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What is Art Deco?

By Genista Davidson

Though my definition of Art Deco is very personal, I’m sure it will resonate with many readers. Art Deco is exciting, optimistic, and challenging to define! 


Being a lifelong traveler in search of Art Deco architecture, objects, exhibitions, and events, I have been privileged to meet hundreds of people around the world who have a different slant on and concept of what constitutes Art Deco. Apart from the recognized architectural features with which we are all so familiar (geometry, chevrons, curvilinear features, streamlining), Art Deco has another ethereal and spiritual aspect: the ability to entrance its beholder like no other recognized style or movement. This powerful ability is Art Deco’s allure because, once smitten with its endearing presence, we are then loyal to its preservation and restoration. The insurmountable joy that Art Deco brings is all-embracing and has no boundaries, uniting nations and continents. 


I can remember the first time I realized its impact on me. I was seven years old, and absolutely fascinated and mesmerized by the flat-roofed house along our lane; its gleaming white façade and uniquely bulbous curved section radiated a warm, welcoming impression. The home had a neatly laid out minimalist garden with shrubbery, and the mesmerizing sunburst design on the iron gate was unforgettable. Art Deco is not just about the buildings; it defines the whole era. Hand in hand go the furniture, objets d’art, jewelry, fashions, typography; the list is endless, all showcasing Art Deco features as we know them. 


I have had a long association with the town of Swaffham, East Anglia, England where the well-known archaeologist Howard Carter was raised. Carter’s famous 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, sparked the 1920s craze of Egyptomania with the highly stylized and colorful designs freely filtering through textiles, furniture, architecture, fashion, and the silver screen during the Art Deco heyday. Swaffham even has a small museum dedicated to the expedition, highlighting the importance of the ancient Egyptian civilization’s impact on the hearts and souls of those living centuries later. 


Unquestionably, Art Deco epitomized luxury, glamor, opulence, and decadence all rolled into one. It has also been intensely interesting to see that the Art Deco label has expanded as the decades advance. Whereas it initially sought to define the decorative elements of a building or highly stylized objects, it now encapsulates so much more. The overarching definition of Art Deco has many facets, such as the Bauhaus with its austere functionalist clean, clear lines; Modern Classic; and International style, to name but a few.  Lavish, ornamental and equally important Egyptian and Mayan Revival designs also distinguish this era. This makes it even more interesting, as often a building or object straddles styles, one feeding into the other, making it a subject of unending friendly debate. 


Art Deco also conjures a feast of silver-screen stars and film sets, and entertainers like the legendary Josephine Baker and the Dolly Sisters, and the infamous Bright Young Things—the bohemian aristocrats and socialites of 1920s London. The music and dance, innovations in speed and travel, along with brightly painted tea sets and sharply angled designs all assisted in bringing the 1920s and 1930s under the Art Deco umbrella.


Finally, Art Deco is not a bygone era—it is very much alive and kicking today, the ambiance of this unique period forever radiating, for us all to enjoy. I defy anyone to walk past an Art Deco building anywhere, an Epstein Cloud Suite of British furniture, Tamara de Lempicka painting, or Jean Patou creation without a beaming smile and glowing, warm heart!

About the Author:

Genista Davidson, Founding President of the Art Deco Society U.K., is an art and social historian specializing in the twentieth century, and the author of Art Deco Anecdotes, Art Deco Almanac, and the Art Deco Traveller series of guidebooks. 


Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 4, Issue 1, Winter 2019. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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