What's the Difference Between Art Deco and Art Nouveau?

iStock/Getty Images Plus/Lepusinensis
iStock/Getty Images Plus/Lepusinensis

The Quick Trick: It all comes down to "flowery"vs. "streamlined." Art Nouveau is the decorative one. Art Deco is sleeker.

The Explanation: Both the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements emerged as reactions to major world events; the Industrial Revolution and World War I, respectively. While both embraced modernist elements, they're easy to distinguish if you know what to look for.

An Art Nouveau Jugenstil building in the historic center of Riga, Latvia.
An Art Nouveau Jugenstil building in the historic center of Riga, Latvia.
iStock/Getty Images Plus/juriskraulis

Art Nouveau (it means "new art," but you probably figured that out) reigned from roughly 1880 until just before World War I. Art Nouveau embraced Europe's new industrial aesthetic rather than challenging it. It features naturalistic but stylized forms, often combined with more geometric shapes, particularly arcs, parabolas, and semicircles (think of the paintings of Gustav Klimt, or the arches of the Eiffel Tower). The movement brought in natural forms that had often been overlooked, like insects, weeds, and even mythical faeries, as evidenced by Lalique jewelry or Tiffany lamps. The black and gold robe Kate Winslet doffs in the erotic portrait session scene in Titanic is quintessentially Art Nouveau.

A stainless steel Art Deco winged sculpture on the facade of an embellished building.
A stainless steel Art Deco winged sculpture on the facade of an embellished building.
iStock/Getty Images Plus/Kevin_Lucas

Art Deco, on the other hand, emerged after World War I. In fact, the deprivations of the Great War years gave way to a whole new opulence and extravagance that defined the Jazz Age and the Art Deco aesthetic. The movement took its name from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which was held in France. The style was prevalent from the 1920s until roughly the start of World War II and is characterized by streamlined and geometric shapes. It also utilized modern materials like chrome, stainless steel, and inlaid wood. If Art Deco dabbled with natural materials, they tended to be graphic or textural, like zebra skin or jagged fern leaves. As a result, Deco featured bold shapes like sunbursts and zigzags and broad curves. In fact, if you check out the spire of the Chrysler Building, the hotels of Miami's South Beach, or the "coffin nose" of a 1935 Cord Model 810, you'll be staring at the very definition of Deco.

Of course, you don't have to go outdoors if you're looking for Deco. Furniture from the period—like the black leather and chrome chaise longue by Le Corbusier or the Barcelona chair by Bauhaus giant Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—is still coveted by design aficionados and can be found in finer hotel lobbies everywhere.

This post was excerpted from Mental Floss's 2006 book What's the Difference?, and was updated in 2019.

Why Do We Wear Costumes on Halloween?

nito100/iStock via Getty Images
nito100/iStock via Getty Images

There’s no one explanation for how Halloween costumes originated. Much like the holiday itself, the practice of dressing up is the result of a hodgepodge of traditions from around the world.

Many historians suspect that the tradition has some basis in the Celtic festival of Samhain (also called Calan Gaeaf in Wales). Celebrated between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, Samhain marks the official start of winter—known to the Celts as the “dark season.” During Samhain, “the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to humankind,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

That wasn’t a comfort to the ancient Celts, who believed their deities were prone to playing tricks on human worshippers. Many festival participants disguised themselves as animals or beasts, hoping to hide from malevolent spirits who might bring them misfortune.

Move forward a few centuries and the modern-day practice of dressing up and trick-or-treating has its roots in the European custom of “mumming and guising.” Mummers would dress up in costumes, often woven from straw, and perform plays and songs for neighbors in exchange for food. Scottish and Irish immigrants brought that tradition to North America, where it later morphed into what we now know as trick-or-treating.

Halloween costumes didn’t experience their true heyday until the mid-1900s, though. For that, you can thank New York City entrepreneurs Ben and Nat Cooper, who started a company producing pop culture-themed costumes at a low cost. Ben Cooper, Inc., found a niche in helping kids become the characters they admired from television and comic books, often purchasing merchandising rights before said characters ever became popular. Due in no small part to the Cooper family’s innovation, Halloween costumes became an accessible and even necessary part of holiday festivities.

Today, Halloween costumes are big business. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend about $3.2 billion on costumes this year (of that, about half a billion will go to costuming pets). You have to wonder what the ancient Celts would have thought about today’s Halloween costumes.

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What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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