What is Art Deco? By- Boston Art Deco Society

The term “Art Deco” only came into popular usage during the late 1960s, and is derived from the title of the 1925 Parisian Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which emphasized the “Arts Décoratifs” or the decorative arts: furniture, glass, ceramics, textiles, and the like.


Wrongly thought by many to be the starting point of the Art Deco style, the 1925 Exposition actually marked the culmination of a deluxe French Art Deco and the emergence of a more geometric, Germanic-influenced “Modern” style.


Today, accurately or not, the term “Art Deco” is applied to a whole complex of trends in the decorative and applied arts, architecture, and the fine arts in the period roughly between 1909 and 1939. I say “roughly” because there are earlier designs that strongly foreshadow the Art Deco style, and elements of the style lingered well into the 1940s and 1950s.


Among the many early influences that contributed to the emergence of the Art Deco style were the opulent sets and costumes of Les Ballets Russes, which arrived in Paris in 1909 and set off an explosion in the design and fashion world. However, the full development of the style was delayed by the advent of World War I. A few years thereafter, French interior designers, fine furniture makers, and the boutique workshops of the great Parisian department stores took the spotlight at the 1925 Exposition.


For the most part, these early French designers worked with expensive woods and exotic materials for a wealthy clientele, who commissioned them to produce handmade, often unique items. Even the design boutiques within the Parisian department stores commissioned household decorations and furnishings in relatively small series.


These early French designers would be horrified to learn today that their work is identified by the same name as that of the Moderns who thought of furniture as “household equipment,” introducing such items as chairs made with tubular steel. Even further removed from luxurious French Art Deco were the broadly mass-produced furniture, appliances, chrome, and ceramics of the Depression-era 1930s in America.


The emergence of the Bauhaus as an important school of design in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s strongly affected French and American designers after 1925.  It was this Modern style that became popular in America, due in part to the ease with which objects could be fashioned for industrial mass production. This popularity was also due, no doubt, to the large number of talented designers from Austria, Germany, and Scandinavian countries who emigrated to the U.S. In America, the icons of this “phase” of the Art Deco style are undoubtedly the skyscraper and the zigzag imagery evoked by Jazz.


What one could call the last “phase” of the Art Deco style fully reflected the impact of the “industrial designer” on transportation, machines, and household appliances in the 1930s, and is referred to by many as “Streamline.” Reflected in the sleek, smooth, bullet-nosed designs for the railway “Streamliners,” the style was soon applied to everything from ceramic dinnerware to toasters to lawn mowers.


Perhaps this complex evolution is why there is such confusion when someone uses the term “Art Deco.” Adding to the confusion is the fact that as Art Deco spread to become the first truly international design style. It was confronted and changed dramatically by national preferences, cultural differences, and social and economic forces.


In addition, scholars have traced many of the influences on Art Deco to turn-of-the-century and pre–World War I design movements: Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, the Vienna Secession, the Glasgow School in Scotland, Cubism, the De Stijl movement in Holland, and Italian Futurism. All too often people wrongly refer to these design movements as Art Deco.  In today’s marketplace, you’ll also still hear people incorrectly refer to a 1940s Biomorphic chair or a 1950s boomerang-style coffee table as Art Deco.


Not only was Art Deco influenced by European design movements, it was also highly influenced by the design of numerous traditional and ancient cultures: Egyptian, Japanese, sub-Saharan Africa, Mayan and Aztec cultures, and others. Some popular “Art Deco” designs are direct copies of motifs from these ancient civilizations!


Dozens of other names have been coined in an attempt to come up with something better, or to name a specific style within the style: Twenties Decorative, Jazz Modern, Style Moderne, Depression Modern, International Style, American Modern, Machine Age, Zigzag, and others have all been used. Early French designers did not call their style “Art Deco,” but some referred to it as Poiret Style, because of the highly influential designer Paul Poiret.


New designations are frequently used to imply a regional style, such as Florida’s “Tropical Deco” and the Native American–influenced “Pueblo Deco” of the Southwest. In a spirit of fun, the restrained Art Deco public buildings, post offices, and courthouses that sprang up under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) are sometimes referred to as “Greco Deco.”  


In America, Art Deco also became highly associated with Hollywood. The costumes, set designs, furnishings for movies, posters, and other Hollywood design from the 1920s through the 1940s helped to popularize the style to the widest possible audience. In the end, perhaps, it was Hollywood’s “Screen Deco”—a continual exaggeration of the style—that caused Art Deco to fall out of favour with designers. No leading-edge designer wants to be thought of as merely repeating what is already popular.


 Many think a final, great explosion of Art Deco design came with the New York World’s Fair of 1939. This was soon followed by the real explosion of World War II, the final blow to a style thought of as just “too chic” and “too cheeky” for wartime.


How far Art Deco had metamorphosed from the extremely delicate eggshell lacquer of Jean Dunand, the exceptional glass sculptures of René Lalique, and the sharkskin-covered exotic furniture of Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann to the mass-produced household furnishings of the Depression, streamlined automobiles, and the razzmatazz of Hollywood!

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