he Liberty style arose from the design of goods produced by the London store Liberty & Co. and became distinctive enough to form an artistic category in itself. The store's founder, AL Liberty originally worked at Farmer and Rogers' Great Shawl and Cloak Emporium in London, and later at the firm's Oriental Warehouse. When the firm refused him partnership, he left to open his own store also specializing in Oriental goods. With its evolution, Liberty & Co. quickly expanded to include fashionable clothing and furniture as well as decorative items such as vases, clocks, jewelry, textiles, and wallpapers. Liberty later opened another store in Paris. The cohesion of the Liberty Style stems from the store's policy of retaining the anonymity of its designers. It frequently changed and adapted designs in the manufacturing of its items, which reduced the differences in style of the store's many designers and gave Liberty's goods their own recognizable style. The Italians adopted the term "Stile Liberty" as their name for Art Nouveau itself because of the specific style created by Liberty & Co.
While closely related to the Art Nouveau movement with its highly linear forms, Liberty consciously shifted away from what he described as the "fantastic motifs which it pleases our continental friends to worship as l'Art Nouveau" (Escritt 328). This British form of Art Nouveau shied away from the erotic human form in its designs and instead relied more heavily on strong lines and organic details. While selling the goods of many other designers from across Europe, Liberty & Co. developed two of its own lines in order to further keep costs down: the Cymric line of silver goods and jewelry, and the Tudric line of pewter goods (example). Items of these two lines often also featured materials such as enamel and semiprecious stones. Liberty's use of mass production minimized the cost of its Cymric and Tudric lines. In particular, the Tudric line's use of relatively inexpensive pewter made the goods extremely affordable. Stylistically, these goods showed "strong celtic revival and Renaissance influences" (Escritt 331) as well as the characteristics commonly associated with the continental style of Art Nouveau. The Liberty Style often utilized the interaction of basic planes and lines to create clean and simple effects. The recognizable curves of Art Nouveau also appear in the Liberty Style's frequent use of the celtic knot and organic forms.
Liberty's main goal for his store "was to combine utility and good taste with modest cost." leading to a highly successful combination of art and industry (Escritt 328). Unlike other retailers of Art Nouveau products both in England and continental Europe, Liberty's kept its manufacturing costs down in order to in turn keep its prices low. This differed greatly from the one of a kind, and therefore expensive, Art Nouveau objects offered by most other retailers such as La Maison de l'Art Nouveau in Paris (Haslam 113). This resulted in the immense popularity of Liberty Style objects due to its availability to members of the public despite their wealthy or social status. Liberty himself said that his store aimed for "the production of useful and beautiful objects at prices within the reach of all classes (Escrit 333). The store sold everything from elaborate furniture to silver buttons, offering contemporary artistic style to the public at large. At the time, Liberty & Co. was said to have "built up an influence that has laid hold of almost every section of society, and has been responsible for a radical change in the general opinion on aesthetic questions (Escritt 333). The accessibility of Liberty's goods became the key in its pervasive influence on the Art Nouveau movement.
1. Did the lack of uniqueness of Liberty & Co.'s goods make a difference in their value as art objects? What does this say about the consumption of art?
2. How does the Liberty Style differ from other artistic styles within the UK at the time such as the Arts and Crafts movement? How did they differ both in style and artistic intent?
3. Did the rise in popularity of the Liberty Style depend solely on its commercialization and therefore accessibility, or did some stylistic difference lead to its prominence?
4. Members of the Pre-Raphaelite group, such as Rossetti and Burne-Jones, often patronized Liberty & Co. How do the designs of the Liberty Style relate to their works? Does anything in their paintings seem similar to the style of Liberty & Co. goods?
Arwas, Victor. The Liberty Style. London: Academy Editions, 1979.
Haslam, Malcolm.In the Nouveau Style. Boston: Bullfinch Press, 1989.
Escritt, Steven.Art Nouveau. London: Phaidon, 2000.
Last modified 21 November 2004