Decorative Arts in Transition- A shift from Art Nouveau to Art Deco

Change, is of course a constant and the World in unison has been changing, to be fair, has been evolving as we are steadily marching forward in time. Though the World has enjoyed inertia in its free state, the changes we see today can be attributed to foreign influences. Architecture too, has always been a part of this evolving process, and not merely a matter of building, but as a mode of expression, of aesthetics, technological advancements, economic situations and social production and political frameworks.


“Architecture is one of the most complexly negotiated cultural practices there is. And, indeed, in some ways architecture, helps articulate history itself.” (i)

The numerous styles of architecture that we find today have been “perfected” over time, across the world and each style has gone on to define regions and races, many great cities which stood as testimony for this art form have only been lost to ages, and then rediscovered centuries or millennia later, reduced to rubble and ruins, with only the largest structures still standing, and the rest in mere shadows. On the other hand, cities have continued to grow and change, leading to eclectic mixes of thousand- year- old forts and temples, medieval streets and markets, government buildings built by the colonial powers, and modern high- rises, offices and strip malls cluttering everywhere in between.


From the symbolism of proportion to the mysticism and rituals associated with certain forms and spaces, to the literal narratives of sculptural ornament, architecture stood as the living register of humanity’s dreams, myths and ideas. (ii)  But the dawn of 15th century saw a change in human expression due to the discovery of means of perpetuation, not only more durable than architecture, but also far simpler and easier. The idea of architecture as an expression thus gradually shifted to being a symbol of power and authority (by the Colonial powers over its colonies around the world), eventually becoming modern and utilitarian in nature.


“The beautiful lines of art give way to the cold and inexorable lines of geometry. A building ceases to be a building; it is a polyhedron.” (iii)

The transition from one architectural style to another has always been a gradual process and has been influenced by social, cultural and economic scenarios. The architecture itself is a reaction to various aspects like forms of art, prevailing social conditions and economy, due to various political implications.


Our discussion about Art Nouveau and its transition to Art Deco was primarily a result of such conditions. While Art Nouveau was a reaction against the eclectic styles which dominated the European Architecture and a major world event- the Industrial Revolution, Art Deco was a reaction to the economic conditions that was a result of the World War- I. 



The rise and fall of great decorative era happening through ages, the Pre- Raphaelites’ obsession to nature and natural forms in the 1850s, went ahead to evolve a new style of decorative arts – The Art Nouveau style, embracing the new industrial European aesthetics and blending naturalistic and stylized forms in combination with more geometric shapes, particularly arcs, parabolas, and semicircles. Being exquisitely decorative, the style was incorporated  in architecture, graphic art, interior design, jewellery, furniture, textiles, household silver and other utensils, and lighting, as well as the fine arts. According to the philosophy of style, art was meant to be a way of life, and Art Nouveau, at its pinnacle lived up to this.  


All these culminated in the enormous force of the Arts & Crafts Movement with its denial of the industrial mass production methods following the Industrial Revolution and a return to the merits of the individual craftsman. (iv)



By 1900, the Paris Exposition universelle marked the high point of Art Nouveau which did much to popularize the style. Following this, Paris became the Art Nouveau capital. However, by 1910, the style became outmoded owing to its requirement of expertise and highly paid craftsmen and the difficulty to be easily and cheaply mass- produced.


The onset of the World War I meant changes in the political and economic structures around the world. 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 need for utilitarian construction, mass- production of modernist style with a touché of fine craftsmanship, led to the transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco style. Art Deco was a pastiche of many different styles, sometimes contradictory, united by a desire to be modern.


From its outset, Art Deco was influenced by the bold geometric forms of Cubism; the bright colours of Fauvism and of the Ballets Russes; the updated craftsmanship of the furniture of the eras of Louis Phillippe and Louis XVI; and the exotic styles of China and Japan, India, Persia, ancient Egypt and Mayan art. Such an agglomeration with various decorative art forms from around the world, featuring rare and expensive materials, such as ebony and ivory, and exquisite craftsmanship resulted in masterpieces being created during the 1920s. The Chrysler Building and the Empire state building are a few to name from the Art Deco monumental masterpieces of the 1920s.



“coming to terms with the new order with caution & reserve……he is searching for a middle course. It is notorious that many people, both at home & abroad, are looking for a new movement in England to take the place of that which William Morris became the typical representative…When the change comes, it will not be the Art of Paris of 1925, but it might share some of its features.” (v)


It was during this time that the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts- Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (1925) took place at Paris. The event that marked the zenith of the style. This was officially sponsored by the French government, and covered a site in Paris of 55 acres. This exposition proved to be a trigger to the practice of Art Deco style world over.



The Style Moderne presented in this Exposition came to be known as Art Deco. The term “art deco” was not yet used, but in the years immediately following the Exposition, the art and design shown there was copied around the world, in the skyscrapers of New York, the ocean liners that crossed that Atlantic, movie theatres around the world. It had a major influence in the design of fashion, jewellery, furniture, glass, metalwork, textiles and other decorative arts. At the same time, it displayed the growing difference between the traditional style moderne, with its expensive materials, fine craftsmanship and lavish decoration, and the modernist movement that wanted to simplify art and architecture.



The Great depression of the 1930s saw the subdued use of this style.  New materials such as chrome plating, stainless steel and plastic were introduced. The use of concrete as a cheap building material was realised.  A sleeker form of the style, called Streamline Moderne, appeared in the 1930s; it featured curving forms and smooth, polished surfaces. By 1940s, its dominance world over ended, the main reason being the World War II and the rise of the strictly functional and unadorned styles of modernism. This further went on to undergo transition to cater to the modernist ideas and by beginning of the 21st century, the Neo Art Deco style evolved as inspirations to the classic Art Deco building of the 1920s and 1930s.



The transition of styles (here Art Nouveau to Art Deco) has thus taken place very gradually, to move from the eclectic designs to a naturalism- inspired Art Nouveau to the Art Deco and then the Style Moderne, greatly influenced by the economic, social and political conditions, the availability of material and craftsmen and so on. Architecture, from being a language of expression has gone on to become more utilitarian in nature. It is also evident that the art and architecture were always dependent on various conditions mainly the economic and political, as these were the drivers of the ever- progressing societies world over. The social and cultural factors have been altered over ages to fit into this progressing society, thus influencing its modes of expressions (Art and Architecture).



Prathyaksha Krishna Prasad for Art Deco Mumbai


Prathyaksha is an urban conservation architect & researcher.  She has two Master’s degrees, one in Urban Conservation and the other in History and Heritage Management. Her research work includes the incorporation of Heritage Driven Urban Regeneration for Indian Cities and Rural Heritage tourism management for Champaner – Pavagadh Archaeological Park. She has also worked as a research intern, under Ar. Rahul Mehrotra for the Harvard Graduate School of Design Program titled “Extreme Urbanism IV- Looking at Hyper Density- Dongri, Mumbai”. 


(i) Architecture as a Form of Cultural Expression,

(ii) Chandavarkar, Prem. "Architecture and the Expression of Meaning" Architecture + Design IV, no. 5 (1988): 94-99.

(iii) Victor Hugo, 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' in The Works of Victor Hugo (New York: Black Readers Service Company 1928), p. 177

(iv) The Transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco- Jason Clarke

(v) Art Deco 1910 – 1939 – Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton & Ghislaine Wood

From the Department of Overseas Trade, Reports on the Present Position & Tendencies of the Industrial Arts as indicated at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative & Industrial Arts Paris 1925 (London 1925)

Research / Mumbai`s Art Deco / History