Home Art magazine Art Deco Style explained: From 1920 to Today's revival

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At the beginning of the 20th century, Art Deco encompassed architecture, jewellery, furniture design and more. However, this decorative art movement is still really influential today – inspiring designers, artists and architects all over the world!

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Art Deco is a timeless decorative Art movement which originated at the beginning of the 20th century. It had an everlasting effect on many different areas over the years. In fact, born as a celebration of progress, capitalism and machinery, Art Deco still has a strong influence on a lot of fields.

There is so much to this Art style…

What is Art Deco?

Art Deco first developed around 1908. It quickly spread through Western Europe in 1920s and the United States in 1930s. The Art Deco style became extremely popular, expanding across different artistic disciplines. From that moment on, even though it was only recognised as a separate style in the '60s, it effected the visual and decorative arts, fashion, architecture, filmography and product design. 

Art Deco’s first appearance is usually linked to the ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes’ which took place in France, 1925. However, Art Deco was only truly seen as a separate style in the 1960s with the revitalisation of capitalism and commerce. Taking from the Bauhaus School, Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau, the objective of this movement was to elevate the decorative arts according to a functional aesthetic. 

However, the famous architect Le Corbusier was one of the first to describe this newly emerging style as ‘deco’, as it did contrast with his designs. In fact, the Bauhaus School designs were extremely simplified and functional and had eliminated all decorative and ornamental aspects.

Art Deco made objects which reflected modern day progress, representing a modern twist on traditional decorative crafts. . Its focus was not on the fine arts but the applied arts, as functional but also beautiful and luxurious.

 

Tamara de Lempicka, “Self Portrait in a Green Bugatti”, 1929. Via Widewalls.

Discover here all available works by Tamara de Lempicka.

Context and Origin of Art Deco

Just before the First World War, industrial production was growing rapidly in Europe. This period also marked the final years of the Belle Époque - ruled by the aesthetic of Art Nouveau. With Art Nouveau falling out of fashion, there was a need for a different style. Innovative tools, materials and production methods created a growing sense of enthusiasm for the possibilities that they could offer. People were hopefully optimistic, turning to embrace the advances of recent years and redefining modern life. This translated into making these new methods central.

With technologies and design becoming more dominant and readily available in daily life, this movement put the decorative and industrial at its core, demonstrating excitement for machine-made products.

 

Emile Jacques Ruhlmann, Table, 1923, Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2021.

 

How can we recognise this style?

What are the main characteristics of the Art Deco style?

Arguably, Art Deco cannot be seen as one style. Encompassing Art Deco Jewellery, Art Deco Furniture, Art Deco Architecture – and even Art Deco Painting and Sculpture style – it is an extremely broad movement, which puts together various influences from a combination of diverse sources. In fact, it has been described as a ‘Pastiche’. 

Art Deco was directly inspired by the colours of Fauvism and forms of Cubism, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl and Futurism. In particular, this ‘pastiche’ of styles has a particularly strong connection Cubist artworks, with geometric forms, strong angles and vivid colours.

Furthermore, as well as combining historic European movements and the contemporary Avant Gardes, it also takes from Russian ballets, traditional folk art, iconography and motifs from a variety of cultures.

Specifically, Art Deco artists appropriated ancient motifs - especially those from Egyptian culture after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922. In fact, when looking at the objects, designs, prints and artworks produced in this period we can clearly recognise decorative patterns from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Asian, Mesoamerican and African Art.

Despite the myriad of diverse influences and references, Art deco does have a clearly recognisable aesthetic, directly referencing the urban imagery of the machine age. Taking from the different movements, it reflects speed, time and space, by using geometric bold forms and vivid shades.

Machine-made objects became the central inspiration for Art Deco, through simple surfaces, symmetrical compositions and repeated themes. The features of Art Deco artworks reflected those typically attributed to mechanical objects and serial production. However, Art Deco pieces were rarely mass-produced.

Art Deco is famous for priming simplicity as a luxury. It was as a celebration of progress according to a modern aesthetic, representing the 20th century. 

It focused on decorative elements: geometry, symmetry, continuous vertical lines, fragmented forms and abstraction - decorative pieces with plain forms and shapes with clean, geometrical lines.

 

Designed by Sir Edward Brantwood Maufe and made by W. Rowcliffe, Desk, 1925, Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum © Victoria & Albert Museum, London 2021.

 

Art Deco was inherently ornamental and decorative. Nevertheless, as it was strongly related to other art movements and even taking from diverse cultural influences, Art Deco’s clean shapes, bright strong colours and use of expensive materials demonstrate a strong relation with Modernism’s break with the past. 

Above all, Art Deco clearly represented the need to be seen as separate from the similarly decorative Art Nouveau movement. Sharing the focus on decorative and minor arts, what is the difference between Art Deco and Art Nouveau?

Art Deco vs. Art Nouveau

Art Deco is a response to Art Nouveau. It is a reaction, but also its close relative.

Art Nouveau was characterised by sinuous, fluid forms. It aimed at imitating Nature though organic shapes. Opposed to this, the philosophical and aesthetic break with Nature was championed by Art Deco artists. The Art Deco artworks were designed to reflect the lines, shapes and forms of machine-produced items. This became central to the Art Deco aesthetic: instead of elevating Nature, it promoted the Machine.

Separated form Art Nouveau, characterised by natural elements and fluid motifs, this new aesthetic was bolder and more industrial becoming increasingly popular at an international level. Even though Art Deco continued to use organic motifs such as flowers, animals or human figures, as Art Nouveau, it stylised them. 

On the whole, representing a general shift towards consumerism and serial production, Art Deco was a design movement which touched every creative medium.

Art Deco in Different Fields

This decorative Art style gave a new fashionable image to common items, especially in the 1920s. It was elevating the decorative nature of clocks, chairs, glasses and ceramics teapots.

Embracing notions of pleasure, glamour, luxury and escapism, Art Deco furniture designers explored sumptuous surfaces and materials, producing bespoke one-offs. Art Deco furniture incorporated industrial elements, such as aluminium or chrome or more expensive materials.

The objects presented contrasts, featuring smooth highly polished surfaces in bold but minimal contrasting colours. They emphasised modernity and complemented the austere look of buildings constructed at the time.

Famous French furniture Art Deco designer, Emile Jaques Ruhlmann (1879-1933) was particularly well-known for his works’ elegant lines and his wood veneers. Regarded as an expert in high-end handcrafted interiors – which he referred to as his 'precious pieces' – Jaques Emile Ruhlmann used high-quality wood, juxtaposing different surfaces and integrating bulky curvy shapes. His designs were sleek, geometric and elegant.

Sir Edward Maufe also made significant contributions to this field. One of the British architect and designer’s creations was a writing desk. The desk was handmade, mahogany with a white gold surface and it features ivory, rock and silk details. Art Deco luxury which still carries the industrial and decorative references.

 

Designed by Eric Slater and manufactured by Shelley Potteries, Vogue tea service, 1930, Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2021

 

Art Deco Fabrics, Art Deco Accessories, Art Deco Jewellery… Expanding into the everyday, this Art style had an incredibly strong influence on fashion in the 1920s and 1930s.

Long dresses, straight cuts, fluidity and details – this is the world of glamourous Art Deco Fashion.

It became a reflection of the sophisticated lifestyle which was increasingly popular during these years, ‘decorating’ people and their homes. The clothes, fabrics, accessories and pieces of jewellery designed in the Art Deco period were striking but also practical, relaxed and classy.

Raymond Templier explained "As I walk in the streets I see ideas for jewellery everywhere, the wheels, the cars, the machinery of today", in 1930. Indeed, the French jeweller’s bold abstract designs suggest dynamicity, reflecting modern urban life.

Russian artist Natalia Gonchorova worked for Sergei Diaghilev's ‘Ballets Russes’, producing incredible costume designs. Jeanne Lanvin designed evening dresses with long, fluid, simple lines and geometric forms, a direct influence of Cubism. The dresses were made in materials like satin – resulting shimmering and elegant. 

 

Jeanne Lanvin, Evening dress, 1935, Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2021

 

Prints and posters of the age were no exception to the influence of Art Deco. In Graphic Design the impact was huge. 

This field takes inspiration especially from Futurism, along with its exaltation of speed and technology. Just as Futurism, Art Deco prints feature bold geometric forms, sharp angles and strong colours. Finding pleasure in Modernity, both styles reflected themes of fast-paced city life.

Additionally, Art Deco poster artists were largely inspired by Japanese woodblock prints with their massive blocks of bold colours.

In Graphic Design, thanks to these influences, Art Deco artists experimented with the use of lines to simulate that same speed and with repetitive geometrical shapes which captured people’s attention and conveyed a sense of ‘high style’.

Even typography was affected, with a surge of typefaces Bifur, Broadway, and Peignot. Graphic designers at the time were interested in the use of images along with language and text, creating a powerful and communicative style with illustrative images, geometric stylized lines.

For instance, Ernst Deutsch embraced simplified shapes and human figures as well as bright and blocky colour palettes – typical of the new ‘Plakatstil’ (poster style) artists. Ernst was soon designing for Coco Chanel, Bugatti automobiles and other high-end clients. He even worked in Hollywood as a studio costumier for 1930s cinema productions. His works became the image for luxurious products. 

Art Deco posters and prints are truly iconic, profoundly reforming the taste of the time. 

 

Robert Bonfils, Woodblock poster, 1925, Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum © Victoria & Albert Museum, London 2021.

 

 An Art Deco building represents everything that we associate with Modernism. And most of those associated with this period have probably been made according to this style’s standards.

From garages, airports, ocean liners, cinemas, swimming pools, office buildings, department stores, power stations and factories… 

As a matter of fact, architecture was probably one of the fields which was influenced by this new movement the most, continuing into the '80s. A lot of these buildings were associated with entertainment, such as restaurants or hotels, with luxurious and glamourous interiors, full of lights and mirrors. 

Overall, Art Deco architecture was characterized by its vertical lines, emphasizing its splendour, driving the eye upwards. With blocky, geometrical shapes and forms such as zigzags, chevrons and stylised animal and plant forms, along with rooftop spires and/or curved ornamental elements, often in pastel-coloured walls. 

All Art Deco architecture makes use of clean lines along and minimal but sophisticated decorative features. Windows were very characteristic, looking like punctured openings, either square or round but still allowing enough light to enhance the inner glamour of the building. And the use of mirrors reflected light, emphasising the elegant atmosphere.  

 

Designed by William Van Alen, Chrysler Building in New York City, completed 1930, Courtesy of Britannica.com ©PHB.cz Richard Semik/Shutterstock.com.

 

The Art Deco period was a transitional stage between traditional and modern approaches to building. Bringing architecture in the 20th century, this art style can still be found in the buildings across some big cities in America, especially in New York.

The Art Deco District in Miami has one of the largest concentrations of Art Deco architecture – exemplary. Also called the Old Miami Historic District or the Miami Beach Architectural District, this Art Deco District features over 800 historic buildings.

The Chrysler Building in New York was ground-breaking. Designed in 1930 by William van Alen, the Chrysler Building was the highest building during its first year, moving the second highest in the world in 1931. It is now the fifth tallest building in New York City. It shows off 3,862 windows on its facade and 4 banks of 8 elevators. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976, it shows the power and possibilities of the technologies available.

The Eastern Columbia Building in Los Angeles was built in 1930, designed by prominent L.A. architect Claud Beelman. This building screams glamour and luxury with the clock, the gold details, neon letters, turquoise shades and vertical lines. All of the details contribute to the creation of a lavish feeling, typical of the Art Deco Style.

Beyond Art Deco

Art Deco’s effect was distributed, across so many fields. It encompassed print, fashion, architecture… returning even after World War II. And it was not only influential in the decorative arts. In fact, also the Fine Arts we can find works which present Art Deco aspects.

A celebration of the Modern, Art Deco is without doubt one of the most appreciated and popular styles in the 20th century. And since the early 1900s, Art Deco has been resonating in Design.

 

Roger Broders, Marseille Porte de l'Afrique du Nord poster, 1920, Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum © Victoria & Albert Museum, London 2021

 


Cover image: Eastern Columbia Building, Los Angeles.Via Medium 

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

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