A counter to the ornamentation of Art Nouveau, the Art Deco style of architecture, design and visual arts might have managed only a brief lifespan, but its impact and influence continue to resonate a century on
Emerging in the 1910s and flourishing through the 1920s, Art Deco marked the first architecture-cum-design movement of a global nature.
The movement takes its name from the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts which was held in Paris in 1925.
An abbreviation of Decorative Arts, Art Deco relates largely to interior architecture, with its tapestries, stained glass, paintings, furniture and ornamental sculptures, cabinet-making, the use of ceramics and silversmithing. The designs appearing on pieces for the home and office are also associated with the style, alongside fashion and the typography of advertisements and other creations.
The Art Deco style took off before World War I as a counter to the volutes and organic forms of Art Nouveau. It marked a return to classical rigour: symmetry; classical orders, which were often highly stylised; and cut stone, though without the emphasis on the picturesque. The décor, generally still very present, no longer possessed the freedom evident in the 1900s, rather it conveyed strict control, with the drawings inspired by cubist geometry.
Order, colour and geometry
These three components form the essence of Art Deco vocabulary.
However, the vocabulary took different forms, depending on the region, and according to the architects and their clients. Its stylistic unity was the use of geometry, which served an essentially decorative purpose, and was non-structural, unlike the movement of the international avant-garde, also called modernism or international style, which established architectural principles of volumes in bays and harmonic circulations. This rich decoration, alongside the purity and simplicity of the design, was used and applied by architects to varying degrees, depending on where they were based and their individual style.
Art Deco is also the first style to have extended its reach worldwide, arriving first in France, then moving on to Belgium, Portugal, Spain, North Africa and the UK. Its influence was also felt farther afield in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, the Philippines and elsewhere.
Origins prior to 1914
Art Deco’s sources are rooted in the years 1900-1910. The reactionary movement against Art Nouveau appears at the beginning of the century in France, and even earlier in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, where some were already describing Art Nouveau as “soft” or “noodle style”. The move was now already veering towards simple lines, classical compositions and a sparse use of décor. This desire to return to order, symmetry and sobriety was expressed in a variety of ways, depending on the country.
In Austria, for example, the undulating line of early Art Nouveau was quickly replaced by a network of orthogonal lines and simple volumes, under the influence of Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The iconic artists participating in this trend were Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, Otto Wagner and the Wiener Werkstätte group.
This order then found its way to Brussels, a great Art Nouveau city, from 1905-1911, best represented in the Stoclet Palace. The interiors, as seen in photographs, showcase the Wiener Werkstätte group and the painter Gustav Klimt.
In France, the first signs of this desire for change were perceptible as early as the 1900s. Analysing the work of Henri Bellery-Desfontaines makes it possible to measure the passage from 1902-1904 between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. However, he was not alone in operating at a junction point between styles to reduce the boundaries between the decorative, the artisanal and the artistic; in 1907, Eugène Grasset published a method of ornamental composition that gave pride of place to geometric forms and its variations.
This vision contrasts with the vast freedom that Hector Guimard, so popular in Paris a few years earlier, displayed. The following year, the illustrator Paul Iribe drew a fashion album for designer Paul Poiret, whose innovative aesthetics were noted by the Parisian milieu.
A third important event, the Autumn Salon of 1910, saw invitations extended to the artists of Munich who, for several years, had adopted strict forms. Around 1910, the French decorators André Mare, Louis Süe and Paul Auscher were also showing a shift in style towards rigour and more restraint. In sculpture, meanwhile, François Pompon created his famous bear.
From the architectural side, the Champs-Élysées theatre site opened between 1910 and 1913, another sign of the radical aesthetic change under way among the Parisian milieu. First entrusted to Henry Van de Velde, the design and construction was quickly returned to Auguste Perret. The rigorous composition of the of the façade and measured space allotted to décor impacted the spirit of the inauguration in 1913. Finally, Henri Sauvage renewed formal architectural landmarks with technical references on buildings from the beginning of the century.
These evolutions are summed up in 1912 by André Vera, a designer. His article, The New Style, published in the journal Decorative Art, expresses a rejection of Art Nouveau forms that are asymmetrical, polychrome, picturesque, and that excite feelings more than reason. He calls for a “voluntary simplicity”, a “single matter” and a “manifest symmetry”. At the end of the article, he urges artists to draw inspiration from the classicism of the 17th century marked by “clarity, order and harmony”. He also calls for the thread of the history of French styles from the Louis-Philippe period, marked by a lack of pasticher, to be resumed. Vera’s final words note two themes that will be ubiquitous in the future Art Deco style, “the basket and the garland of flowers and fruits”.
The influence of the painting of the 1910s can be seen in trends such as the popularisation of Fauvism and still more of cubism. Works by the painters of the Golden Section often proved to be more accessible to the public than those of Picasso and Georges Braque. The themes, such as sport and the working world, alongside the shimmering colours, contrasted with the fragmented and avant-garde still lifes of the pioneers of the movement. Cubist vocabulary, meanwhile, seduced the designers of fashion, furniture and interior design.
In a further development, 1910s’ Paris discovered Serge Diaghilev’s Russian ballets, mixing dance, music and painting that was inspired by the 1001 Nights. Marking an invitation to luxury and exoticism, the costumes were created by Léon Bakst, alongside others, hence the characteristic fans, feathers, jets of water and bright colours. The unusual hues also found their way into furniture, with boudoirs showcasing orange walls and lounges in black.
The roaring twenties
While 1920s’ Germany was caught up in a major economic crisis, France’s situation had improved, with the country weathering the monetary crises of both 1924 and 1926. Other nations also began to move on, although stark reminders of the impact of war were all too evident and cities destroyed needed to be rebuilt. Reims and Saint-Quentin, both of which suffered huge damage, were reconstructed largely in the Art Deco architectural style of the time.
There was also a shift in mindset towards the significance of museums and their contents, with more focus given to ethnography. In addition, the post-war years saw a change in the way elements previously viewed as exotic in English architecture found their way into designs.
While modernism linked several key cities, such as Bordeaux and New York, the financial instability felt across Europe meant house prices continued to rise in France until 1927, resulting in a severe housing crisis for the country’s middle and lower classes. However, the early 1920s also saw manifestations of financial wealth among the richest classes in France.
In Paris, as in many large provincial cities, commentators of the time observed the construction of ornate buildings, villas and mansions, which were prolific projects for designer-artists and Art Deco architects.
The trend included a simplification of the work involved to gain speed in execution, something that bound together all architecture using modern principles, ahead of the use of reinforced concrete and metal profiles. The trend for taller models, a sign of wealth and modernity, was taken from the US, which was seen as the economic champion of the time. This desire for height came to feature in the town planning policies, which deviated from the rules only if there was architectural justification. The trend contributed to key aspects in structural progress, such as the construction of integrated garages, and aesthetics, including the preservation of heritage and character in a building.
Art deco and architecture
The 1920s were also an era for evolution across a variety of domains. There was a strong interest in the richness of decoration and less interest in the constructive structure, something closely aligned with the so-called modernist structural architecture.
Modernism advocates a strong interest in the constructive structure, as evidenced in bays and circulations of the time. Architects and owners of buildings showed less interest in the apparent richness symbolised by the decoration, although their real motivation could also have been the economy and desire to represent the problems incurred within the area. This so-called ‘gesture of living’ was theorised at the time and evidenced in the structured component kitchen and dining room habitat studied by the Austrian architect, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926. Once again, the extent to which elements were adopted across different countries varied and was also influenced by each protagonist’s individual way of working.
Transatlantic and Art Deco cruise ships
In the 1920s and 1930s, before the advent of long-distance commercial aviation, the main means of intercontinental transportation was the ocean liner. Fierce competition between companies such as the UK’s Cunard-White Star, HAPAG (Germany), Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (France) and Compagnie Flote Italiane (Italy), was coupled with a fight between nations for the prestige of bringing increasingly quicker, more elegant and comfortable liners into operation. From the 1920s onwards, shipyards began to move towards modernism as their preferred choice for liners’ interior design. While the English ships Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth remained characterised by a classic look, in similar style to their predecessors, the Mauretania, Lusitania and Titanic, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique took a daring modernist approach with the Ile de France (1927) and even more so with the Normandy (1935), a true sea-cathedral of Art Deco that showcased the work of designers Louis Süe, André Mare, Jean Dunand, Patout and Pacon, Raymond Subes, Jacques Carlu and Carlhian alongside others. The Germans followed the movement, with Bremen and Europa entrusting their interior spaces to the great architect Paul Troost. Not to be outdone, Italy’s two ships Rex and Conte di Savoia were emblematic of the Mussolini era, with designs that combined modernism and a reinterpretation of Roman antiquity.
So suitably symbolic were luxury transatlantic liners of progress, opulence and aspiration that architects were keen to take them as inspiration for designing buildings. Examples include Georges-Henri Pingusson’s Latitude hotel, overlooking Saint-Tropez, and the Normandy hotel in Puerto Rico which, like many other buildings from the 1930s, reflect the stylistic features of the Transat flagship, such as rounded volumes, terraces and windows in horizontal curtains. This variant of Art Deco is often referred to as a liner style in France and a modern streamline in the US.
Art Deco furniture was the work of designers destined for a well-heeled clientele, hungry for novelty, but who remained relatively conformist; unique furniture made by cabinetmakers offering luxury and perfection.
The Art Deco or modern style formula was characterised by a decorative style that spread internationally, an amalgam of art and craft belonging to a world of luxury and opulence, championed by masters of the new design, Jean-Michel Frank, Andre Arbus, Paul Dupre-Lafon and Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann.
This short, but intense period of aesthetic and technical renewal ended with the arrival of the modernists, who opposed in an almost ideological way the ornamental wealth of Art Deco and championed alternatives, led by functional minimalism.
Featured image: Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, argentier, 1921, detail.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Letters From The Past #43 pages 126-129.