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Throughout Europe, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, Art Nouveau swept all convention away. In France, this art stream was called the Ecole de Nancy, or Nancy school, and was most famous in the city which bears its name.
Art Nouveau had an incredibly short history – from the 1890s to just before World War I – but the Ecole de Nancy was so rich and vibrant that on some of Nancy;s streets, it might as well still be alive.
Today, Art Nouveau is back in fashion: walking tours of Art Nouveau neighbourhoods are packed, stories set in the Belle Epoque which birthed it are hugely popular, and in bric-a-brac shops and flea markets, Art Nouveau pieces are among the most expensive and coveted, given their rarity.
But the one place in France to see it all at close quarters is right here, in Nancy, just an hour-and-a-half from Paris.
The words "Art Nouveau" mean New Art, and that's exactly what it is.
The full brunt of the industrial revolution had primed the world for something lighter, more natural, so when Art Nouveau appeared, with its sinuous leaves and branches, it was bound to be a success.
It stood out in a number of ways: shapes from nature, of course, but also such elements as asymmetry, attention to detail and a nature-based colour palette.
Art Nouveau sought both form and function, wishing to make the useful beautiful. It blurred the boundaries between fine arts and applied arts, and turned everyday objects − lamps and balustrades and metal grills − into art. That art would be found not only in paintings but also in architecture, glassware, furniture design and graphic art.
Art Nouveau in France first appeared in Paris, making an entrance like a Grande Dame at the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris, just like the Eiffel Tower. The exhibition introduced a new style of furniture, filled with gracious curves, designed by a certain Emile Gallé, who would go on to create the Ecole de Nancy.
Propelled forward by the Industrial Revolution, Nancy's vocation as a center of art could not have been predicted.
Nor could anyone guess that the Franco-Prussian War, which France lost in 1871, would have such tremendous consequences for the city's artistic future.
Nancy was in the region of Lorraine, which was in part annexed, along with Alsace, as spoils of war by what became Germany. Suddenly, the city found itself near the German border, and became eastern France's largest city. Strasbourg, for example, was now German.
And Nancy thrived.
Humming with industry, it attracted people from the countryside looking for work. It also attracted French industrialists caught on the wrong side of the border by the war, but with no desire to become German.
In just a few years, Nancy's population had doubled with the influx of new residents.
A combination of incoming population and the general evolution of art across Europe set the scene for the city's artistic currents.
By 1901, the many artists, cabinet makers, ceramicists, glass designers and architects who had chosen to make Nancy their home coalesced to form a group that would come to be known as the École de Nancy, or the Nancy School.
This turned Nancy into a flagship of Art Nouveau.
The Ecole de Nancy, more formally known as the Provincial Alliance of Art Industries, has been compared to the Arts and Crafts movement in England, given their similar designs.
But with one major difference: the Arts and Crafts were purely artistic and artisanal, whereas the École de Nancy married art and industry.
Together, artists and industrialists worked for the common good − they wanted to make art more democratic and accessible, and expose the enormous talent available locally.
They succeeded, and their work created a stir.
Today throughout Nancy, you can still see the results of that artistic explosion in the many houses, furniture pieces, stained glass and other forms of art that emerged from this movement.
The question is almost, "Where NOT to see it?"
It's all over town, in the streets, at the top of buildings, inside museums.
For a concentrated view, here are the sights you simply cannot miss.
The are two major indoor concentrations of the Ecole de Nancy's Art Nouveau, and one of them is the Villa Majorelle.
When woodworking genius Louis Majorelle decided to move his workshops, he also decided he'd like to live on site. The Villa Majorelle was the result (he called it Villa Jika, which, pronounced in French, are the initials of his wife, Jane Kretz).
Majorelle wanted his home to be an experimental haven, and he invited the best designers of the time to let their imaginations run wild. His little gem of a house is the result.
His studio was on the top floor, facing a huge half-moon window through which the light streamed in.
When you visit, look into every corner of the house, because only after leaving did I realize how much I'd missed...
Added to Majorelle's genius was that of the architect, Henri Sauvage, and the sculptor Alexandre Charpentier. Together they fashioned this gem of a house and when it was built, in the early 1900s, it caused a furore. Waves and swirls everywhere!
Beware, though, only 60 people can visit at a time, so reservations are a must.
The other iconic Ecole de Nancy venue is the museum of the same name. Also a former home (that of Eugène Corbin, whose funds subsidized the creation of the Nancy School), it is so perfect it will whisk you back more than a century with little effort.
One of my favourite pieces in this extraordinary museum is known as "Dawn and Dusk", a magnificent bed designed by Gallé – his last design. The strong symbolism of life, a butterfly, can be seen on both the headboard and the foot of the bed.
Another remarkable piece is a tiled bathing nook, its author unknown. It is one of those structures that catches your eye and to which you keep returning, not knowing whether to love or hate it.
The house is full of beds, desks, lamps, armoires, chairs, everything you required to live in comfort at the turn of the century, at a time of peace when one war was now behind France, and another still ahead.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts is a fine museum, one of the oldest in France, and you can spend time wandering around its small but excellent collection − among which you'll find plenty of late 19th-century pieces.
For an immersion into Art Nouveau, head for the basement and the Daum crystal collection, unlike any other. As you walk through, you'll pass row upon row of priceless vases, urns, and glassware, all produced by the Nancy-based Daum family.
You'll find several distinct eras here, starting with the more classical glassware produced before the tidal wave of Art Nouveau swept all convention away, and then of course the Art Nouveau gems for which the Daum manufacture is so famous.
You'll also find a few Art Deco pieces and some that are even more modern, created in partnership with the likes of Salvador Dalí but, frankly, Art Nouveau glass is why you come here.
While you're in the basement, make sure you notice the stone ramparts: they may not be Art Nouveau, but they are all that's left of the ramparts which once circled Nancy.
The setting for all the glassware is perfect: high ceilings, encased in darkness, like nighttime filled with twinkling stars. Heaven.
When you're done with the exhibition, head across Place Stanislas to the Daum shop, for a look at the latest exceptional creations.
Daum still manufactures glass wonders, but you can't visit the workshop − although you can visit its on-site store near the canal, where they sell the cast-offs. Don't worry, you'll never be able to see these pieces aren't perfect, and the only clue is the bargain price. (Check at the tourist office for hours and location.)
Hop the Tram and get off at Exelmans or Jean Jaurès – either one will do because the area you need to see is between the two.
This is a neighbourhood that was built specifically to showcase the École de Nancy's architecture, and has its roots in that 19th-century influx of citizens fleeing German annexation. Nancy's housing market wasn't ready for all the new arrivals, who began crowding into the city center.
Since local authorities weren't doing enough to house everyone, private citizens decided to develop the Saurupt area to the south of the city. And so the Parc de Saurupt was born, a private development for well-heeled citizens. The developers called upon the best Art Nouveau artists and architects to build theier little paradise, a gated community of 88 homes (you can still see the gate, designed by Louis Majorelle, on the Jules-Dorget square).
The housing market wasn't as great as expected so the grandiose vision had to be scaled back, and row houses, more affordable, were built. You can still see these today.
The entire Saurupt park was eventually completed in the 1930s, which is why, as you walk around the neighbourhood, you'll spot a few Art Deco buildings, the style that came after Art Nouveau.
Somewhere in this area was the Maison Paul Luc, a large villa built by architects Henri Gutton and Joseph Hornecker and designed by such luminaries as Émile Gallé and Louis Majorelle. What a jewel that must have been!
Sadly, it was razed in 1968, as was happening in cities around the world, but fortunately, many of its pieces – such as handrails, stained glass and furniture – were preserved by the École de Nancy museum.
Many parts of Nancy have a wealth of Art Nouveau buildings but one of the easiest to visit is the business district, a few blocks from the Place Stanislas. I used the itinerary below to guide my explorations.
Many of the buildings have been reclaimed by businesses, whether banks or corporations. All you have to do is look up or go in, and you'll see the striking Art Nouveau no one destroyed or covered over. I'm convinced Nancy is a city best seen with your nose up in the air!
In France, their names resonate even today. Spot one of their works in a shop and you can expect a steep price tag.
Here are some of the big names, but you can also look at this much more detailed list of the École de Nancy artists. (The site is in French but the art is universal.)
Nancy has such a wealth of Art Nouveau that fitting everything into a single day is a challenge. But you can see plenty in a day.
The Villa Majorelle (don't forget to reserve!) is only open in the afternoons, so you'll have to work around that schedule.
I suggest you start your day with the Daum Collection in the basement of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, followed by the Musée de l'École de Nancy, the Villa Majorelle, and a walk through Saurupt, the heart of Art Nouveau houses in Nancy. All these can be easily reached on foot or by bus.
You won't have time for a sit-down lunch if you only have one day, but this is your chance to sample a quick Quiche Lorraine from a bakery – it is, after all, a local specialty.
If you have two days in Nancy, so much the better, because you'll be spoilt with Art Nouveau goodies.
You can also borrow (if you have the City Pass) an audio guide from the tourist office and use it to tour some of the Art Nouveau sights.
Distances are short in Nancy and public transport is excellent, so it won't take you long to get from one place to the next. The MyBus app (which you can download for free and use with your City Pass) will help you find your way.
While this is fully an Art Nouveau itinerary, there are many more things to see and do in Nancy!