Keep in mind that the '20s was also the decade when Modernism emerged in Europe, with the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and others. Although Art Deco is usually considered Modernism's more frivolous, decorative opposite, it was just a different approach to the quest for a modern style. Indeed, some designers like Eileen Gray seem to straddle both styles. Until it got the name Art Deco retrospectively (in the 1960s), the style was known as Moderne (French for Modern).
In France, Art Deco combined the quality and luxury of the French furniture tradition with the good taste of Classicism and the exoticism of distant, pre-industrial lands and cultures. Many designers used sumptuous, expensive materials like exotic hardwoods, lacquer, ivory and shagreen in order to update traditional forms like armchairs, dressing tables and screens. Motifs like Meso-American ziggurats, Chinese fretwork, and African textile patterns offered a new visual vocabulary for designers to play with in order to create fresh, modern work — the cultural context of the 'exotic' originals was largely ignored.
This was a new age of luxury transportation, with the commercial development of airplanes, automobiles and oceanliners explicitly linking glamor and exoticism. Interest in travel and in exotic lands, people and materials was also connected to French colonialism, which was at its brief height during this era, with major holdings across North and West Africa and South Asia.
In the US, Art Deco was associated less with luxury than with the efficiency of the machine age. Pieces referenced cars, speedboats and skyscrapers, among other modern marvels. New York City was the ultimate inspiration for American Art Deco, its syncopated rhythms literally putting the 'jazz' in 'Jazz Age.'
French Art Deco 1 The defining moment of Art Deco was the 1925 Paris Exposition of Decorative Arts (where the movement would later get its name), and you can see elements of the style in this promotional poster. The font is crisp, sans-serif, showing an elegant efficiency native to the machine age. On the other hand, the image is a woodblock print, emphasizing the importance of luxurious handcraft to the Art Deco era. The Classical influence is clear and literal, with the guy in the toga. Nature in Art Deco is depicted as beautiful, graceful, highly stylized and controlled. (Robert Bonfils, "Paris 1925" color woodblock, Paris 1925, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.)
2 Art Deco interiors combined geometric forms with plush comfort and luxurious materials. One of the most important themes for Art Deco is the exotic. This smoking room has 'exotic' elements in the lacquered walls (lacquer was an Asian technique), ziggurat-like stepped ceiling, and African-patterned cushions. (Jean Saudé rendering of a lacquer smoking room designed by Jean Dunand, Paris 1925, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.)
3 This screen also bears the lacquer technique, which was not only exotic in origin, but also involved a very time-consuming and expensive handcraft process involving not only lacquer, but here also gold, eggshell and mother-of-pearl. The artist/designer, Jean Dunand, had apprenticed with a Japanese master lacquer maker for years. You can also see the Classical references and the stylized forms so common to Art Deco. (Jean Dunand & Séraphin Soudbinine, Lacquer, eggshell and mother-of-pearl screen, Paris 1925-6, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
4 French Art Deco featured luxurious furniture handcrafted out of sumptuous and exotic materials. This cabinet references traditional forms of French furniture, but is inlaid with ivory, a reference to (and product of) the elephants of exotic Africa, where France had important colonies. The inlay forms a Classical urn holding cut flowers — again it's stylized and tamed nature as opposed to the rampant vines of the Art Nouveau era. Like much Art Deco furniture, this is low to the ground, with attenuated, elegant lines. (Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, "État" cabinet, ebony, amaranth and ivory, Paris 1926, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
5 This is the interior of the Normandie, the most luxurious oceanliner ever made. Decorated by the titans of French Art Deco design, it featured this first-class dining room, longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and three decks high, and outfitted with endless crystal panels and chandeliers by Lalique. The doors featured Classical motifs in bronze relief. (The First-Class Dining Room on the S.S. Normandie. Designers included René Lalique, Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Jean Dunand, Paris 1934-5, via the South Street Seaport Museum.) The Normandie made its maiden voyage in 1935 with all sorts of celebs on board, but it was soon left to idle in New York harbor because it was so costly to operate. Just a few years later, World War II began, bringing the Art Deco era to a close.
American Art Deco 6 After the 1925 Paris Exposition, American designers began working in the Art Deco style in the US. For American audiences, however, there was less of an emphasis on luxury and exclusivity and more interest in mass-production, accessibility and the machine age. This desk was probably based on a French precedent handmade in expensive shagreen and ivory by Léon Jallot, but it was tweaked for American audiences: it was made from inexpensive synthetic lacquer substitute with metal handles, machine-produced and sold at a department store (where it was not cheap, but still within reach for middle-class consumers). (Dressing table and bench sold at Lord & Taylor, c. 1929, via michael james armstrong.)
7 Even luxurious products of American Art Deco had a more industrial, machine age feel than their French counterparts. Compare this Donald Deskey screen to the Jean Dunand screen in image 3. While Dunand worked in exotic lacquer and referenced Classical art, Deskey's screen is pure geometry, made using gold and silver leaf, leather and oil paint — still luxurious, but no longer looking to Asia for a new visual vocabulary. (Donald Deskey, Three-panel screen, c. 1928, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond.
8 American Art Deco was preoccupied by speed, a symbol of modern transportation literally and of optimistic forward motion figuratively. By the '30s, American Art Deco had become dominated by the Streamline style, which used things like visual simplicity and automotive styling to represent speed and modernity. This club chair, from 1936, was called the Speed Chair, and was styled to resemble a speedboat. Its designer, Paul Frankl, is among the most important proponents of Art Deco in America. He also created the Skyscraper line of furniture, which used motifs and echoes from New York's famous buildings, again another way of incorporating a modern visual vocabulary. (Paul Frankl, Speed Chair, c. 1936, via Christie's).
Think you know your stuff? Take the Art Deco Quiz on the Victoria & Albert website!
Images: As linked above