Taking its name from the major exhibition of decorative arts held in Paris in 1925, Art Deco was a design style that epitomised the 1920s and 1930s. It was characterised by geometric or stylised shapes and bright colours.

Ian Cheyne Loch Duich 1934 © The Estate of the Artist

Origins of the Style

In many ways Art Deco was a continuation of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau era. Like their predecessors, Art Deco artists and designers sought to blur the boundaries between fine art and design, with a focus on well-made objects. The Art Deco style as we now know it was founded by a group of French artists who called themselves the Societe des Artists Decorateurs (The Society of Decorative Artists), which included established and emergent creatives. One of its members, Francis Jourdain wrote, ‘We consequently resolved to return decorative art … to the important, almost preponderant place it occupied in the past.’

The group planned for a large-scale, survey exhibition to take place in 1914, but it was postponed until after the war. It finally took place in Paris in 1925 after being sponsored by the French government, titled the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes and showcasing work by over 15,000 artists and designers, with a particular focus on functional objects. Initially the new style that the hugely successful show ushered in was referred to as Style Moderne, or Paris 1925; the term Art Deco did not come into full use until the 1960s.

The Art Deco Style

Ideas for the new style of art and design were absorbed from a wide range of diverse sources. Many of the early twentieth-century avant-garde art movements, including Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism influenced the prevalent geometric lines, patterns and forms of Art Deco, translated into accessible, designed objects. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s ordered, rational take on Art Nouveau had a distinctly modern appeal for the next generation, as did many of the elaborate set and costume designs of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 opened up a new interest in Egyptian golds and metals, while the hard edges and blocky shapes of African ‘primitive’ sculpture continued to influence art and design.

The Deco style made a departure from Art Nouveau’s floral, decorative qualities focussing instead on sleek and simple designs crafted from luxury materials. Writer Aldous Huxley wrote about the style, ‘Simplicity of form contrasts at the present time with richness of materials … Modern simplicities are rich and sumptuous.’ Where Art Nouveau had placed an emphasis on the hand crafted, Art Deco makers were enticed by the machine age, seeking ways manufactured objects could be enlivened by quality design. They saw this as a more egalitarian approach, where multiple versions of mass produced, high quality objects could be available to everyone.

Although it was predominantly focussed on 3D designs such as architecture, furniture, ceramics, glass, clocks and jewelry, Art Deco was also translated into two dimensions, seen in French artist Tamara de Lempicka’s bold, angular paintings, Ukranian graphic designer A.M. Cassandre’s elegant poster designs for transport companies and Scottish artist Ian Cheyne’s vivid, flat planes of colour and curved forms, seen in Hell’s Glen, 1928.

Art Deco in the United States and Beyond

In the United States the Art Deco style, which became known as Streamline Moderne, was particularly popular, taking on an even glossier, streamlined aesthetic than its French counterparts. William Van Alen’s Chrysler Building is possibly the most famous example, a shining emblem of the Art Deco era with its seamless combination of form and function. The interior of the Radio City Music Hall was similarly ambitious, designed by Donald Deskey to be ‘completely and uncompromisingly contemporary in effect, as modern in its design of furniture, wallpapers and murals as it will be in technical devices for stage presentations.’ Art Deco became popular in several other capitals, including Havana, Cuba, Mumbai and Jakarta.

Legacy

In spite of its geometric style, after the Second World War Art Deco was considered a decorative indulgence which would later be replaced by the hard edges and clean, simple lines of Modernism. It is recognised today as a highly distinctive symbol of its time, synonymous with the lively and adventurous spirit of the ‘roaring twenties.’ Aspects of its pervasive style have seeped into many other design styles since, particularly mid-century Modernism.

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