we never had a meal or drink together.

Hera met me only when I had plans to visit somewhere, either by my own accord or in case she’d introduce something new to me. She had to leave Paris every two weeks to visit different cities in Europe, mostly costal towns and cities. She said she went to see family or promote her music, and I didn’t second guess her activities.

Weeks turned into months and I had started to develop feelings for her, but never had the courage to express my emotions. I was waiting and hoping a move from her side to not ruin the current thing we had going on.

One day she took me to the German-born art dealer Siegfried Bing and his gallery, which gave me the motivation to start my own workshop focusing on Art Nouveau furniture design at the edge of town. I was making ends need, but business wasn’t exactly booming. I was designing furniture and making non-narrative paintings on my spare time. Hera came and left when she felt like it.

After a while I started to walk around the city and often found myself sitting on a park bench hours on end. I came to the conclusion that the thing with Hera had directed me away from my initial goal of finding fellow designers to promote total works of art and the harmony between different arts. I was feeling like I was living without a purpose.

I think Hera sensed how I was feeling, because she suddenly recommended that I should visit Barcelona, as there was a place called the Four Cats. It was a common meeting place for artists and designers of Art Nouveau. She said she would go first and I’d follow a few weeks later.

I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t want to take the journey together, but knowing Hera I didn’t rise any questions about it. She gave me instructions on where and when to meet her in Barcelona. I wonder why I didn’t ask how she could know all these things. I don’t think she had ever been there before. She left my workshop that August morning with a big sunny glow on her face. I felt pretty positive about the upcoming new changes and the future.

I counted the days until it was time for me to follow her. At hindsight I should’ve just went together with her or when I wanted, but being young and in love, it was what it was.

I closed my workshop and prepared all the essentials for the trip, which of course meant mainly having tools for creating art on a variety of mediums. I was going to make the journey on foot. Hera had told me a specific route to follow, which I had memorized by heart— she said it is the journey that counts and that I will learn a lot more during the process.

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I had been walking about 7 days, when I suddenly started to hear squeaking sounds from the sky. I took shelter in an abandoned cottage to wait out for a better day. I gathered berries and did all I could to survive.

What kept me morivated was the thought of Hera, and creating art with my own terms. I had created enough items to open a second shop. One day the sky was squeking again. It felt closer and louder than before.

At that moment I knew I would probably never see Hera again, if she was real, but at least everything I did in the past years was modernizing design and creating art for arts sake.

l’art pour l’art.

Written by

a Finnish Visual + Product Designer (UI/UX Designer)

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