The emergence of the Art Nouveau style toward the end of the nineteenth century resulted from a search for a new aesthetic that was not based on historical or classical models. The sinuous, organic lines of Guimard’s design and the stylized, giant stalks drooping under the weight of what seem to be swollen tropical flowers, but are actually amber glass lamps, make this a quintessentially Art Nouveau piece. Guimard’s designs for this famous entrance arch and two others were intended to visually enhance the experience of underground travel on the new subway system for Paris.
Paris was not the first city to implement an underground train system (London already had one), but the approaching Paris Exposition of 1900 accelerated the need for an efficient and attractive means of mass transportation. Although Guimard never formally entered the competition for the design of the system’s entrance gates, launched in 1898 by the Compagnie du Métropolitain, he won the commission with his avant-garde schemes, which all employed standardized cast-iron components to facilitate manufacture, transport, and assembly.
While Parisians were at first hesitant in their response to Guimard’s use of a vocabulary associated with luxury jewelry and domestic furnishings, the Métro gates, installed throughout the city, effectively brought the Art Nouveau style into the realm of popular culture.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
To help make the newly constructed Paris Métro subway system and the mode of transportation it introduced appealing to Parisians, the Compagnie du Métropolitain (which managed the Métro) launched a design competition for the system’s entrance gates. Parisian architect and designer Hector Guimard won, with his vision for gates shaped like sinuous tropical flowers. Slender, curvilinear components evoke vines and tendrils, which seem to grow up and out of the two anchoring stems to hold the Métro sign and help position the illuminating floral lights.
Guimard’s gate design typifies the Art Nouveau style, which emerged in France and Belgium in the late 19th century and was characterized by its references to nature and organic forms. Much like subway travel itself, Art Nouveau was unfamiliar to most Parisians, who responded hesitantly at first to this novel visual vocabulary. Installed throughout the city, the gates soon brought Art Nouveau into the realm of popular culture. In their merging of design, architecture, urbanism, and advertisement, Guimard’s gates exemplify the modern spirit.