Two specific points struck me as I was watching the first three episodes of Arcane.
The first was the series’ use of a “camera.” Animation, by nature, unchains the camera view or perspective from having to be anything grounded by reality. Arcane deliberately chose to use shots that could only be achieved by an actual camera following the characters (to a point where, in the first episode, mud spatter appears on the camera “lens” and obstructs the shot as characters are sliding down a dirty metal tube.)
The second was the use of art nouveau trappings specifically for Zaun and art deco trappings for the architecture and design of Piltover. These appear to be very deliberate choices due to how consistent they are and also, the few times that these unspoken design “rules” are broken.
Full disclosure, I am contracted by Riot Games for their League Championship Series esports broadcast as an analyst. I had no idea as to what Arcane would be about, saw no preview material that wasn’t publicly available to all, and was not told to write this; however, in the interest of disclosing any and all biases, I felt this necessary information.
Also, there will be spoilers for Arcane‘s first act.
Art Nouveau and Art Deco: What is the Difference and Why Care?
These two art styles are often incorrectly identified as one due to their closeness in history and the fact that a lot of their lasting effects are seen in architecture more than anything else — people often identify ostentatious buildings from the late 19th-early 20th century as “art deco” and move on. Arcane uses both styles purposefully which brings their differences (and art deco as a reaction to art nouveau along with additional historical context) into relief and makes them powerful framing devices.
In 1893, Belgian architect Victor Horta completed the Hotel Tassel in Brussels. This hotel is identified as one of the first art nouveau buildings due to curvature and flowing lines in both the outer façade of the building and the interior, especially the stairwell and rug patterns. The rug pattern at the Hotel Tassel in particular is a lasting example of whiplash lines — sweeping curves that were modeled after flowers, birds, and insects to create a harmonious aesthetic — which became a defining characteristic of art nouveau architecture.
A direct response to academism and historicism (revival) styles that preceded it, art nouveau (new art) marked a return to nature in form and style. One of the goals of art nouveau as opposed the aforementioned prior movements was to break down barriers between fine arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) and applied arts (architecture, furniture). Art nouveau made the most of modern materials, especially iron, steel, glass, and textiles. Tiffany lamps, Hector Guimard’s Paris Metro stations (of which there are only two originals left but other stations have been redesigned to look like the originals), and Alphonse Mucha’s graphic prints (more on this later in relation to Arcane and Jayce Talis) are all enduring examples of art nouveau styles today.
By contrast, art deco is characterized by a celebration of modern technology. It immediately followed art nouveau, replacing the curved natural whiplash lines with repeating geometric patterns. Art deco wouldn’t exist without art nouveau and most importantly, continued with art nouveau’s trend of unifying applied and fine arts with an overarching style. Cubism was a large influence on art deco architectural works as was fauvism in drawing a distinction not only between the bolder patterns of art deco but also brighter and louder colors than the muted and “dirtier” color palette of art nouveau works. At the time, art deco was purposefully ostentatious and honored the then-current excess of wealth (at least, at the top) and unbridled optimism in recent technological advancements.
Art Deco: Piltover
Piltover is a thriving, progressive city whose power and influence is on the rise. It is Valoran’s cultural center, where art, craftsmanship, trade and innovation walk hand in hand. Its power comes not through military might, but the engines of commerce and forward thinking.
It should come as no surprise that art deco is the defining architectural style of Piltover. Bold geometric designs and bright colors pop from the moment Arcane introduces the viewer to the city. Even a throwaway moment where Claggor peers down at the city below showcases repeating, bold, angular tile patterns on the streets and neatly-designed intersections.
Above all else, the motto of Piltover as the City of Progress goes hand-in-hand with the art deco movement. The design of Piltover in Arcane from buildings to the setup of the city’s hierarchy speaks to an overwhelming optimism around technology and belief that said technology’s advancement will always mean good things for Piltover’s future (spoilers, it doesn’t always and this becomes a main conflict in the narrative.)
Art Nouveau: Zaun
Zaun is a city beneath Piltover in status, wealth, and geography. It is the undercity to Piltover and is treated as such despite its own technological advancements and industry.
(As someone admittedly and woefully unfamiliar with League of Legends game lore, I immediately thought of Final Fantasy VII’s Midgar undercity-to-plate relationship so if you, like me, are not as up-to-date on game lore perhaps this helps contextualize Zaun-Piltover although it’s not an exact 1:1.)
Arcane viewers’ first introduction to Zaun happens not with sweeping shots of the city, but as Vi, Powder, Claggor, and Mylo board an elevator in what looks like an abandoned home or hotel to return to Zaun from Piltover. The building’s exterior and interior are both done in an art nouveau style from the spiraled window over the doorway to what appear to be curved whiplash lines on the carpet and at the elevator entrance. For good measure, Arcane also throws in a Tiffany lamp on the table and shows nature itself taking back the building with vines growing over a furnace and creeping around the floor.
Art nouveau as the predecessor to art deco naturally positions it as a bit darker and grittier and Arcane runs with this in shots of Zaun buildings, especially Silco’s laboratory (exterior pictured above). To reiterate, the splendor of art deco — including its celebration of industry — wouldn’t have been possible without art nouveau unifying fine and applied arts. Just as art deco grew from art nouveau and further defined the two outlooks and styles in relief, so does Zaun to Piltover.
The two together: Jayce Talis (and Alphonse Mucha)
The Jayce Talis of Arcane specifically is someone who has nothing but optimism for progress and the future. He is also someone who believes that magic (or the arcane) can be studied and developed in tandem with burgeoning technological advancements in Piltover, despite magic’s status as a taboo subject. He is thrown out of the Academy for this and sent back to his home. After his sentencing, geometric shades open in the Piltover council building where he was tried. The pattern only serves to box him in (despite the shades opening and allowing more light in, not less).
This happens again when Jayce visits Caitlyn Kiramman’s home. The distinct and harsh lines of the art-deco-inspired iron fence separate him from his former patron family now that he is disgraced.
Czech artist Alphonse Mucha is known for his art nouveau graphic prints, especially theatre posters featuring popular actress of the time, Sarah Bernhardt. His influences are seen elsewhere in Arcane from the opening moments of the series, where a Mucha-inspired record of Jinx and Vi is the lead-in for every episode.
A Mucha-inspired print also appears behind Jayce at his home where he talks with his mother after his sentencing. The comparatively “older” or “dirtier” style of art nouveau creeping into Jayce’s art deco world is a nod to his persistent belief in the taboo subject of magic as something that can be a part of Piltover’s much-lauded progress.
Jayce ends up teaming up with Viktor, someone of lower social status from the undercity. Their success is characterized with an influx of sweeping curved lines on the ceiling of an art deco room.
Arcane is impressively consistent in separating the two styles and using them to draw a definitive line between the sister cities. This consistency makes any sort of visual rule-breaking within this framework both striking and purposeful.