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Art Decolocked

  • Suzanne Tise

Descriptive term applied to a style of decorative arts that was widely disseminated in Europe and the USA during the 1920s and 1930s. Derived from the style made popular by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925, the term has been used only since the late 1960s, when there was a revival of interest in the decorative arts of the early 20th century. Since then the term ‘Art Deco’ has been applied to a wide variety of works produced during the inter-war years, and even to those of the German Bauhaus. But Art Deco was essentially of French origin, and the term should, therefore, be applied only to French works and those from countries directly influenced by France.

1. France.

The development of the Art Deco style, or the Style moderne as it was called at the time, closely paralleled the initiation of the 1925 exhibition, and in many ways it was the product of it. The exhibition was originally conceived in 1907, and, unlike the Expositions Universelles that had preceded it in Paris, it was a government-sponsored project aimed specifically at developing export markets for French decorative and applied arts. It was also an attempt to find solutions to a broad range of problems experienced by French art industries since the mid-19th century, when the machine and the division of labour had been introduced into the artistic process. The issues that the exhibition was to address included: cooperation between artists, craftsmen and commercial manufacturers; increasing international competition in the luxury goods trade (of which France traditionally had been a leader); professional training for artisans; and apprenticeship legislation. These concerns were extremely important for Paris, which then had the highest concentration of artisans of any European city. The issues at stake, however, were not only artistic and economic but also cultural and nationalistic: the luxury crafts were considered one of the nation’s traditional sources of prestige. Although its programme stipulated that everything included had to be ‘modern’, the exhibition in fact had conflicting goals: encouraging a union between art and industry, while at the same time finding modern applications for traditional handicrafts that would otherwise be destined to disappear.

Preparations for an international decorative arts exhibition, first scheduled for 1915 but later postponed until 1925, led to a concerted effort on the part of French designers to define and develop a modern, specifically French style of decorative arts. Thus, many of the constituent elements of the Art Deco style were in place before 1914. Even though they sought a style that was outwardly modern, the artists of the Art Deco movement generally paid more attention to maintaining high-art traditions of luxury and quality than to exploring the functional aspects of domestic design. Formally, the Art Deco style was both a reaction to, and an emanation of, the French Art Nouveau style. Like Art Nouveau, the decorative repertory of Art Deco was based on nature, but, whereas the former often derived its formal language from exotic flowers and plants whose twisting and climbing stems were usually integrated into the structure of an object, the latter was much more restrained, rejecting running motifs and climbing stems for stylized and geometricized flower blossoms, often roses, gathered up and tied into bouquets or in baskets.

The Art Deco style was also influenced by the elegance and refinement of Viennese decorative arts and by the exoticism and strong vibrant colours of the Ballets Russes, which had made its début in Paris in 1909. The couturier Paul Poiret and the architect and decorator Louis Süe visited the Wiener Werkstätte and were impressed by its strikingly original and cosmopolitan style of design, as well as by its emphasis on making the environment, from domestic furnishings to clothing and jewellery, a total work of art. Poiret returned from Vienna and founded the Ecole d’Art Décoratif Martine and Atelier Martine in 1911. The furnishings he produced combined the Orientalism and warm colours of the Ballets Russes with the French Empire style. Poiret’s clothing and decorative designs were widely diffused in magazines and luxurious reviews such as the Gazette du bon ton (1912–25), most notably through the illustrations of Paul Iribe (1883–1935) and Georges Lepape (1887–1971).

Louis Süe founded the Atelier Français in Paris in 1912 and tried to create a modern style that made explicit references to the French tradition. Many of the characteristics of what was to become the Art Deco style were presented in a manifesto written by one of Süe’s associates, the landscape artist and garden theorist André Vera (1881–1971). Entitled ‘Le Nouveau Style’, this was published in L’Art décoratif in January 1912: in it Vera contended that a modern style of decorative arts should reject internationalism and also pastiche but nevertheless continue French traditions, especially the rationalism of the Louis XVI period and the more comfortable and bourgeois Louis-Philippe style. For decoration, contrasts of rich, bold colours should supplant the pale tones typical of Art Nouveau, and baskets and garlands of flowers should replace the 18th-century repertory of torches, bows and arrows. The decorator Paul Follot created one of the earliest designs with these characteristics, which is deemed one of the first Art Deco works: a dining-room ensemble in sycamore, ebony and amaranth, which was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne of 1912 (Paris, Mus. A. Déc.). The chair backs were sculpted in an openwork design representing a basket of fruit and flowers.

Art Deco dressing-table by Jacques-Emile Ruhlman, wood, 1925 (London, Victoria and Albert Museum); photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Art Resource, NY

This decorative and rather traditional current continued after 1918, reinforced by notions of a retour à l’ordre, which was the leitmotif of much post-war art in France. References to French classical art could be seen especially in decorative painting, sculpture and ceramics. The Art Deco movement was then led by Süe and the decorator André Mare (1885–1932), through their Compagnie des Arts Français (founded in 1919), together with André Groult (1884–1967), Clément Mère (b 1870), Paul Follot and the master cabinetmaker Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann. Their work continued the traditions of French ébénisterie and featured unusual combinations of luxurious and exotic materials, especially those from French colonies in Africa and Asia, such as ebony, palm-wood, rose-wood and shagreen (e.g. the dressing-table by Ruhlmann; see fig.). They based their aesthetic on contrasts of textures, colours and materials and on complicated techniques such as lacquerwork, marquetry and inlaid work using such materials as ivory and mother-of-pearl. Other references to the ébénistes of the Louis XVI period can be seen in the ingenious devices incorporated into furnishings, such as swivelling or inclinable desktops, drawers and flaps (e.g. the desk by Mère, c. 1923; Paris, Mus. A. Déc.). Influenced by Japanese art, these decorators tended to give a pictorial treatment to such large pieces of furniture as armoires and buffets, applying the decoration all over the surface rather than restricting it to joints or mouldings (e.g. Ruhlmann, cabinet, 1925; Paris, Mus. A. Déc.; and Süe and Mare, cabinet, 1927; Richmond, VA Mus. F.A.).

Georges Fouquet: Corsage ornament, jade, onyx, diamonds, enamel, and platinum, 8 7/8 x 3 3/4 in. (22.5 x 9.5 cm), c. 1923 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Eva and Michael Chow, 2001, Accession ID: 2001.723a, b); © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Art Deco movement encompassed a wide variety of decorative arts that were characterized by a certain sensuousness of curving forms, a lavish employment of luxurious materials and bold combinations of colours and floral patterns. The lacquered screens and furniture by Jean Dunand (1877–1942), who was also a master of dinanderie, were often engraved or sculpted and decorated with incrustations of mother-of-pearl or eggshell. In the work of the most important silversmith of the period, Jean Puiforcat, the clean lines and smooth surfaces, occasionally decorated with semi-precious stones, testify to a new architectural approach that departs from the exaltation of surface decoration typical of traditional silverwork. The painter Charles Dufresne brought the Art Deco style to tapestry; many of his designs were produced by the Beauvais factory. Georges Fouquet (1862–1957), Jean Fouquet (1899–1984), Louis Cartier (1875–1942), Raymond Templier (1891–1968) and Gérard Sandoz (b 1902) were the master jewellers of Art Deco. They replaced traditional precious stones and naturalistic floral settings with hardstones such as onyx, coral and jade in compositions of stylized motifs with strong colour contrasts (e.g. the cosarge ornament by Georges Fouquet; see fig.). Decorative forged ironwork, with lively motifs of stylized roses and arabesques, was popular in domestic and public interiors of the period. Raymond Henri Subes (1893–1970) and Edgar Brandt (1880–1960) were two of the major exponents of this medium.

The Art Deco style reached its apogee at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. In the climate of a post-war return to normality the exhibition lost much of its original emphasis on a union between art and industry and became instead a showcase for the finest products of the French luxury-goods industries. The most popular French pavilions were those devoted to a specific theme that demanded the collaborative effort of a group of artists. Among them was the sumptuous Hôtel d’un Collectionneur presented by Ruhlmann, its architecture by Pierre Patout. It featured furniture by Ruhlmann, lacquerwork by Dunand, forged ironwork by Brandt, sculpture by Joseph-Antoine Bernard, François Pompon and Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, and the large decorative painting The Parrots (New York, priv. col.) by Jean Dupas (1882–1964), one of the few painters to whom the appellation Art Deco can justly be applied. The Société des Artistes Décorateurs presented decorative ensembles destined for a French embassy. Paul Poiret presented his collections in three péniches (barges) entitled Amours, Délices and Orgues decorated by Raoul Dufy. In the pavilion entitled Musée d’Art Contemporain, Süe and Mare presented a grandiose music-room furnished with a desk in ebony and bronze and a grand piano with curved legs in a modernized Louis XV style. The interior decoration studios of the major department stores in Paris—Au Printemps (Primavera), Galeries Lafayette (La Maîtrise), Au Bon Marché (La Pomone) and the Grands Magasins du Louvre (Studium)—each had their own pavilions and were important in diffusing the Art Deco style.

Art Deco began to decline in France after the exhibition of 1925, as a more functionalist and internationalist group of designers emerged who were opposed to the decorative extravagance, nationalism and traditionalism of Art Deco. They formed the Union des Artistes Modernes in 1929. It could be argued that the influence of Art Deco continued in France during the 1930s in such ensembles as the liner Normandie (1935), but by 1930 proportions were becoming more monumental and forms heavier and fuller, without the ornamental exuberance so characteristic of Art Deco.

2. USA.

Because of the popularity of the 1925 exhibition, and through the diffusion of luxurious government-sponsored publications featuring the works displayed in the French section, the Art Deco style had a widespread international influence, especially in the USA. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York made numerous purchases from the exhibition and a display of 400 objects travelled to major American cities in 1926. The New York department store Lord & Taylor held yet another exhibition of the Style moderne in 1928. In spite of this, little that was produced in the USA during the late 1920s and early 1930s truly corresponds to the French works dating from 1920 to 1925, so the term ‘Art Deco’ should be used with caution. The USA simply did not have the luxury craft tradition that lay at the heart of Art Deco. Most of the best designers working in the USA from 1926 to 1930, and whose work has been labelled ‘Art Deco’ in popular publications, were industrial designers born and trained in Europe. Joseph Urban, Paul T(heodore) Frankl and Kem Weber, for example, were from Vienna, and the rationalism and geometry of the furnishings produced by the Wiener Werkstätte, rather than the French Style moderne, are clearly the source of their design. Frankl integrated the Viennese style with a specifically American skyscraper aesthetic (e.g. the ‘Skyscraper’ bookcase, c. 1928; Cincinnati, OH, A. Mus.). Other designers in America incorporated the rich colours and decorative geometries of the French Style moderne with a machine aesthetic. The interiors designed by Donald Deskey for Radio City Music Hall (1931) testify to the pervasive influence of French Art Deco, especially in their refinement and polychrome decoration, but they were infused with a rationalism, urban sophistication and modern use of materials that were not prevalent in France until the 1930s. Art Deco, in addition, should not be used to describe a style of architecture, but rather its surface ornament (see Art Deco architecture in America). If the Chrysler Building (William Van Alen, 1929; see fig.) in New York displays certain Art Deco influences in the decorative stainless-steel sunburst of the upper floors, its mechanistic iconography referring to automobiles was not part of the Art Deco repertory. The lobby, however, with its expensive marbles and richly decorated elevator doors with an intarsia design in the form of a papyrus flower, is a masterpiece of the Art Deco style. One can find the decorative motifs of the French Style moderne applied to the entrance of the Goelet Building (E. H. Faile, 1930) at 608 Fifth Avenue, New York, and to the top floors of the Kansas City Power and Light Company Building (Hoit, Price & Barnes, 1932).

A highly exaggerated and commercialized version of Art Deco was popular in cinemas and theatres during the late 1920s, notably in the Pantages Theatre (Marcus B. Priteca, 1929–30) in Los Angeles. By the mid-1930s the Art Deco influence on American design gave way to the horizontal, flowing, streamlined style that was evocative of speed and a technological Utopia (see Streamlined Moderne).

International Music Hall, photographed by Samuel H. Gottscho, house from main orchestra with curtain down, Radio City, New York, 1932; image credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


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  • B. Hillier: Art Deco of the 20s and 30s (London, 1968)
  • G. Veronesi: Style 1925: Triomphe et chute des ‘Arts-Déco’ (Lausanne and Paris, 1968)
  • Y. Brunhammer: The Nineteen-twenties Style (London, 1969)
  • Art Deco: Schmuck und Bücher aus Frankreich (exh. cat., foreword by F. Falk; Pforzheim, Schmuckmus.; Munich, Villa Stuck; Hamburg, Mus. Kst & Gew.; 1975–6)
  • C. Bizot and M. Béranger: Bibliographie 1925 (Paris, 1976)
  • Cinquantenaire de l’Exposition de 1925 (exh. cat. by Y. Brunhammer and others, Paris, Mus. A. Déc., 1976–7)
  • V. Arwas: Art Deco (London, 1980, rev. 1992)
  • A. Duncan: Art Deco Furniture: The French Designers (London, 1984)
  • W. Uecker: Art Deco: Die Kunst der zwanziger Jahre (Munich, 1984)
  • P. Cabanne: Encyclopédie Art Déco (Paris, 1986)
  • A. Duncan: American Art Deco (London, 1986)
  • P. Frantz Kery: Art Deco Graphics (London, 1986)
  • Y. Brunhammer and S. Tise: French Decorative Art, 1900–1942 (Paris, 1990)
  • M. Dufrene, ed.: Authentic Art Deco Interiors (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1990) [illustrates the 96 interiors in the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes]
  • C. Benton, T. Benton and G. Wood: Art Deco 1910–1939 (Boston, 2003)
  • A.-R. Hardy: Art Deco Textiles: The French Designers (London and New York, 2003)
  • Y. Peyré and H. G. Fletcher: Art Deco Bookbindings: The Work of Pierre Legrain and Rose Adler (New York, 2004)