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What is Art Deco?

By Marilyn F. Friedman

Art Deco is an artificial construct, devised by design historians in the late 1960s to refer to works exhibited at the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris. The one requirement for inclusion in the Exposition was that works had to show originality and new inspiration. It is not surprising, therefore, that the exhibited works covered a broad range of design, including Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann’s sleek, luxurious furniture that honored the French styles of the early nineteenth century, Le Corbusier’s spare pieces intended to populate a house designated a “machine for living,” Austrian glass decorated with classical imagery, and Swedish carpets with traditional motifs in abstract patterns. During the fifty years following the invention of the term Art Deco, exhibition curators have struggled to determine its boundaries.

For many, Art Deco is the embodiment of the 1920s–a period of prosperity marked by the syncopated rhythms of jazz, abstraction and exoticism in art, and a sense of joie de vivre. I believe that these elements are best seen in the works of the great masters who have been termed the Art Deco “traditionalists,” such as Ruhlmann, Louis Süe and André Mare, Jules Leleu, Edgar Brandt, Jean Dunand, Jean Puiforcat, and Armand-Albert Rateau. Their work celebrated the great French craftsmanship of the past, yet could never be confused with their predecessors. The simplification of form and the elimination of applied ornament in favor of inlays are but two examples of the ways in which the new style differed from those of the past.

For me, Art Deco is intertwined with what I view as the first wave of feminism. The low-slung seating appears to have been designed for women in chemises–no lady in a hoop skirt or bustled dress could manage the new chairs and sofas. The glossy surfaces of the highly lacquered furniture mirrored the sleek marcelled waves of the flappers’ newly bobbed hairdos. During the Art Deco era women began to smoke and drink in public, to venture out alone to dance and listen to jazz, and to work alongside men. Female freedom and sexuality were flaunted by performers like Josephine Baker and celebrated in artworks by Erté, Dunand, and Jean Dupas, among others. Paul Poiret dressed the new woman; Coco Chanel embodied her. While the major French traditionalists were men, they seem to have designed with the new woman in mind; both groups freed themselves from the constraints of the past to embrace the new century.

A strict interpretation of Art Deco would omit the American version, as the United States did not participate in the 1925 Paris Exposition. A special United States commission did, however, visit the Exposition, and the commissioners issued a report about the new styles shown there. Also, an exhibition of objects from the Exposition toured eight cities in the United States. With knowledge of the styles shown in Paris, American designers experimented with their own interpretations of Art Deco. Two designers who adhered most faithfully to the precepts of the French traditionalists were Donald Deskey and Eugene Schoen, but other designers, both émigrés and those born here, incorporated concepts of the French traditionalists into their projects as well.

American designers moved on from traditional French Art Deco in several ways: their horizontal designs referenced speed, they focused more on practicality than their French counterparts, and they often substituted manufactured materials for the exotic woods and ivory utilized by the French. Nevertheless, their debt to the traditionalists is manifest in monuments like Radio City Music Hall and in much of the American modern furniture designed in the late 1920s and beyond.

About the Author:

Marilyn F. Friedman is a decorative arts and design historian focusing on designers’ associations and exhibitions in New York and other American cities, and her research traces the development and popularization of modern design across the country. She is the author of Selling Good Design: Promoting the Early Modern Interior.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Spring 2017. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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