I opened my 2014 book, French Art Deco, with that very question. And indeed, I spent much of my two-decade career as a museum curator asking myself the same, struggling with a term that has been broadly applied to virtually every aspect of material culture created from the 1910s through the 1940s. For example, how does one reconcile luxurious, handcrafted French objects made for the wealthy élite with machine-like mass-produced American ones made for middle-class consumers, both called Art Deco? And how do those relate to the elegant historicism of Scandinavia? Folk-inspired Middle-European design? Italian works that at the same time exploit links with classical antiquity and Futurism? Or that distinctively American phenomenon, Streamlining? What about towering skyscrapers, stylized ziggurats, and Cubistic geometries? Or the opposing tastes for intense colours and the monochrome? Well, Art Deco is all of these things—and more.
The term Art Deco, which only came into use following important exhibitions at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (1966) and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (1971), refers of course, to the famous Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), a vast fair held in central Paris during the summer of 1925. Its focus was self-explanatory: what we now consider “design” in its most comprehensive sense, everything from architecture to the smallest personal accessory. And indeed today, just as in 1925, Art Deco continues to refer explicitly to the decorative arts (although the “fine arts” of painting and sculpture are very much a part of the Art Deco canon, within this context they function most successfully as aspects of decoration).
While the majority of work shown at the Paris Exposition was French, over 20 other nations participated, suggesting that by 1925 a full-fledged international design idiom—what is now considered Art Deco—was firmly in place. Art Deco, however, never was a unified style. Rather, it was broad-ranging and often contradictory. Numerous factors determined its particular expressions: the time and place in which it was created, localized culture and traditions, and broader economic and political forces.
Even so, a certain universality came from a widespread attempt to invent a design language suited to the modern world, one that addressed the needs and desires of the burgeoning 20th century and which reflected its changing mores, tastes, habits, and technologies. Although the most general shared characteristics of this new language were simplification and abstraction, the sources designers mined were many and varied: historicism, exoticism, avant-gardism, and others. But perhaps the most important aspect of Art Deco was its unabashed commercialism: it was specifically conceived to appeal to consumers, whether rich or middle class (and it is just this which separates it from Modernism, the contemporaneous movement which was shaped instead by high-minded polemics and ideology rather than commerce).
In my book, I state that Art Deco has come to be used “as an umbrella label for the vast range of design and architecture created globally between the First and Second World Wars.” I like that definition. But classifying things helps us make sense of them; the more specific the terminology, the better we understand a subject. And so, the Art Deco years were those of the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, the Skyscraper Era, and all their attendant personalities: the flapper, the vamp, and the Rockette; the bootlegger and the gangster. But they were also the time of Art Moderne in the English-speaking world, of Le Style Moderne in France, of Nordic Classicism, Swedish Grace and Funkis in Scandinavia, of El Noucentisme in Spain, of Zackenstil in Germany, of Estilo Português Suave in Portugal and its colonies—some of the many iterations of Art Deco. Further, it continued through the period of the Crash of 1929, the Great Depression, and the rise of Fascism, an era bracketed at both ends by devastating world wars. Art Deco encompasses and was informed by all of that.
An important role of organizations such as the Art Deco Society of New York is to spread Art Deco’s multifaceted story, helping aficionados, such as myself, further our collective understanding and knowledge of the subject we love, so that we each may find our own definition for it.
About the Author:
Jared Goss is an independent scholar and former Associate Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and a member of the Board of Directors of the Art Deco Society of New York. Goss is the author of French Art Deco.