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What is Art Deco?

By Stephen H. Van Dyk

As librarian at the Cooper Hewitt Museum (CHM) for more than thirty years, I have had the unique opportunity to assist researchers studying Art Deco and concurrently to build, curate, index, and write about the Deco resources of the library. A detailed review of CHM’s special and rare collections offers a path to understand and perhaps define the diverse aspects of the style.


In the late 1980s, CHM obtained more than 2,000 rare reports, guides, photo albums and written accounts of world’s fairs including material on the major Deco-related expositions of the interwar period. For example, Encyclopédie des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes au XXème Siècle, a twelve-volume set published in 1925, acts as a comprehensive source on the theories and production of the Art Deco style. This publication provides a clear path for understanding the patterns and ornamentation and application of designs on buildings and decorative objects, fabrics and paper products; the use of materials; and artisans associated with the Deco style as exhibited at the Paris fair. The volumes feature illustrated essays on the style’s evolution; architectural ornamentation and sculpture; decorative objects; furniture; hardware; textile; graphics; book design; fashion; interiors; stage set design; and, film and photography. The Paris fair along with growth of design publications in the 1920s and 1930s, helped advertise and define the emerging Deco style worldwide.


Collector Charles Fry and book dealer Edward Fox introduced me to Deco era folios that employ a stencil printing process called pochoir. My online exhibition Vibrant Visions: Pochoir Prints in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library features works of Deco textile and wallpaper patterns, fashion plates, and architectural renderings of interiors published in the 1920s and 30s. Colorful folios, such as Benedictus’ Relais 1930; Sonia Delaunay’s 1930 Compositions Couleurs Idées; fashion journals such as Gazette du Bon Ton, published in France from 1912–25; and La Guirlande: Album Mensuel d’Art et de Littérature, clearly and colorfully visualize the dramatic patterns, motifs, and forms of the era.


A project to review, index, and digitize the more than 4,300 photographs in CHM’s Bonney Collection provided a broader understanding of the Deco era. Mabel Thérèse Bonney, an American photographer and photo agent working in Paris from 1918–38, regularly reported on, and provided imagery of, French Deco and modernism to publishers in America. This collection provides a rare view of important luxury Deco objects, and modernist buildings and interiors, as well as Deco-era Paris streetscapes awash with signage, store window displays, children’s barbershops, and women getting their hair bobbed.


Several years ago, former CHM Director Dianne Pilgrim spearheaded a program to expand the museum’s coverage of twentieth century industrial design. To support this new direction, I discovered that the writings of an emerging group of industrial designers, including Russel Wright; George Nelson; Hugh Ferris; John Vassos; Sheldon Cheney; Raymond Loewy; Gilbert Rohde; and Don Wallance, as well as conference reports from the National Alliance of Art and Industry, offered valuable insight into the scope, goals, and theories of streamline forms, use of new materials and mass production associated with the American Art Deco style of the 1920s to the 1950s. Of special note are the beautifully illustrated overview of streamline design in Norman Bel Geddes’ Horizon (1932); Walter Dorwin Teague’s description of designing sleek lines on a car to facilitate air flow in The Marmon 16 (1930); and principles of effective product design in Henry Dreyfuss’ Ten Years of Industrial Design (1939).


CHM’s 2017 blockbuster exhibition Jazz Age: American Design in the 1920s required a thorough review of the library’s Deco holdings and the acquisition of nearly 100 items. Period trade catalogs with Deco patterns, illustrated music sheets with jazz age imagery, popular novels adorned with colorful book jackets, and drawings of fixtures with distinctive Deco designs from the E.F. Caldwell lighting collection researched for the exhibition further enhanced my understanding of the style.


For the Deco scholar or serious enthusiast, CHM’s holdings are a treasure trove and a wonderful way to discover the diverse and rich aspects of Deco design.

About the Author:

Stephen Van Dyk was Library Director of the Cooper Hewitt Museum for more than 30 years and a librarian for nearly 40 years. He is on the Board of ADSNY. 


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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