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What is Art Deco?

By Judith Gura

When I think of Art Deco, the first thing that comes to mind is the French incarnation of the style that’s inextricably tied to the event from which its name was derived: L’Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. Notwithstanding subsequent interpretations in America and many other countries, the masterpieces of that first generation of Deco virtuosos remain, in my estimation, the crowning achievements of what became an international phenomenon. One of my graduate school instructors referred to what was then called Le style moderne as “the last great period style,” a reminder that French Art Deco was the final iteration of the superlative craftsmanship and design in luxury goods for which France had been celebrated since the time of Louis XIV.

Looking at the extravagance of many French Art Deco designs, we’re apt to forget that their makers intended them to be modern. Formed in 1900, the Société des artistes décorateurs proposed new standards for design and production, and in 1912, the French government decided to sponsor a decorative arts exhibition that could recapture the country’s stature. Originally scheduled for 1915, it was delayed by war until 1925. Though many countries participated, the exhibition organizers hoped that the French entries would be outstanding enough to reposition France at the forefront of design, and to compete with the innovative work emerging from Austria and Germany––hence the inclusion of the key words “industriels modernes,” declaring the French alliance with the Modernist camp. 


The guidelines for the exhibition did not specify what the designs should be, but only what they should not be: “…Reproductions, imitations, and counterfeits of ancient styles will be strictly prohibited,” read the pamphlet of regulations. This meant eschewing anything that was visibly “period” in origin––none of the Louis, or their successors, and nothing of the more recent Victorian era, or overwrought Art Nouveau. But it was difficult for the French to wrest themselves free of their heritage. 


The master furniture craftsmen and ensembliers—interior designers—circumvented the restrictions by using the richest materials, making the most of exotic patterned woods like amboyna, rosewood, and zebrawood, adorning surfaces with layers of lustrous lacquer and using accent materials like galuchat and ivory. Ornament, an element that was studiously avoided by the Bauhaus and proponents of the more radical forms of Modernism, was enthusiastically embraced in Art Deco masterpieces by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Louis Süe, André Mare, Pierre Chareau, and Jean Dunand. Metalwork by Edgar Brandt and glass by René Lalique followed a similar aesthetic of maximalism rather than minimalism. It is the enduring influence of classical French design that makes French Art Deco pieces so irresistibly elegant––and so increasingly rare in the current marketplace.


Despite America’s absence from the exhibition––Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover declined on the grounds that the United States did not have sufficient examples of good modern design––the new French style had considerable impact on America, though at first only for its links to tradition. Showcased at a 1926 exhibition that traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and eight other major institutions, works by Ruhlmann and Süe et Mare were praised in the accompanying brochure for preserving “the spirit of the older French furniture…in forms suitable for the modern home.”  Apparently, for Americans, the idea of Modernism was preferable to its actual incarnation. It would take about another decade for Le style moderne, particularly in the decorative arts, to be Americanized into the streamlined, more accessible, and ultimately more successful version of the style that was later renamed Art Deco. French Art Deco encouraged the acceptance of contemporary design, and remains a high point in the chronicle of design history.

About the Author:

Judith Gura is a design historian, author, and lecturer on twentieth century design and decorative arts. A graduate of Cornell University, she holds a Master’s degree in History of Design and the Decorative Arts from the Bard Graduate Center. She is on the faculty of The New York School of Interior Design. Her most recent book is Postmodernism Design Complete: Design, Furniture, Graphics, Architecture, Interiors.


Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1, Spring 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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