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What is Art Deco?

From the Archives
By Dan Klein


With the kind permission of Rizzoli, THE MODERNIST presents the conclusion of Dan Klein 's introduction to In the Deco Style. It is one of the most interesting and informative summation of Art Deco in all its many aspects now available. This is an authoritative overview that puts Art Deco in proper perspective. To read part one, see the last issue of THE MODERNIST (Vol. 7, No. 2, page 2.) -Ed.


Art Deco was not a movement. It had no founder, no manifesto, and no philosophy. It simply happened because designers and decorators in Paris during the period after the First World War were stimulated by the demands of a restructured society. Unlike the idealists of the Bauhaus or De Stijl, they had no intention of imposing rigorous new lifestyles, but in the process of their work these French designers created a broad new style, which rapidly became popular elsewhere. This style is instantly recognizable because everything was designed to go together and make a complete ensemble; also it is encapsulated so neatly in the period between the wars and the Second World War forced a complete stylistic break in Europe, causing a sharp separation between Art Deco and its successors.

The clearest hallmark of Art Deco is its geometry, which was largely derived from Cubism. Everything from flowers to the human form became angular. Shapes became bolder and simpler as geometry took over. Subjects that were particularly well suited to this treatment featured frequently and have now come to be called the symbols of Art Deco. The sunburst with its clearly defined circle surrounded by radiating lines is one of them; the ziggurat is another, as is the formalized fountain motif with its arc-shapes.


Other important aspects of Art Deco were streamlining and jazziness. Speed was considered to be one of the great marvels of the twentieth century-‘speed is our God’, wrote the Futurist poet Marinetti-and the sleek lines - imposed by the laws of aerodynamics became more and more a feature of design. A good example is Lalique’s car mascot Victoire or Spirit of the Wind, a moulded sculpture in tinted glass of a maiden with streaming hair set in a frozen geometric pattern of parallel diagonals. Decorators and designers took particular delight in applying these features of Art Deco to recent technological discoveries or improvements. Light-fittings underwent a complete transformation, becoming sculptural, ingenious or streamlined to complement other ideas within a total scheme. With changing social attitudes rooms that previously were hidden away became a prominent part of the house; kitchens and more particularly bathrooms were ‘featured’ by designers, for instance Madame Lanvin’s elegant bathroom was designed by Albert Armand Rateau. The strong simple shapes of Art Deco lent themselves to clear primary colours and sharp colour contrasts. Red, black and silver is a typical colour combination, the red and black providing a background of geometric shapes and the silver acting as a separating highlight or defining ziggurats and other geometric motifs, as in Dunand’s metal and lacquer vases. As silver was such a popular colour, much use was made of chrome; glass too was well suited to the bright, somewhat hard-edged look of Deco. Sharp colours like acid green or orange were also popular as they could help to make a shape stand out better. On the whole the colour spectrum of Art Deco is a bright one, saved from garishness by supreme elegance. Because Art Deco covers such a wide range of design it is difficult to know where the definition ends, for it borrowed freely from what were perhaps more serious design trends like De Stijl and the Bauhaus. Led by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus architects stripped their buildings bare of ornament and, in an intellectual process not dissimilar to Cubism, were left with a geometric skeleton. Vertical planes, horizontal planes and clearly defined curves became structure and decoration in one, and this basic geometry got stricter as the years went by. As the influence of the Bauhaus became more pronounced the florid geometry of Ruhlmann and Paul Follot gave way to the starker look of Pierre Chareau or Le Corbusier and the Modern Movement.


There is a certain amount of overlap between Art Deco and the Modern Movement, but it would be impossible to determine where one ends and the other begins, or whether Eileen Gray and Pierre Chareau fit into one category or the other. In the design world of the twenties and thirties there were extremes of stark geometry, extremes of rococo decoration and countless combinations of the two. But whether the designers said it with flowers or with a ruler and compass, unless they belonged to a particular school, they were all speaking the language of Art Deco. The century before the Second World War saw perhaps the most radical changes ever to take place in the history of design; it is difficult to imagine anything further apart than the high ornament of Victorian Gothic and the stark simplicity of the Bauhaus, the difference between the Pugin House of Lords’ throne and the Mies van der Rohe cantilever chair. Art Deco was the popular, rather than intellectual, response to these changes and in many ways this century is still trying to absorb the full implications of Art Deco; it cannot leave it alone, and has been either recreating it or building on it ever since it first became established as a style half a century ago. In all its guises Art Deco reflects twentieth-century attitudes, the need for imitative grandeur among the upper-middle classes in France, or the struggle of the German intelligentsia for a new classless society. Just as ‘Victorian’ is the label applied to nearly all the diverse styles of the nineteenth century, Art Deco is already synonymous with a style that emerged after the turn of the twentieth century and expressed itself most fully during the period between the wars. Every country adapted it to suit its needs, with strikingly different results ranging from Italian Fascist architecture to the Chrysler Building in New York. In America, where the direct effects of the Second World War were least felt, the style continued without much interruption. Skyscraper architecture evolved with biblical progression, one style ‘begetting’ the next. The most noticeable effect of wartime isolation was that America managed to evolve a truly American contemporary style. It was based largely on European modernism (chiefly because so many European designers had sought refuge in the States), and was an updated version of Deco. Conversely, the 1950s in Europe was a period when nobody wanted to be reminded of what had just happened and it gave birth to an awkward angularity that will come to be considered as an eccentric by-road of twentieth-century design. Finally, by the mid-sixties Art Deco was hailed once more, this time like a long lost friend. The great landmark in this Deco revival was the ‘World of Art Deco’ exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1971.


This took place when the world was just ripe for a bout of nostalgia, and though an art historical muddle, it was a trend-setting event and established the term Art Deco in the English language. The pastiche Deco jacket for the catalogue became a classic of seventies design and the influence of Deco can be seen throughout the decade, particularly in graphics. The Italian designers especially abandoned the amoeba-like shapes of the fifties for the clean lines of the new-found style that had been interrupted by the war. In the mood of nostalgia that pervaded the late sixties and seventies Deco was a favourite source : twenties sequinned frocks were the most desirable of second-hand clothes; No, No, Nanette was staged in New York and London, adhering as closely as possible to the original, and Barbara Hulanicki took over the Derry & Toms building in London to create an updated version of the original department store. In the eighties the reaction to the so master, Joseph Beuys. Not only does Keifer provoke thought about the past to promote change in the future, but he also evokes the scenic perspectives of 18th century theatre in a cleanly functional oak lodge, with fiery sconces at the windows. Some other Keifer works on view at the Museum of Modern Art echo or parody Nazi Neo-Classic Deco designs of Hitler's favorite architect, Albert Speer.

At the time of publication, Klein was at Christie’s, London. This definition originally appeared in the Sprint 1989 issue of THE MODERNISTVolume 8, Number 1.

By Dan Klein


With the kind permission of Rizzoli, THE MODERNIST presents Dan Klein's introduction to In the Deco Style as one of the most interesting and informative summations of Art Deco in all its many aspects now available. This is an authoritative overview that puts Art Deco in proper perspective. -Ed.


Although Art Deco is a comparatively recent addition to the English language, it is a term that most people will have used to identify a decorative style without thinking too hard. However, unlike the more established Chippendale, Regency or Victorian styles, Art Deco is still ill defined. It has become vaguely associated with the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and with those aspects of the period which were novel or stylistically daring, and it is understood to convey a mood of gay abandon that completely ousted stuffy Victorian morality-Take a tuck in that skirt Isabel, it’s 1925 (Anita Loos).


Now that Art Deco is so widely used, it would be as well to attempt a definition. The French use the term as naturally as if they had coined it, but it made its first appearance in the English language in the 1960s. Since then it has grown and changed amoeba-like, its meaning varying according to the user and the context. The art historian confines it to the decorative style created by elitist French designers between the wars, allowing it also to describe cheaper imitations of this style. Here is represents the geometric stylization of naturalistic forms, with a degree of abstraction and streamlining thrown in as a natural consequence of this geometric paring down to essentials. It does not include total abstraction or pure geometry-hence it does not include specific schools such as De Stijl and the Bauhaus-unless these qualities are simply used with intent to decorate. To the radical designers of the Bauhaus the idea of decoration for its own sake was an anathema, and it must have been of concern to them when the French adapted their spartan forms to fit into the fashionable decorative schemes with little respect for their philosophical and intellectual basis. But some of the most appealing Art Deco of the thirties did just this and the term Art Deco, by popular definition, has come to mean every aspect of decorative art of the period, encompassing in an eclectic manner luxury, mass production, kitsch, modernism, fashion and the avant garde. It has come to describe a fashionable style which has no conscience about plagiarism and borrows freely to suit the whim of the consumer. In a word Art Deco is about middle-class consumer style between the wars. The 1925 L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris was about the art of living in the modern world. In retrospect it was the culmination of a period of intense social and industrial change and, looking to the future, it set the course for the rest of the century. It its fairground atmosphere there was a mood of generous optimism which allowed such extreme opposites as Le Corbusier and Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann to vie for centre stage. Ruhlmann’s dazzling display of luxury was undoubtedly the more popular and more in turn with the spirit of the moment, one of euphoria and peacetime prosperity. But Le Corbusier hinted at a philosophy that was more aware of twentieth-century reality, more cognizant of the real implications of social change in Europe, and better able to formulate a design aesthetic for the modern world. This difference of approach reflects the two distinct areas of design during the first half of the twentieth-century: the first centred around the fashion world and up-to-the-minute chic, and the second more concerned with building on the amazing discoveries of the machine age. The more florid and romantic Art Deco of Ruhlmann and the French interior decorators used rather conventional ideas, merely updating them with streamlining and geometric formality. The flowers, fruit and classical maidens of earlier periods were all used, but had undergone a transformation inspired by Modern Art, in particular Cubism.  But the luxurious Deco style of the top French decorator-designers owed just as much to the great traditions of the eighteenth-century cabinet makers. Their aim was to create an atmosphere of unabashed luxury appropriate to the twentieth century and expressing the spirit of the times-or more accurately, one aspect of it, for they were catering mainly for the needs of the new rich, who wanted to continue living in the grand manner of the old rich without any concern for gathering war clouds or impending financial crashes. Many of these clients came from the fashion world dominated in the earlier part of the century by Paul Poire!, who at the height of his career could dictate an entire lifestyle to go with the clothes he designed. This lifestyle centred around extravagant parties, where complete transformation by means of fancy dress and elaborate stage decor created a world of fantasy.


At the time of publication, Klein was at Christie’s, London. This definition originally appeared in the Summer 1988 issue of THE MODERNISTVolume 7, Number 2.

By Robert Koch


The development of Cubism is the one most important factor that distinguishes the style of the 20th Century from that of all previous styles in the history of Western art. Cubism and its successors, Futurism and Purism, make themselves evident to some degree in almost every object designed in the twenties and thirties that can be designated as Art Deco. Cubist geometry, apart from Picasso’s special application of it in Paris, had a widespread appeal to an age that evolved the techniques for mass production. Predominantly rectilinear, two dimensional with flat overlapping planes of strong color, this geometry forms the basis for the first and most abstract face of Art Deco. Often underlying the structure of Art Nouveau forms, this geometry, when stripped of naturalistic ornament, clears the way for a unique and flexible style. Rooted in the architecture of Louis Sullivan, Joseph Hoffmann, and Alfred Loos, it emerges as the dominant formal factor that links the structure of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Eliel Saarinen into a single visual style. Wright’s Unity Temple of 1906 or Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet of 1905-11 have all of the elements for the development of the abstract phase of Art Deco. Wright’s Holyhock House of 1920 is a fullblown masterpiece in the mature style. On a scale for the collector, portable objects in glass, metals, lacquer and ceramics often achieve the quality of the best architecture and painting of that period. In this area of interiors and the decorative arts, the outstanding master of Art Deco geometry was Jean Dunand, who was also one of the most versatile designers working in a wide range of materials and media. Other important designers whose work should be studied and collected include Faure for enamels . on metal, Ruhlmann for furniture, Puiforcat for silver, Fouquet for jewelry, and Lalique for glass. The names of many other craftsmen should be included for some outstanding designs, but the list then becomes too long. For instance, in glass, which was then and is still one of the most popular materials for the collector, the names of Goupy, Marinot, Daum, Le Gras, Rousseau and even Steuben should be remembered for having produced some excellent examples of Art Deco. The term Art Deco is most commonly applied to the decorative arts as it derives from the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs of 1925. However, it should also be used to define the style of the twenties and thirties in a wider sense. This was the golden age of the ballet and the “Roaring Twenties.” These aspects of the times resulted in the other two faces of Art Deco. The fame of the Ballet Russe, the rise of the modern interpretive dance, and the Charleston all contributed to change the image of women from the languid symbolism of Art Nouveau and the sentiment of the Gibson girl into the “flapper” of the post World War I era. With the new unconventional clothes and the boyish bobbed hair there came a new freedom of movement that is reflected in the work of many fine sculptors whose work has not yet been widely publicized. Among these the foremost are Bouraine, Chiparus, Manship and Preiss. Their contorted figures, often in angular poses, of bronze and ivory on geometric pedestals, of marble and onyx, have a formal quality that clearly relates them to the more abstract geometry of many of their contemporaries. The same dancing rhythms, reflecting the music of Stravinski and the bright colors of Matisse, are found in the illustrative work and stage sets of Bekst and Erte. The work of these artists is well-known to ballet enthusiasts, but it must now also take its place as belonging to the best of Art Deco. The influence of these artists on illustration and the graphic arts of the twenties was enormous. Their lesser followers, like the lesser followers of the important sculptors, belongs to the third face of Art Deco, frequently called “kitch.” The Follies Bergere, the music halls, the budding film industry and the speakeasies all had their effect on the third face. This was the popular, the commercial cycle of Art Deco, from plastic chokers to marcasite shoe buckles. Apartment and theater lobbies from the Bronx to Oakland sprouted angular ornaments in red, black, gold, and silver to keep up with the new look. Compacts and cigarette cases were produced by the thousands and only a very few of them were really well designed. Now that Art Deco is having a renewed vogue, even the “kitch” is increasing in value. Knowing the three faces of Art Deco will make the style unmistakable even when two or all of these aspects are combined. In posters by Cassandre and Carlu or in book illustrations by Lynd Ward, John Vassos, and Rockwell Kent, the geometric and figural are blended in a manner that has been characterized as “Cubist-Realist.” In the thirties with the rise of Hitler and the resultant international impact of the German Bauhaus, a new wave of purism swept the art world. If we expand the meaning of Art Deco to include the fundamentalism of Gropius, then Mondrian and the Constructivists must also be included. This seems to me to be carrying the term too far. We cannot say that everything produced between the two World Wars is automatically Art Deco. It can rather be characterized as the high style of a time when society was trying to come to terms with the machine.

This definition originally appeared in the Winter 1988 issue of THE MODERNISTVolume 7, Number 1.

By Michael Pick


The name, The Thirties Society, is actually a misnomer. We couldn’t think of a very good name to cover the whole period. “The Twenties Society” wouldn’t do - so much happened, especially in and around London, in the 1930s. “The Inter-War Society” sounded too military. So we're stuck with it. We. should perhaps have used “Art Deco,” but it’s limiting, theoretically. The period in England isn’t particularly a spectacular one, not like America. It was “Neo” styles and very little of the very modern. Basically, it was in England a stripped Classicism. And a lot of Neo-Queen Anne and Neo-Georgian. But, of the real modern, there’s very little. Peter Jones is our prime example - and Simpson’s, in Piccadilly. A few of the big hotels: the Savoy, the Dorchester. Otherwise, it’s just facades in small areas. The Thirties Society, formed about four years ago, is concerned, on a national basis, with the preservation of buildings: mainly architecture and interiors. We are a national pressure group!

At the time of publication Pick was the Events Secretary of The Thirties Society. This definition originally appeared in the Spring 1986 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 6, Number 1.

By Corrine Weinberg


The Roaring Twenties, a time of boldness that cannot return except in spirit! There were firsts for many things. Advertising design was especially inspired by having cigarette ads portraying the emancipated woman smoking and drinking in public. In defiance of the traditional female appearance, women adopted the garcon look by bobbing their hair. They also adopted the Egyptian Pyramid hairstyle, which echoed the geometric forms of the Art Deco age. The free spirit of the Twenties and its relentless energy has heightened the vitality of my own sculptures. Art Deco designs resulted in streamlined fashions, and they are as exciting and contemporary today as they were then, expressing a sense of chic and purity. Through fashions which strongly suggested cubism, a woman was a rectangle above and a jazzy triangle below her knees to her toes. Luxurious fabrics, opulent feathers, silks, long earrings, and an abundance of jewelry were worn to soften the straight lines of clothing. Big, overstuffed furniture was the style, as were sleeveless dresses, another indicator of the need for “elbow room.” Shorter dresses tended to be worn for the wild dances and kicking-up-of-the-heels, giving women a new sense of freedom and an extraordinary style. Original brilliant Art Deco designs have strongly influenced the details of my 1920’s Flapper Collection.

At the time of publication, Weinberg was a sculptor. This definition originally appeared in the Winter 1985 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 4.

By Jules Kabat


To answer the question “What is Art Deco?” the place to start is the event which provided the name Art Deco. That event was L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,  held in Paris Arts Decoratifs was shortened to Art Deco, to become the name of a style which applies to the decorative arts and, further, to the modern industrial arts. The Exposition, as its title set forth, exhibited primarily objects from the decorative arts, which included furniture and furnishings for residences and offices, as well as useful objects such as lighting fixtures, textiles, appliances, and jewelry, even advertising and books. Modern industrial arts products were also shown. These were factory-made, in mass production for consumer use. The objects shown were mostly French-made and designed in a manner whose antecedent was Art Nouveau, which came to prominence in France in the early 1900’s, with parallel movements in Austria, Germany, and the Low Countries, Belgium and Holland. This style, and the Art Deco which followed it, was first of all non-traditional. All classical styles were eschewed. In furniture, the manner utilized modern technology, which had developed the plywood panel, and which could bend and form solid wood into any shape, as was also the case with metals. New metals were available - notably stainless steel, chrome steel, and, later, aluminum––which were light and strong, and which could provide new shapes which satisfied the desire to express modern technology in new forms. This, of course, was parallel to new developments in the world of painting and sculpture, where the key features were abstraction, geometric forms, and the denial of any traditional forms. So Art Deco means primarily the new style established at the Expo in 1925, as applied to furnishings and objets d’art - the decorative arts. This style was characterized in furniture by flowing lines, bent and curved structural members (Thonet chairs), and in decorative glass and textiles by designs with floral motifs developed in free form, stylized patterns (Lalique, Lurcat). The Metro Station entrance (Paris, 1907), which can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art garden, is a good example of Art Nouveau. Very exuberant, the graceful, flowing, curvilinear lines of the metal railings and light standard are also typical of Art Deco design. These flowing lines translated into streamlining, when applied to modern transport, autos, busses, locomotives and airplanes. Use of the term Art Deco as applied to architecture came much later. Following the Expo of 1925, the first building in New York to show Art Deco character was Joseph Urban’s Ziegfeld Theatre (1926-27), with colorful brick bondings in geometric patterns. Ely Jacques Kahn’s office building on Park Avenue (1927) used bright mosaics and painted plaster, designed by an artist, Louis Solon. The Chanin Building on East 42nd Street (1929), designed by Irwin Chanin, has a heavily ornamented ferro cotta frieze of stylized plant forms in the 1925 manner. The Chrysler Building (1929) has brick friezes of cars with aluminum hub caps, horizontal dark brick bands at the corners almost expressing corner windows. William van Alen was the architect. Raymond Hood’s office-building for the Daily News (1932) at East 42nd Street was the first to have an entire facade expressing the multi-story verticality of the windows, with dark brick spandrels between the windows against piers of light brick. These buildings were the main forerunners for the design of the six-story apartment buildings on the Grand Concourse and its vicinity in the Bronx.

At the time of publication Kabat was an architect. This definition originally appeared in the Summer 1985 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 2.


By Brian J. R. Blench


The Art Deco style is often thought to have sprung into existence, like Minerva, fully armed, in Paris in 1925; and some previous writers in this series have also argued that it is essentially a French style. My own inclination is to disagree with both positions. It was the first truly international style, and one which had its origins in the mixture of urban styles which was Art Nouveau. The decorative arts of the Twenties and Thirties are rooted in the angularity of Hoffmann and other of the Viennese Jugendsti designers, in the geometry of Mackintosh, in the nationalism of Saarinen, the later architectural work of Horta, the De Stijl movement in Holland, the Bauhaus in Germany, and the theories of Cubism. The style would have probably appeared in the planned Paris exhibition of 1915 had not the Great War intervened. But in Europe, the period 1914-18 is a major divide in all areas of human experience: few designers survived actively, or if they did, only some like Eileen Gray successfully made the transition into the post-war world with their abilities unimpaired. It was to be a new world and a new society: the horrors of the war years were replaced with a conscious optimism-the old society has failed; the new society would succeed. A new style was needed, or so the bright young things imagined. But any style is either a reaction against or a development from what has gone before, so I would argue that there is continuity, albeit sometimes hidden, from the 1900s through into the 1920s and 1930s. Art Deco is abrasive, eclectic, brash; it revels in color, in new materials; it can be irreverent with a “cocktail cabinet” or serious, with the architecture of Unilever House; it can transform a Moorish palace into a South London picture-palace, where the film sets will show a vast audience the style at its best. It is a style to be studied with an open mind. Its practitioners deserve proper attention from critics, historians, and collectors, because it is a wide-ranging style which ought not to be confined within too narrow a definition. Of course, not everything produced in the 1920s and 1930s demonstrates all or any of the main features of the style. Its main features are undoubtedly apparent: forms based on the rectangle, the triangle, or the circle; symmetry rather than asymmetry; a vibrant use of color; the juxtaposition of materials of a contrasting rather than complementary nature. Objects were designed with mass production in mind, while new materials such as plastics or new manufacturing techniques were exploited to the full. It is epitomized in the Chrysler Building and the Queen Mary. Art Deco is a style for luxury and leisure, for comfort and conviviality. It is an exciting style, and should, like the archetypal drink of the period, the cocktail, be enjoyed “while it is still laughing at you.”

At the time of publication Blench was the Keeper of Decorative Art at Glasgow Museums & Art Galleries. This definition originally appeared in the Spring 1985 issue of tthe Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 1.

By Drew Eberson


When and how did Art Deco become involved in the development of Motion Picture Theatre design? The Motion Picture Theatre was born in the "Nickelodeons" about 1906. In small towns and big-city neighborhoods, existing stores were converted into motion-picture theatres. The exhibitor was playing it by ear and often adapted whatever he could find into a theatre. In fact, he'd borrow the undertaker's chairs when they were_not in use. The pictures were projected from a hole in the rear wall or over a door inside the "projection booths." A man cranked some sort of a contraption, and there would be a flicker as the light struck the plaster wall on the opposite side of the store. The Nickelodeons flourished, with the proprietor's wife being in the box office, the sister-in-law playing the piano, and the nephew cranking the projector. Grandfather sold the popcorn. As the theatres flourished, architects were called in to ramp the floors for better sight lines, to remove all columns, and in some cases to create balconies. There was not much of an attempt at decor for the walls and ceilings. In the meantime, men like my father, John Eberson, had been designing Vaudeville and Opera Houses. My father was known as "Opera House John." These theatre-designs were copies of European theatres and auditoriums with classical details. The Nickelodeons then moved into these more properly designed "real" Vaudeville theatres by adding projection booths and screens. As the exhibition of motion-pictures prospered, the owners asked the architect to create more and more ornate theatres that became known as the movie palaces. The designs became ever more ornate, with more gold and gilt, more marble, and more cut-glass chandeliers. They also were more expensive! Much more so. My father had the inspiration in the early Twenties for a type of design for theatres known as "Atmospheric," in which the auditoriums were created as though they were the courtyards of splendid old palaces; generally, these were from the Mediterranean area, with either Italian Renaissance, Byzantine, or Rococo details. The auditoriums had smooth plaster ceilings creating the illusion of the sky. There were twinkling stars in the constellations, and clouds moved across the sky. The facades of the palaces on the theatres' side-walls were romantically lit. Vines and trees were installed, "all fire proof," of course. These "Atmospheric Theatres" created a soft, pleasing atmosphere for the patrons as against the hardness of interiors entirely of ornamental plaster, marble, and gilt. In addition, these theatres were more economical to build. With the decline of the golden age of movie-theatres in 1929 and the increasing costs of construction, added to the fact that it now was difficult to find artisans who could create the plaster molds, ornamental iron-work, etc., a simplified design was required. There was also a great use of color, with wonderful lighting effects. During the Thirties, our family architectural office switched from Atmospheric Theatres to what are known as Art Deco Theatres, taking advantage of the simpler designs and the new materials available. The office was inspired, like the rest of the country, by the work shown at the Paris Exposition in 1925. The Eberson use of Art Deco followed in the trend of doing something new, and such theatres were also economical to build. New materials were introduced, such as chrome and formica. My own experience in the last thirty years indicates that motion-picture theatre design has deteriorated into small boxes in shopping centers. There is no visual decor distraction from the picture on the screen. The main thrust is good sight-lines and good acoustics. The emphasis is now on the film. There really is no architecture, as such, in present day motion-picture theatre design. A few of the Art Deco theatres of the Thirties remain, but many have been destroyed.

At the time of publication Eberson was an architect. This definition originally appeared in the Winter 1985 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 4.


By Michael D. Meek


It seems difficult if not impossible to uncover the characteristic that links the modernism of a Mallet-Stevens chair with the classicism of a Ruhlmann fauteuil, or the chaste simplicity of an interior by Frank with the sheer theatricality of Deskey’s Radio City. Compare the riotous decor of Clarice Cliff’s “Fantasque” with the subtlety of Keith Murray’s “Moonstone” glaze, the rigid conventionalization of a Dunand portrait with the languor of an Eric Gill silhouette ... the list of contrasts is virtually endless. In attempting to define Art Deco, we must remember that the phrase is a catch-all, conveniently lifted from an exhibition that was backed by no cohesive movement, unlike Vienna’s Secessionist exhibitions or even Bing’s blatantly commercial L’Art Nouveau. The well-known 1925 exhibition, properly called the L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, was a sometimes uneasy admixture of traditional and modern decorative arts from participating countries - nothing more, nothing less. We can imagine our forebears’ difficulty in categorizing the variety of complex motifs found in the show - hence the long title and the abbreviation Art Deco, which rather skirts the issue. While the Oxford Dictionary defines Art Deco as “the name for the decorative arts in Europe and America during the 1920s and 1930s”, I prefer to approach the question another way. It is doubtful that a single, all-encompassing definition will ever be formulated - so let’s examine just three facets which are evident in some of the best works of art the period has to offer: Modernism. The once-ignored work of Eileen Gray would be an example of this. In the work of this pioneer, we see an artist unafraid to defy the conventional in search of better form. Flamboyance. In the work of some, such as London decorator Syrie Maugham, this translates as a straightforward, no-nonsense approach. In the work of graphic artist and designer Erte, we sense the dash and savoir-faire of an artist apart. The work of the great choreographers and couturiers of the 1920s and 30s gave new impetus to the popular arts which has been felt ever since. Elegance. Whether in the decorative grace of Sue et Mare or the delicate traceries of Edgar Brandt, these artists knew what they did best - and found an audience to appreciate it. For spirited opulence, the period will never be surpassed. One could go on. In fact, it is interesting to think how many different facets there are to each of the works we call Art Deco. We are grateful for the legacy these artists have left us, and pleased to think that they rightfully assume a place of pride in man's attempt to make life more beautiful.

At the time of publication Meek was the  Director of Art Nouveau & Art Deco at William Doyle Galleries, Inc. This definition originally appeared in the 1984 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 3.

By Stephen Lash


Style Poiret, Style Chanel, Moderne, Aztec Airways, or early Ginger Rogers: these and other terms come to mind. When applied to my own love, ocean liners, one thinks immediately of that nee-classical Ritz Carlton style in its most sumptuous expression and early Statler or Horn & Hardart in its more modest expressions. The great ocean liners of the 1920s and 1930s define the style uniquely. In very few quarters does one observe better the adaption of pure design to the requirements of mass production. The interior decoration of the grand passenger vessels were of course subservient to the latest engineering concerns. The point was to combine speed with excellent accommodations. Predictably, the greatest expression of Art Deco may be found in the French vessels of the period, e.g., the Paris of 1921, the lie de France of 1927, the Normandie of 1934. Here was a heady, flamboyant, luxurious style, characterized by grace, without decadence. The German vessels, e.g., the Bremen (1929), and the Europa (1930), were clean, high tech, and full of Bauhaus influence. The model of modernity and efficiency, they were sleek, sophisticated, always reconfirming less is more. Other countries presented a more traditional concept of luxury in their marine designs, where there was no dramatic break with the past, e.g., Italy, the U.S., and Great Britain. In the end, it is impossible to generalize about the ships. Although many date from the 1920s and 1930s, not all are Art Deco in style. Each country produced its own style of ship and each envisaged that style as a break with the past. In the  end, the style becomes above all an expression of nationalism rather than one international movement.

At the time of publication Lash was a Senior Vice President at Christie’s. This definition originally appeared in the 1984 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 2.

By Lynn Abbie


When I am asked my personal definition of Art Deco, I feel much the same way as Louis Armstrong must have felt when he was asked to define Jazz: “If you’re with it, you’ll know it!” We are surrounded with it. I say, “get with it.” Recognize it. There is a passion I detect in many of the Deco devotees I meet. They tend to get into discussions, and even arguments, over terminology. I feel historians are on the right track in stressing the continuity of the style rather than its differences. Many influences contributed to Art Deco. The backdrop of history between the two world wars was an international one. Certainly there was a difference in the character of the artifacts, art, architecture, and machines produced in the Twenties as opposed to that of the Depression Thirties. I use the term Art Deco in its broad sense. I see no purpose, except in rare instances for the occasional scholar, to categorize every item one encounters by terms such as modern, zig-zag, etc. As Bevis Hillier has pointed out, Deco design did not start one Sunday afternoon and end abruptly at a certain time on a certain day in a certain year. Art Deco was a developing style. There is a definite continuity from the pre-Twenties years through the Thirties. The uninitiated may believe that Art Deco started with L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. A good case could be made for its death with the advent of that exhibition. Much of the work displayed was designed before World War I. Pieces exhibited, in some cases, had been stored away for many years. By the time 1925 rolled around, many of the pieces were more than ten years old. The organizers of the Exhibition disliked the German presence, and did, indeed, prevent exhibitors from Germany from entering the show. Merely to say that the Germans were not invited, or to say that they were not welcome, is a gross understatement. The Bauhaus influence, however, was seen and felt. The Depression also helped facilitate acceptance of the “less is more” credo. My understanding of the term Art Deco is similar to that of Bevis Hillier, Theodore Menten, and John Keefe, former curator of European Decorative Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago. I apply the term Art Deco to artistic production of the 1920s and 1930s that does not use an historical style as its main thrust. In Deco items, historic elements are changed, or there are none. New motifs are devised. Old motifs are changed. Style and object become Deco.

At the time of publication Abbie was the President of the Chicago Art Deco Society. This definition originally appeared in the 1984 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 1.

By Richard Striner

In the 1920s and 30s, 20th century design was a broad spectrum of choices. But for all the diversity, designers were nonetheless tom between two extremes: radical functionalism and a militant defense of tradition. Polemical exchanges between the proponents of the rival philosophies were bitter. “The styles are a lie” was the famous 1923 maxim of Le Corbusier: away with decorative “artifice,” in favor of functional “honesty.” The traditionalists-usually adherents of the neoclassical formulae-responded with derision. Art Deco was a middle path between the two antithetical extremes. Rejecting any orthodox creed, the designers of Deco structures felt free to assimilate any motifs that expressed the spirit of the age. Like the International Style, which often inspired it, Art Deco was a medium for modern machine-aesthetics, but, unlike the International Style, it could merge these futurist visions with ancient and exotic motifs, notably Egyptian and Aztec. Both the International Style, as the emergent product of functionalism, and Art Deco were in part responses to the cultural traumas created by the devastation of World War I, though both had roots in artistic movements before the war. As Roland Stromberg has said, the war, for many, triggered “a sort of apocalyptic, Nietzschean mood which saw in this catastrophe both an awful judgment on a doomed civilization and a necessary prelude to complete rebirth.”[1] This mood was the basis for many of the classic literary works of the 1920s, from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West to Eliot’s Waste Land. to D.H. Lawrence’s research for the primal wellsprings of human creativity to Arnold Toynbee’s attempt to delineate historical cycles of decline and fall. In an age when artistic spirits were flirting with the notion that western culture was approaching the end of a cycle, Art Deco was a means of reaching out to the two extremes of the historical continuum, the ancient past and the distant future, and of fusing images of fact and fantasy. Hence the  familiar Deco evocations in the 1920s of Aztec gods in Buck Rogers settings. In short, Art Deco in the 20s was a means to “locate” the modern world in a broader historical context. In the 1930s, the moods of the decorative arts were changed by two developments: the world-wide economic depression, especially severe in the United States, and the emergence of a school of industrial designers whose aesthetic emphasized the streamline. These movements were related psychologically in two ways: in a stagnant economy, streamlining offering both a symbolic means of escape, through its imagery of speed, and a symbolic control of unruly economic events, through the “smooth” coordination of planning. Once again, the theme was rebirth and renewal, with occasional religious metaphors: as early as 1930, Frank Lloyd Wright had proclaimed that “today, as it seems to me, we hear this cry ‘Be Clean’ from the depths of our own need. It is almost as if the Machine had, by force, issued edict similar to Shinto ’Be Clean.’ Clean lines ... clean purposes.”[2] This emphasis on cleanness and smoothness was closely related to the International Style’s machine aesthetics. But the streamlining vogue of the 1930s went far beyond any functional basis and became yet another expressive and decorative idiom applied to almost any conceivable object, whether functionally justified or not. Both “Art Deco” and “Moderne” were terms derived from the title of the Paris exposition of 1925, where the jazzy vogue of the 20s was introduced to the world. In the 20s and 30s, “modern,” “modernistic,” and “Art Moderne” were the names most frequently used to describe the decorative style of the age, while "Art Deco" was a French abbreviation which increasingly found its way into the lexicon of art and antiques connoisseurs in the mid-1960s. Bevis Hillier’s choice of this term for the decorative arts of both the 20s and 30s prevailed, though a lively debate ensued in which scholars like David Gebhard and critics like Ada Louise Huxtable emphasized the differences of mood between the 20s and 30s decades. For a while, scholars referred to the streamline style of the 30s as “Art Modeme,” though by the late 1970s the general use of “Art Deco” as a term for the decorative arts of both the 20s and 30s had resulted, and for two reasons. The first was the fact that Art Deco was both a vivid term and a swift indication that the decorative impulse between the world wars was vexy frequently at odds with the functionalism of the International Style, the puristic and Modern movement with which the term “moderne” can be easily confused. The second reason was the fact that proliferating studies of the decorative arts of the 30s revealed a wealth of structures in which the streamline style and the ornate motifs of the 1925 Paris show were so completely combined as to blur the dichotomy. This was true of the district in South Miami Beach, developed in the late 1930s and early 40s, which was added to the National Register in 1979 as exemplifying Art Deco. It is also true of such landmark 30s structures as the Cincinnati Union Terminal (1933) and the annex built for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., between 1935 and 1939, a wonder-house of ornate Deco forms. As Hillier emphasized in 1972, “the art of the twenties was not suddenly snuffed out in 1930 with a magician’s ‘Now you see it, now you don’t.... There was a strong continuity.”[3] By 1980, a consensus had emerged, as revealed by Prof. Gebhard’s remarks in his introduction to a local study entitled Tulsa Art Deco. The term Art Deco, he reminded his readers, “was not at all common during the twenties and thirties-but that doesn't matter, it is generally accepted today, so we will use it.”[4] The zigzag style of the 20s and the streamline style of the 30s were discernible trends within a broader decorative movement, in which they overlapped. Gebhard pointed as well to a third tendency, a stripped neoclassical variant of Art Deco he called “P.W.A. Modern.” Another very charming term to describe this hybrid subdivision of Art Deco has been recently coined by James Goode, the Smithsonian Castle’s curator: “Greco-Deco!” Thus Art Deco is a retrospective term to describe a very broad mediation and synthesis. Amid the warring schools and design-ideologies between the world wars, the movement given momentum by the 1925 Paris exposition continued throughout the 30s, adding and assimilating voguish trends like the streamline style in an effort to be “up-to-the-minute,” to express the spirit of the age in both elegant and playful moods, and to serve as a symbolic fusion of past and future in the present. It answered implicitly a longing by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1930, in a series of lectures at Princeton. Beyond the mere sentimentality of the “ornamental” and the newer “sterility of ‘ornaphobia’”-as Wright contemptuously viewed the philosophic extremes-was a quality he called “romance.”[5] What better, more evocative description of Art Deco’s appeal? While historians continue to refine their definitions of Art Deco, the sheer mystique of the 1920s and 30s can only be experienced and felt. Without the intuitions of the fans and the seekers of romance-however imprecise-the work of the historians interpreting Art Deco is but a dry academic labor.


1. Roland Stromberg. European Intellectual History. Since 1789, (Englewood Cliffs. N.J.: 1975). 229.

2. Frank Lloyd Wright. Modem Architecture. Being the Kahn Lectures for 1930, (Princeton: 1931}, 35.

3. Bevis Hillier. The World of Art Deco (New York: 1971 ). 23.

4. David Gebhard. Tulsa Art Deco (Tulsa. Okla: 1980). 18.

5. Frank Lloyd Wright. op. cit.

At the time of publication, Striner was the President of the Art Deco Society of Washington. This definition originally appeared in the 1983 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 4.

By Richard Guy Wilson


The term ‘Art Deco’ as most everyone knows, was not coined until 1966, when an exhibition on the 1925 French L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was held in Paris. The term Art Deco very specifically referred to the ornamental richness of the exposition, which included the architecture, decorative arts, clothing, and other items, The term caught on with the English, notably Bevis Hillier in a book of 1968, and then in America with several exhibits and catalogues in 1970-71. In opposition to the growing popularity of the term, some American historians and critics attempted to substitute other sobriquets: ‘Zig-Zag’ and ‘Streamline,’ or, to resurrect original names from the time, ‘Moderne,’ ‘Modernistic,’ ‘Jazz,’ or ‘Skyscraper Style.’ The late Wallace K. Harrison told me, shortly before he died in 1981, that the skyscrapers he and his partners designed in the 1920s and 1930s--such as Rockefeller Center--were called ‘Vertical,’ ‘Gotham,’ and ‘New York’ styles. Of course, what has happened is that the term Art Deco has caught on and is now applied to practically anything of the 1920s and 1930s. The comparable English interest-group calls itself simply ‘The Thirties Society.’ Indeed, it is possible to see even in the work of very conservative American architects such as Arthur Brown, Jr., or John Russell Pope certain touches, ornamental details, the treatment of the wall--that indicates they were a product of the 1920s and 1930s. It is equally possible to see in a very radical designer such as William Lescaze features that might be identified as Art Deco. And certainly Frank Lloyd Wright is part of it, both as an influence and as one of the preeminent designers. There is the question of earlier influences--Cubism, Vienna Modern--which play a major role in the 1920s and 1930s. While, as a historian, I would have preferred for Art Deco to remain a precise term referring to French Influenced design, I am enough of a realist to recognize the term has caught on. It has a certain ‘snap’ and an energy that is compelling. A far more critical issue is not to define the term so closely that we close the door on our interest, but to recognize that we are really interested in studying, preserving, and celebrating all forms of design from the interwar years--high art and popular. That we are interested in the Chrysler Building and Boulder Dam, and in Paul Cret's stripped classical as well as his Burlington Zephyr. We should recognize that a cheap plastic radio, as well as the statues of Erte, is part of the period and worthy of study. If we can use the term Art Deco not to designate a specific style, but rather in the sense that it is inclusive and connotes the tremendous fertility of ideas, culture, and design, beginning in the early 20th century and reaching a peak in the 1920s and 1930s, we will better serve our purpose.

At the time of publication, Wilson was the Chairman of the Division of Architectural History at the University of Virginia. This definition originally appeared in the 1983 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 3.

By Alan Goldfarb


Art Deco was the new French style of applied decoration used during the 1920’s. It flourished briefly in the United States in the second half of the decade, and was transformed into something different by the beginning of the Depression. What I propose is a series of labels to differentiate points of development in the evolution of modern American design of the 30’s. ‘Modernistic’ succeeded Art Deco and lasted into the early years of the 30’s. It is a hard-edged, geometricized version of the former style, and, for the purpose of visualization, can well be illustrated by the Chrysler Building and by skyscraper styled furniture. The 'moderne' look is softer, and is characterized by refinement and sparsity of ornament, rounded corners, and by horizontal streamlining. For examples of moderne, one need only call to mind the countless bars and storefronts with curving glass entrances, found on Main Streets all throughout America. ‘Modern,’ according to my ideal, is the near perfect integration of ornament, or style, with functional design. This was achieved certainly by the late 1930’s, and an outstanding example would be the original building of the Museum of Modern Art. My assigning of various titles to different time periods within the 30’s is necessarily arbitrary. There are many exceptional pieces of design that don’t fit chronologically into my categories. For instance, Walter von Nessen’s swing-arm lamp of 1927 is ‘modern,’ as are many other objects designed prior to the 1930’s. When speaking collectively of the modern decorative arts of the 30’s, I would call them just that, including by implication the modernistic and the moderne. Although I use these terms to describe general tendencies within the styles of the 1930’s, they are more precise, and in many instances, more useful than the umbrella term ‘Art Deco.’ Most American designers of that period, to judge from their writings, hated the French-style decoration. It’s no accident that when Ely Jacques Kahn modernized the facade of Bonwit Teller, in the 1930’s, he removed much of the Art Deco ornament put there only a few years earlier. In short, much of what is now called Art Deco isn’t. It is probably in the best interest of collectors of Art Deco to differentiate the French stuff from what went on in the rest of Europe and in the United States. Otherwise, ‘Art Deco’ will continually be used to describe everything from the furniture of Ruhlmann, to the Bauhaus, to palm-tree settings and Florida souvenirs.

This definition originally appeared in the 1983 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 1.

By Gerard A.M. Widdershoven


In 1925, the French government organized L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris and invited all countries of the world--except Germany--to participate, exhibiting their decorative arts, with the stipulation that these had to be modern or statements of the period. The style of design that was shown at this exhibition became known as the ‘Style 1925’ and was not called Art Deco until 1966, when the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris held a retrospective show of decorative arts that had been designed in the style of the Exposition of 1925. The abbreviation, “Art Deco,” was chosen as title of this show. Subsequent retrospective exhibitions held in Europe and in the United States have included more and more designs from the 1930’s, to the point that today Art Deco is used as a term describing all decorative arts made between the two world wars--from 1918 to 1940. To me, Art Deco is the name of a predominantly French style that reached its height at the 1925 Exposition in Paris and which spans the period 1918 to 1930.

At the time of publication, Widdershoven was the Director of Maison Gerard. This definition originally appeared in the 1982 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 4.

By Kyle Thomes


Art Deco was a style used during the 1920’s and 30’s in designing all artistic artifacts ranging from clothes to jewelry to books. The architecture of buildings during this period had the same style. Like all kinds of architecture, geometry is the essential part of designing. The most significant design in Art Deco is the “ziggurat.” This shape is the piling of consecutive smaller blocks one on top of the other. It forms a jagged shape, resembling a staircase or a lightning bolt. This lightning bolt is a major Deco symbol. Several famous structures were built in the Art Deco period, including the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Radio City Music Hall, and even Hunter College (built in 1940). The most important ones that used the ziggurat are the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. The ziggurat was also used to form arcs. Architects may have unconsciously been influenced in this case by the dome structure in Islamic religious buildings. The two ziggurats combined gradually increasing in size would eventually meet to support a central dome. The Empire State Building uses two ziggurats that are very gradual to meet almost at the tip of the building. The Chrysler Building, built in 1930, is a perfect example of jagged shapes and geometric figures put together to form a dome. The top of the building was a modified and rounded version of the ziggurat, forming ascending and diminishing arcs in the tower. To keep the jagged look, there are glass triangles, giving a flashing silver effect. The main symbol of the lightning bolt often comes to mind while looking at Art Deco. The symbol probably became popular because of its image of energy and light. Buildings used this on the outside as well as the inside. For example, the staircase in the Chrysler Building has shapes in the bannisters that look like lightning bolts. Every variation of the ziggurat in Art Deco is symmetrical. Anyway it is arranged, whether by stretching, reversing, or abstracting, the parts will always stay even on either side of its axis. In all of the Deco architecture, symmetry of the geometrical patterns are shown. Now, the ziggurat is rarely used in designing buildings, and it seems too bad, when you think of all the famous and beautiful buildings that were built during the Art Deco period.

At the time of publication, Thomes was an 8th Grade Student (age 13) at Hunter College High School and wrote his definition for a math class on Math Functions and Art. This definition originally appeared in the 1982 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 3.

By Paul Goldberger


At the moment, I am not sure I can offer a specific definition of Art Deco because I am not really sure myself what it is, despite several years of thinking about it, writing about it, and commenting upon it. I remain torn between what we might call the “strict constructionist viewpoint,” which ties the term to the work which followed in the wake of the Paris Exhibition of 1925, and the desire to cast the net broadly and take in all of the American streamline and Art Moderne work that so characterized the l930’s. I like both the narrowly defined Art Deco and the broadly defined Art Deco, since in both versions there is a kind of exhilaration and a wonderful combination of commitment to ornament and decoration. Yet a contradiction between the machine age and the notion of ornament was not felt. That strikes me as especially important as a lesson for us today as we look beyond modernism.

At the time of publication, Goldberger was at the New York Times. His definition originally appeared in the 1982 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 2.

By Martin Greif

The term Art Deco, a name that would surely have puzzled its proponents, practitioners, and even its detractors sixty years ago--since it didn't exist in its own time--troubles us even today. It's all very well and good to have an Art Deco Society, but what exactly is it, this elusive style (styles?) that had to wait until it was long passe before it even had a name? When Bill Weber refers to Art Deco as “anything goes,” he is unfortunately correct. We have allowed the term to embrace virtually everything that was produced between the two World Wars, from the finest French furniture of Pierre Legrain to the tubes of Tangee lipstick purchased at the local five and dime. Now, surely, there's a world of difference between a sofa by Marcel Coard and a sound-stage backdrop for a Fred and Ginger musical. And I don't mean in quality alone. The lines of both, to say the least, are entirely different and so are their respective origins. And yet the public persists in labeling them both Art Deco. I suspect that the term “Art Deco” should really be Art Decos (accent on the plural) and that the term embraces at least ten to fifteen mutually exclusive “styles,” each of which (if we take the trouble to observe them carefully) can be separated from the others.

This definition originally appeared in the 1981 issue of the Art Deco Society News Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 1.

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