The Artist as Designer

Book Design Artistic Styles 1890-1920

Art Nouveau

Sophisticated and international, this was the dominant artistic style for decorative arts from 1890 to 1910. Characterized by the elegant curving line of natural forms, highly stylized floral and plant life, Art Nouveau designs can be seen on many beautiful publishers’ bindings. The designers Margaret Armstrong, Alice Cordelia Morse, and Sarah Wyman Whitman produced iconic Art Nouveau book covers during the peak years of book cover design.

Art Deco

A design style of the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco is represented by sleek lines, streamlined shapes, and bold colors.  Initially developed during a booming economy and rapid technological growth, the American consumer was enamored of luxury products with a modern, futuristic feel. In book cover design, Art Deco influence is visible in motifs of the sun ray, the fountain, and searchlights piercing the night sky—symbols of speed, power, and progress.

Poster Style

In the 19th century, rapid developments in inexpensive lithographic printing and the influence of Japanese woodblock printing gave rise to the advertising poster. With artists like Will Bradley and Maxfield Parrish designing posters, the poster collecting craze of the 1890s was born. Publishers, realizing market potential, began issuing books with bold colors in eye-catching styles. With simple, stylized designs, the covers had a two-dimensional (or “flat”) aspect, the signature characteristic of a poster style binding.

Book designers Amy Sacker and the New York firm The Decorative Designers, specialized in poster-style designs.


Japanese ports reopened to Western trade in 1854 after being closed for 200 years, launching a powerful fascination with all things Japanese during the late nineteenth century. As Japanese goods became widely available in Europe, the aesthetic and philosophies of Japanese design became the height of fashion.

The phenomenon and characteristics of Japonisme include flat planes, bold colors, elongated format, emphasis on line and color over realism, and stylized floral motifs inspired by Japanse art and particularly of woodblock prints of the Ukiyo-e school with asymmetrical composition and aerial perspectives. These characteristics greatly influenced book cover designs. Among the designers most influenced by Japonisme were Sarah Wyman Whitman, Bertha Stuart, and Margaret Armstrong.


 The Song of the Wave, and Other Poems, 1898.

Design attributed to Lee Thayer of the Decorative Designers.

This stunning full cover design of a breaking wave, stamped in two shades of gilt, creates swirling, rising, cresting energy. The design is highly influenced by Japanese woodcuts, notably “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” created in the 1820s by Hokusai, a Japanese artist of the Edo period.


“It is pleasant to note that this cover bears the monogram of the designer, for the importance of signed handicraft-work cannot be insisted on too strongly or too frequently.” Edward Fairbrother Strange

Monograms were used by designers to identify their work, although not every artist used one and many covers are unsigned. Some monograms remain a mystery and the artists are unidentified.


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