About Art Deco

art-deco-architectureArt Deco was the last truly sumptuous style, a legitimate and highly fertile chapter in the history of the applied arts. There is a continuing debate, however, on the exact definition of the term “Art Deco” and the extent of the movement it encompassed. The initial belief , fostered when the Art Deco revival began , roughly in the mid 1960s, was that Art Deco was the antithesis of Art Nouveau, and had been spawned in 1920 to eradicate its 1900 predecessor, which history had already judged a grave but mercifully brief transgression against good taste. Today this theory is considered incorrect: Art Deco is seen not as the direct opposite of Art Nouveau but in many aspects as an extension of it, particularly in its preoccupation with lavish ornamentation, superlative craftsmanship and fine materials. Nor as has been commonly believed did Art Deco take root abruptly in 1920 and flower until it was blighted by the economic depression which engulfed Europe and the United States in 1930.

The First World War has generally been taken as the dividing line between the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras, but the Art Deco style was actually conceived in the years 1908-12 a period usually considered as transitional. Like its predecessors, it was an evolving style that did not start or stop at any precise moment. Many items now accepted as pure Art Deco-furniture and objects d’ art by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Paul Iribe, Clement Mere and Paul Follot, for example were designed either before the outbreak of hostilities in 1924 or during the war. The movement cannot therefore be rigidly defined as it has been within the decade 1920-30. Its inception was earlier as was its decline. In fact were it not for the four year hiatus created by the First World War, the Art Deco style would have run its full and natural course by 1920.

What are the characteristics of Art Deco? In many ways the style defies precise definition as it drew on a host of diverse and often conflicting influences. These were primarily from the world of avant-garde painting in the early years of the century. Elements from Cubism, Russian Constructivism and Italian Futurism – abstraction distortion and simplification – are readily evident in the decorative arts vernacular used by most Art Deco exponents. Examination of the style’s standard iconography – stylized bouquets of flowers, young maidens, geometric patterns including zigzags, chevrons and lightning bolts, and the ubiquitous biche (doe) – reveals further influences such as the world of high fashion, Egyptology, the Orient, tribal Africa and the Ballets Russes. These must be added from 1925 the growing impact of the machine, depicted by repeating or overlapping images and in the 1930s by streamlined forms.

The resulting amalgam of artistic influences is therefore highly complex to the point that no single word or phrase can describe it fully. Bearing this in mind the term “Art Deco” coined in the late 1960s remains the most appropriate to describe the distinctive decorative arts style which evolved in Europe immediately prior to the First World War, and which remained in fashion in some countries of its adoption until the late 1930s. In France it manifested itself emotionally with exuberance, colour and playfulness. In the rest of Europe and later in the United States its interpretation was more intellectual based on concepts of functionalism and economy. This element of 1920s and 1930s design is known today as “Modernism” to distinguish it from the high-style French variant, which is usually referred to as “Art Deco”. Both strains were defined at their inception as modern, and both were highly fashionable at different moments between the two World Wars. Together they constitute a broad and scintillating movement within the decorative arts, the first, in fact, inspired by twentieth-century impulses.

Just as the Art Deco style replaced Art Nouveau so in France Art Deco yielded in turn to Modernism. Its demise began at its moment of triumph in the 1925 Exposition International in Paris. The Exposition planned originally in 1908, but postponed intermittently “due to part in war” was eventually staged for April to October 1925. Most European countries participated except Germany, now vanquished enemy nation which claimed that its invitation arrived too late for its designers to prepare adequately. The United States also declined as its Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover felt that it could not meet the Modernist requirements for entry laid out in the Exposition’s charter. Notwithstanding these omissions the Exposition was considered by most critics as a major showpiece for Modernism, especially for the host nation whose lavish displays and avant-garde architecture dominated the entire event.

Art Deco first tenet, that form must follow function, later remained unchallenged by all succeeding schools of design, but its second which related to decoration, proved its undoing. By 1926 the loosely knit band of French Modernists – Francis Jourdain, Pierre Chareau, Le Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens and Rene Herbst, among others – had become increasingly outspoken in their criticism of Art Deco designers who catered to select clients in the creation of elaborately crafted pieces unique or limited editions. The Modernist argued that the new age required nothing less than excellent design for everyone, and that quality and mass production were not mutually exclusive. The future of the decorative arts did not rest with the rich, and even less with their aesthetic preferences. An object greatest beauty lay conversely in its perfect adaption of its usage. Each epoch must create a decorative vocabulary in its own image to meet its specific needs. In the late 1920s this aim was best realized by industry’s newest means of production, the machine. Existing concepts of beauty based on the artisan and his hand tools needed therefore to be redefined to meet the dictates of the new machine age. For the first time, the straight line became a source of beauty.

Modernism made rapid progress in the late 1920s, although most designers positioned themselves well short of the Spartan functionalism espoused by its most ardent adherents. As Paul Follot a veteran decorative arts designer observed in a 1928 speech. We know that the necessary alone is not sufficient for man and that the superfluous is indispensable for him … or otherwise let us also suppress music flower, perfumes … and the smiles of ladies!, Follots viewpoint was shared by most of his designer colleagues. Even if logic called for the immediate elimination of all ornamentation, mankind was simply not prepared psychologically for such an abrupt dislocation in lifestyle. Most designers therefore opted for middle ground by creating functional machine made items that retained a measure of decoration, the latter, ironically, often having at first to be finished by hand.

Outside France, functionalism had dominated decorative arts ideology since the end of the Victorian era. In Germany, the formation in 1907 of the Munich Werkband carried forward the logic and geometry at the heart of the Vienna Secession and Glasgow movements some years earlier. In contrast to the litany of Art Nouveau flowers and maidens in neighboring France, and its own lingering Jugendsil, the Werbund placed emphasis on functional design applicable to mass production. A reconciliation between art and industry, updated to accommodate the technological advances of the new century was implemented. Ornament was given only secondary status. This philosophy reached fruition in the formation in Germany of the Bauhaus which in turn inspired the Modernist strain which took root in American decorative arts in the late 1920s. After the First World War other European and Scandinavian designers followed the German example by creating Bauhaus inspired furnishings and objects. Examination of contemporary European art reviews shows that ornamentation was sparingly applied outside France. A certain amount was tolerated but the high style embellishments of Paris between 1920 and 1925 were viewed as a Gallic eccentricity which would not be assimilated elsewhere. The styles only foreign success was in American architecture where it was adopted by a new generation of architects to enhance their buildings, particularly skyscrapers and movie style of its own, so its architects looked to Paris as the country always had for leadership in design.