A Look at Art Deco
The Art Deco style flourished in the 1920s and 30s across western Europe and the United States. Its most recognisable visual characteristic is its clean, minimal lines – often with repetitive use of geometric shapes or with highly stylised representational forms. Art Deco influenced the design of fashion, jewellery, tableware, furniture, buildings, cars, trains, and even ocean liners – as well as the new appliances finding increasing popularity within households, such as radios, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. Later Art Deco designers included innovative materials (such as Bakelite, aluminium and chrome plating) in their designs – often in combination with natural materials. Its products included individually crafted luxury items as well as mass-produced wares. Art Deco design symbolised luxury, glamour and exuberance, as well as signalling the arrival of a new technological age.
Art Deco emerged both from, and in reaction to the Art Nouveau style. The Art Nouveau movement (1880s to 1914) had promoted the term “arts décoratifs” and had succeeded in elevating the status of decorative artists. The 1900 Paris Exposition, in celebration of the Art Nouveau style, spawned the formation of “La Société des artistes décorateurs” (The Society of Decorative Artists) by established French Art Nouveau designers and architects of the time – however by 1925, this Society was one of the most prominent exponents of Art Deco. Emerging designers increasingly saw the delicate lines of Art Nouveau to be in conflict with a progressively mechanised world. The Art Nouveau movement had enabled a departure from the artistic constraints of earlier years, but it was in reaction to its intricate style, seen as ill-suited to the modern age, that precipitated the emergence of Art Deco. While the Art Nouveau movement took inspiration from nature, the Art Deco style emphasised machine-age streamlining and sleek geometry.
The Early Art Deco Years
Initially called Style Moderne, its more familiar name “Art Deco” was coined after the 1925 Paris Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts) – where the style was first exhibited. At first used disparagingly by the modernist architect Le Corbusier (who regarded any ornamentation as unnecessary in modern architecture), the term “Art Deco” was not widely used until popularised by the art historian and critic Bevis Hillier in the late 1960s.
Proposed to the French government in 1911 by The Society of Decorative Artists, the “Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes” was originally planned for 1915, however plans were disrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Eventually held in 1925, the Exhibition was organised by the Society, led by its founders Hector Guimard, Eugene Grasset, Raoul Lachenal, Paul Follot, Maurice Dufrene, and Emile Decour – most of whom had gained recognition as Art Nouveau designers or architects. The Exhibition aimed to showcase modern French design – primarily in response to concerns that French design was being overshadowed by imports, particularly from Germany. Included were designs in the Art Deco style alongside examples of contemporary paintings and sculptures in styles such as Cubism, Constructivism and Futurism.
In search of a modernised look suited to this new era, French designers had already been moving towards the Art Deco style before 1914. Paul Follot, a founding member of The Society of Decorative Artists, was one of the early pioneers of the Art Deco movement. His dining room suite exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1912 is considered to be one of the first examples of Art Deco design. Leading Art Deco designers Louis Süe and André Mare also made their first appearance at the 1912 exhibition, under the name of L’Atelier Français, combining colourful fabrics with exotic materials. These Art Deco pioneers saw their style as a refinement of classical French design – which they regarded as the last truly enduring style. At its birth between 1910 and 1914 this emerging Art Deco design was typified by an explosion of colours, featuring bright and often clashing hues, frequently in floral or foliate designs on furniture upholstery, carpets, screens and wallpaper.
After WWI the exclusive Parisian department stores played a key part in the rise of Art Deco – making more affordable but still handcrafted items which were not mass-produced. From the height of the Art Nouveau movement department stores had begun engaging increasing numbers of decorative artists in their new and expanding design studios. The department store Printemps, which had been commissioned to design the 1912 Salon d'Automne exhibition had established its own workshop (Primavera) in the same year. By 1920 Primavera employed more than three hundred artists and highly skilled craftsmen. Paul Follot was engaged as director at Pomone, the decorative art workshop created by the department store Le Bon Marché. Other designers established their own workshops – making bespoke designs using luxurious and exotic materials such as ebony, ivory and silk. These establishments commonly designing and supplying entire interiors – the décor, furniture and decorative objects. Designer Louis Süe, who together with a number of his contemporaries had formed the interior design firm L’Atelier Français, went into partnership with André Mare to establish the Compagnie des Arts Français in 1919 – becoming one of the prominent French interior design firms. In addition to designing interiors for their wealthy clientele, they designed the furnishings for the first-class salons and cabins of French transatlantic ocean liners. Another leading Art Deco designer was Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann who had expanded his father’s furniture and interior design business – creating yet sleeker designs, utilising materials such as macassar ebony, purpleheart and rosewood. Ruhlmann's work received international acclaim at the 1925 Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts where he exhibited in his own pavilion, with his furniture displayed in palatial settings. Ruhlmann's success at the 1925 Exhibition also brought him a number of wealthy international clients – including the Rothschild and Worms banking families, as well as Eugène Schueller, the owner of L'Oreal. Established companies such as the silverware firm Christofle, glass designer René Lalique, and the jewellers Louis Cartier and Boucheron soon followed, designing greater number of pieces in the new style.
By the mid-1920s, Art Deco was an exuberant but more mainstream counterpart to contemporary intellectual movements such as Constructivism, Bauhaus and De Stijl. All shared an emphasis on clean, strong lines as a design principle. However, whereas movements such as the Bauhaus were rooted in ideologies, the emerging Art Deco style was defined by a collection of aesthetic design principles brought together by the desire to reflect a new era. Art Deco designers borrowed from the explosion of movements that emerged in the early 20th century such as Constructivism, Bauhaus and De Stijl as well as the Vienna Secession, Cubism and Modernism, among others. Art Deco was also influenced by classic Egyptian, Aztec and Mayan motifs – inspired by archaeological discoveries of the time. Designers looked both to the past and to the future in creating this new style.
Across Europe the style influenced the design of everything that could legitimately be touched by design. Furnishings and purely decorative items as part of Art Deco interiors, had been designers’ earlier focus. Other objects, from tableware and household appliances to cars and trains, soon followed – adopting cleaner lines and bolder colours in their designs. In British ceramic tableware, Clarice Cliff’s designs epitomise the Art Deco style – her innovative work both copied by and inspiring to other British ceramic designers of the period. In car design the 1925 Rolls Royce Phantom is an Art Deco style icon. In architecture, buildings in bold geometric structures and with geometric detailing appeared throughout Europe – with earliest examples using reinforced concrete built in Paris before 1914. In Britain however, few Art Deco buildings were constructed – the best examples probably being the Odeon theatres and cinemas designed by Harry Weedon in the 1930s. Conversely, in the United States the style had a significant impact on architectural design from the 1920s and into the 1930s. The most iconic examples being the skyscrapers of New York, including the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Centre. While rarely used in houses, it was frequently used for office buildings, government buildings, train stations, movie theatres, diners and department stores. Art Deco featured prominently in the architecture of the immense public works sponsored by the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam.
Art Deco also worked its way into 1920’s fashion – relying heavily on textured, richly dyed fabrics that lent depth to the simple angular lines of dresses. Fashions reflected the changing attitudes of women and the roles they began to fulfil. Dress forms moved to a narrow, relaxed, semi-fitted silhouette and hemlines climbed from ankle length in 1910 to mid-calf by 1919 – and all the way up to the knee by 1925. Designers such as Chanel, with their uncluttered styles and use of jersey (previously only used for men’s underwear!) allowed women to leave their corsets behind and freed them for the activities they wanted to pursue. Vivid colours adopted in other Art Deco designs were inspired by several sources – including the exotic set designs by Léon Bakst for the Ballets Russes, which caused a sensation in Paris just before WWI. The earlier Fauvism movement led by Henri Matisse also inspired designers in their use of colour. Bright saturated colours became a feature of leading fashion designers such as Paul Poiret, whose work influenced both Art Deco fashion and interior design.
Art Deco was arguably the first design style that existed purely as a “vogue” – evoking luxury, glamour and exuberance, but without foundation in any ideology. It was this unabashed ostentation that provoked the contempt of the rising stars of the Modern movement – Modernism, which had been rooted in the far more serious approach of the Bauhaus. The Modernist architect and designer, Le Corbusier was particularly vocal in his contempt of Art Deco: It was all but sinful. A travesty. Low and dishonest. Downright vulgar – it was the stuff of fashion rather than function, of escapism rather than realism.
Whilst Art Deco came to define the “roaring twenties” – at the time, it remained largely exclusive until after the stock market crash of 1929 which caused Art Deco to shift toward mass production. In its original form, Art Deco was primarily seen in high-end luxury items where rich, saturated colours and detailed geometric patterns dominated. Designers emphasised the colour and texture variations of contrasting exotic materials as elements of design. However, by the late 1920s a different breed of Art Deco designer emerged – those who increasingly rejected the past and wanted a style based upon simplicity, a lack of decoration, inexpensive materials, and mass production. These designers embraced technological innovation and modern materials – emphasising them in the overall aesthetic of the style itself. The same features that made Art Deco appealing in the beginning, its craftsmanship, rich materials and ornament, led to its decline. The Great Depression, that began in the United States in 1929 and reached Europe shortly afterwards, greatly reduced the number of wealthy clients who could pay for the individually designed and crafted furnishings and decorative objects. Even Ruhlmann’s firm resorted to producing pieces of furniture in series, rather than individually hand-made items.
In the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, a more restrained version of Art Deco began to emerge. New materials arrived, including chrome plating, stainless steel, and plastic. A sleeker form of the style, called Streamline Moderne (also Art Moderne), appeared – featuring aerodynamic forms and smooth, polished surfaces. It developed in the United States and then spread to other parts of the world. Streamlining was conceived by industrial designers who stripped Art Deco of its ornament in favour of aerodynamically pure lines. Design elements used in aeroplanes and boats to improve performance and increase speed were applied to trains, cars, buildings and even fridges, vacuum cleaners, radios and toasters. Items were designed for mass-production using less expensive materials and less costly construction techniques. In architecture, Streamline Moderne often reflected the austere economic climate; sharp angles were replaced with simple curves, and ornament was replaced with smooth concrete and glass.
The defining event for Streamline Moderne in the United States was the 1933–34 Chicago World's Fair, which introduced the style to the general public. New automobiles adapted the smooth lines of ocean liners and airships – giving the impression of efficiency, dynamism, and speed. The grills and windshields tilted backwards, cars sat lower and wider, and they featured smooth curves and horizontal speed lines. New materials were incorporated, including Bakelite, Formica and stainless steel – giving the appearance of newness and sleekness. Whilst directly and indirectly influencing design across the world, Streamline Moderne was especially popular within the US.
An Era Passes
To most of us, following its popularisation in the 1960s, “Art Deco” has become a catch-all term – used to describe buildings and objects with bold stylised designs or strong geometric lines designed between about 1920 and 1940. Few now would make the distinction between Style Moderne and Streamline Moderne. In stylistic terms, Streamline Moderne represents the last phase of Art Deco. Whereas Art Deco was concerned with surface ornament, colour and abstractions of natural forms, Streamline Moderne was essentially a machine aesthetic focused on mass production, functional efficiency, and a more abstract aesthetic coming from the Bauhaus in Germany and the “white architecture” of Europe (The International Style). As the world was transitioning from the exuberance and richness of the “roaring twenties” and into the grips of austerity and self-discipline of depression-era 30s and post-war 40s, the high-style architects were pushed aside in favour of industrial designers.
Art Deco was one of the first truly international “vogues”, but its dominance ended after WWII when it began to be seen as too gaudy and ostentatious for post-wartime austerity. Art Deco had competed with Modernism and The International Style throughout the 20s and 30s, giving way to these and Mid-Century Modern in the 1940s. The first resurgence of interest in Art Deco happened in the 1960s – coinciding with its influence on Pop Art. A second resurgence of interest came with the raised focus on graphic design in the 1980s, where its association with film noir and 1930s glamour led to its use in adverts for fashion and jewellery. As a design trend Art Deco had an unprecedented broad-based reach on much of what we encounter in the world. Even today, Art Deco is alive and well in numerous pop culture references and homages to its heyday.
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