Art Deco is a modern art style that strives to incorporate functional objects with artistic touches. It applies to broad ranges of functional visual arts: architecture, furniture, interior decoration, even in what otherwise known as pure fine art with no practical purpose such as painting and sculpture. First appeared in France before World War I, it influenced multiple facets of design, most notably during its peak in the 1910s until it subdued in the 1939s.
The birth of Art Deco was strongly related to the status raising of decorative artists, whom until the late 1900s had been deemed only as artisans. The term art décoratifs which was invented in 1875 gave the designers of textile, furniture, and other decoration official status. Starting in 1901, movements entirely devoted to décorative arts began to emerge in Europe. Thus décorative artists were finally given the same authorship as painters and sculptors.
One of the most significant influences on Art Deco was the architects of Vienna Secession, notably Josef Hoffman. His most famed architectural work, Stoclet Palace in Brussels (completed in 1911), featured geometric volumes, straight lines, symmetry, and sumptuous interior, becoming a prototype of the Art Deco style.
In 1913, French architect Auguste Perret built what was the first landmark Art Deco building, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Being the first reinforced concrete theater of alleged Germanic influence copied from Vienna Secession, it inspired the majority of Art Deco buildings to be made of the same material. Other new materials and technologies such as then-newly found methods in producing plate glass and mass-producing aluminum, were all key to the growth of Art Deco alongside strengthened concrete.
Fast forward to 1925 in Paris, this was the first time the term Arts Décoratifs was used in an exhibition. Tagged as the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the show was the origin of the label Art Deco itself. However, the exact phrase Art Deco was coined in the first modern exhibition on the subject held in Paris in 1966, namely Les Années 25: Art déco, Bauhaus, Stijl, Esprit nouveau. It then turned up for the first time in print later in the same year when The Times’ Hillary Gelson wrote the term in her newspaper article to describe the different styles at the exhibit, which covered significant styles that shaped the 1920s and 1930s. It’s not until the next two years when the term began to widely spread thanks to the first major academic book on the particular style written by historian Bevis Hillier: Art Deco of the 20s and 30s.
Truthfully, Art Deco was a pastiche of a multitude of styles unified by a desire to be modern. Since the inception, it was highly influenced by the gold geometric shapes of Cubism and the Vienna Secession, the bright colour palette of Fauvism and of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, the improved craftsmanship of the furniture of Louis Philippe I and Louis XVI eras, and last but not least, the exotic styles of China and Japan, Persia, and ancient Egypt and Maya art. Art Deco designers also took ideas from Russian Constructivism, Italian Futurism, Orphism, Functionalism, and Modernism in general.
In 1912, garden designer and town planner André Vera wrote an article titled Le Nouveau style for the journal L’Art décoratif. Considered as the pioneer of Art Deco, he expressed the dismissal of Art Nouveau forms that involved asymmetry, polychrome, and picturesque, and bespoke simplicité volontaire, symétrie manifeste, l'ordre et l'harmonie, themes that would later become prevalent within Art Deco, although the Deco style was often anything but simple and extremely colourful.
In the decorative art scene, Art Deco was all about the explosion of vivid colours frequently in floral designs, showcased in furniture upholstery, carpets, screens, wallpapers, and fabrics. Generally, Art Deco took ideas from the haute couture vocabulary thereat, which featured geometric designs, chevrons, zigzags, and stylish bouquets of flowers.
Until the Great Depression took place in the 1930s, Art Deco was closely correlated with both opulence and modernity. It combined exorbitant materials and excellent craftsmanship put into modernistic shapes. Furniture pieces with ivory and silver inlays, jewelry with diamond and jade, decorative accessories with precious materials; nothing was cheap about Art Deco. No wonder the style was frequently applied to first-class salons of ocean liners, executive train cars, and show-stopping skyscrapers around the world. After the Great Depression, the style toned down a bit but was still somewhat extravagant.
Art Deco in Architecture
In architecture, Art Deco was both the continuation and defiance against Art Nouveau, a style dominating Europe circa 1895-1900. In 1905, Franco-Swiss decorative artist Eugène Grasset published his writing Méthode de Composition Ornementale, Éléments Rectilignes, in which he stressed the fundamentals of all compositional arrangements: various simple geometric shapes such as triangles and squares.
Some of the exemplary structures of Art Deco buildings are Perret and Sauvage’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Alexey Dushkin’s Mayakovskaya, and iconic trio Louis-Hippolyte Boileau, Jacques Carlu, and Léon Azéma’s Palais de Chaillot. In the States, the style was mostly showcased in forms of government buildings, theatres, and skyscrapers in particular. The Chrysler building in downtown Manhattan radically changed the New York skyline with its stainless steel spire crown and deco “gargoyles” modeled after radiator ornaments. Following it was the statuesque Empire State Building and 30 Rockefeller Plaza (then RCA Building).
Art Deco in Interior Design
Art Deco interiors were particularly dynamic and colourful. It combined sculpture, murals, and avant-garde geometric designs in marble, glass, stainless steel, and ceramics. Joseph Nathaniel French’s Fisher Building in Detroit is one of the early examples with its sculpture-decorated lobby. Only 3,5 miles away, stands Wirt Rowland’s The Guardian Building (then the Union Trust Building) with its red-and-white ceramics and brightly coloured marble decoration complementing the distinctly polished steel elevator doors and counters.
In France, Albert Laprade, Léon Jaussely, and Léon Bazin’s Palais de la Porte Dorée is one of the best examples of an Art Deco interior. Constructed for the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931, the entirety of the exterior façade was covered with ornate sculpture, while the lobby was embellished with a wood parquet floor in a geometric pattern, a mural portraying the people of French colonies, and a well-suited composition of vertical doors and horizontal balconies, creating an excellent Art Deco harmony to the eyes.