Art Nouveau – a new interpretation

In the 1990s, 1950s modernism made a return thanks largely to magazines such as Wallpaper*. The Eames chaise and matching ottoman was a pivotal design, as was furniture designed by George Nelson. While there were a few enthusiasts spouting the clean modernist charm of that period, the 1950s didn’t become mainstream until the early noughties. Fast-forward to the present and there’s everything from 1970s through to the early 1980s, when Memphis made a return.

However, as with most trends, things don’t last forever. Sometimes trends in architecture and design move slowly. Other times, events can trigger a major shift in thought. One person who has seen waves of design periods is Bruce Slorach who with Sara Thorn made an enormous contribution to the fashion scene in the 1980s with the Galaxy label. For the past few decades, Slorach has focused on textiles for the homewares market. Four years ago, he established Utopia Goods with Sophie Tatlow. The duo recently set up a store in Sydney’s Oxford Street, showcasing their range of soft furnishings and upholstery fabrics. Utopia Goods now supplies its designs to New York, Los Angeles, Texas and Philadelphia. Commissions extend from homes through to upmarket retailers, such as fitting out the VIP room for the Christian Louboutin store in Miami.

Working with architects and interior designers, Utopia Goods has its finger on the pulse, not only in Australia, but worldwide. Using many Australian motifs, such as gum leaves and kookaburras, Slorach and Tatlow have created a collection of Art Nouveau-inspired designs. Their ‘Firewheel Sky’ print is homage to the bold flowers that cover the canopy of the Stenocarpus sinuatus (firewheel tree) in summer. The sinuous branches echo the work of one of the founders of the Art Nouveau period in London, William Morris. “I was first influenced by William Morris in the early 1980s. That period is synonymous with the hand crafted, something that’s experiencing a revival today,” says Slorach, who sees the current interest in Art Nouveau strongly aligned to our renewed interest in nature. “The decorative arts have become a lot stronger today, with an emphasis on ‘story telling’,” he adds.

Australian inspired prints by Utopia Goods, including eucalypt and firewheel

Architect and interior design Fiona Dunin, director of FMD Architects, also sees renewed interested in the Art Nouveau period (popular from 1890 until the early 20th century before the outbreak of the First World War). “Art Nouveau has a strong relationship with nature. We’re seeing this expressed today using contemporary materials, but in a handcrafted manner,” says Dunin, who sees greater awareness being paid to the impact of a building within its environment.

Taking inspiration from existing features in Deco House by FMD Architects

Prefabricated buildings produced en mass have also given the impetus for designers to steer towards the sense of the human touch. Local materials rather than imported become an underlying approach for many designers, whether they create buildings, interiors, fashion or household objects. “You could say there was this strong local focus with those working during the Art Nouveau period,” says Dunin.

Although FMD Architects designs strong contemporary homes, it also includes highly decorative elements to provide another layer. “We’re currently designing a wrought iron balustrade in one of our homes,” says Dunin, who is a great admirer of the work of the Belgium architect Victor Horta, renowned for his highly decorative facades and sinuous interior steelwork.

FMD also included a number of highly decorative features in a house in Armadale, Melbourne. Designed in the early 20th century, Dunin created a number of bespoke items for the home. There’s the highly crafted bedhead made using digitally-printed veneer that responds to the architecture of the period. Dunin also commissioned Mance Studio to create hand blown glass and porcelain lights for the entry lobby.

Bespoke detailing inside Deco House in Armadale by FMD Architects

Knowing when a design movement starts is difficult to pinpoint. However, according to Dunin, it can be initiated in any field, including food. “The ‘slow food’ movement challenged mass-produced food sold through supermarkets. That makes you think about your own discipline, producing things made locally and made by hand by talented craftspeople. It was the same approach taken over 100 years ago. But nothing returns in the same way. We’re in different times,” adds Dunin.

Utopia Goods can be contacted on 02 9357 4477 or visit
FMD Architects can be contacted on 03 9670 9671 or visit

About the Author: Stephen Crafti

Stephen Crafti has been writing about design and architecture since the early 1990s and is a regular contributor to DesignBUILD. Inspired by the architecture around him in Melbourne, Australia, he was keen to share the things he saw, whether buildings, furniture, fashion or other stunning pieces of contemporary design. After many years of writing about his favourite things, and with numerous books and articles behind him, Crafti still delights in discovering and promoting exhilarating design. He is a regular contributor to several Australian newspapers and local and international design magazines.

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