The Art Deco style manifested across the spectrum of the visual arts: from architecture, painting, and sculpture to the graphic and decorative arts. While Art Deco practitioners were often paying homage to modernist influences such as Cubism, De Stijl, and Futurism, the references were indirect; it was as though they were taking the end results of a few decades of distilling compositions to the most basic forms and inventing a new style that could be visually pleasing but not intellectually threatening. The Art Deco style originated in Paris, but has influenced architecture and culture as a whole. Art Deco works are symmetrical, geometric, streamlined, often simple, and pleasing to the eye. This style is in contrast to avant-garde art of the period, which challenged everyday viewers to find meaning and beauty in what were often unapologetically anti-traditional images and forms.
By the end of the nineteenth century in France, many of the notable artists, architects, and designers who had played important roles in the development of the Art Nouveau style recognized that it was becoming increasingly passé. At the close of a century that saw the Industrial Revolution take hold, contemporary life became very different from a few decades earlier. It was time for something new, something that would shout "Twentieth Century" from tasteful, modernist rooftops.
From this desire to move into the new century in step with innovation rather than being held back by nostalgia, a group of French artistic innovators formed an organization called the Societé des Artistes Décorateurs (The Society of Decorative Artists). The group was comprised of both well-known figures such as the Art Nouveau-style designer and printmaker Eugene Grasset, and the Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard, along with emerging decorative artists and designers such as Pierre Chareau and Francis Jourdain. The French state supported and fostered this direction of artistic activity.
One of the major goals of the new group was to challenge the hierarchical structure of the visual arts that relegated decorative artists to a lesser status than the more classical painting and sculpting media. Jourdain is famously quoted as saying, "We consequently resolved to return decorative art, inconsiderately treated as a Cinderella or poor relation allowed to eat with the servants, to the important, almost preponderant place it occupied in the past, of all times and in all of the countries of the globe." The plan for a major exhibition presenting a new type of decorative art was originally conceived for 1914, but had to be put on hold until after World War I ended and then pushed back for various reasons until 1925.
The French government, which hosted the exhibition between the esplanade of the golden-domed Les Invalides and the entrances of the Petit Palais and the Grand Palais on both sides of the Seine River, endeavored to showcase the new style. Over 15,000 artists, architects, and designers displayed their work at the exposition. During the seven months of the exhibition, over 16 million people toured the many individual exhibits. This exhibition was the catalyst for the beginning of the movement.
Art Deco was a direct response aesthetically and philosophically to the Art Nouveau style and to the broader cultural phenomenon of modernism. Art Nouveau began to fall out of fashion during WWI as many critics felt the elaborate detail, delicate designs, often expensive materials and production methods of the style were ill-suited to a challenging, unsettled, and increasingly more mechanized modern world. While the Art Nouveau movement derived its intricate, stylized forms from nature and extolled the virtues of the hand-crafted, the Art Deco aesthetic emphasized machine-age streamlining and sleek geometry.
The Exposition Internationale brought together not only works in the Art Deco style, but put crafted items near examples of avant-garde paintings and sculptures in styles such as Cubism, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and Futurism. By the 1920s, Art Deco was an exuberant, but largely mainstream, counterpoint to the more cerebral Bauhaus and De Stijl aesthetics. All three shared an emphasis on clean, strong lines as an organizing design principle. Art Deco practitioners embraced technological innovation, modern materials, and mechanization and attempted to emphasize them in the overall aesthetic of the style itself. Practitioners also borrowed and learned from other modernist movements. Art Deco came to be regarded by admirers who were in-step with the forward-looking perspectives of contemporary avant-garde movements. Ironically, modernist painting and sculpture played a secondary role in the exhibition with the few exceptions of the Soviet pavilion and Le Corbusier's Esprit Nouveau pavilion.
The onset of the second phase of Art Deco coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression. Austerity, in fact, might be the core aesthetic for both pragmatic and conceptual reasons for this second development of Art Deco. Whereas Art Deco architecture, for instance, had been vertically oriented with skyscrapers climbing to lofty heights, the later Art Deco buildings with their mostly unornamented exteriors, graceful curves, and horizontal emphases symbolized sturdiness, quiet dignity, and resilience. During the worst years of economic disaster, from 1929 to 1931, American Art Deco transitioned from following trends to setting them.
Streamline Moderne became the American continuation of the European Art Deco movement. Beyond the serious economic and philosophical influences, the aesthetic inspiration for the first Streamline Moderne structures were buildings designed by proponents of the New Objectivity movement in Germany, which arose from an informal association of German architects, designers, and artists that had formed in the early twentieth century. New Objectivity artists and architects were inspired by the same kind of sober pragmatism that compelled the proponents of Streamline Moderne to eliminate excess, including the emotionality of expressionist art. New Objectivity architects concentrated on producing structures that could be regarded as practical, as reflective of the demands of real life. They preferred their designs to adapt to the real world rather than making others adjust to an aesthetic that was impractical. To that end, New Objectivity architects even pioneered prefabrication technology (helping quickly and efficiently house Germany's poor).
Devoid of ornament, Streamline Moderne architecture featured clean curves, long horizontal lines (including bands of windows), glass bricks, porthole-style windows, and cylindrical and sometimes nautical forms. More so than ever, there was an emphasis on aerodynamics and other expressions of modern technology. The more expensive and often exotic materials of Art Deco were replaced with concrete, glass, and chrome hardware in Streamline Moderne. Color was used sparingly as off-white, beige, and earth tones replaced the more vivid colors of Art Deco. The style was first introduced to architecture and then expanded to other objects, similarly to the traditional Art Deco style.
Originally, the term "Art Deco" was used pejoratively by a famous detractor, the modernist architect Le Corbusier, in articles in which he criticized the style for its ornamentation, a characteristic that he regarded as unnecessary in modern architecture. While proponents of the style hailed it as a stripped-down, modernist response to the excessive ornamentation, especially in comparison to its immediate predecessor, Art Nouveau, as any decoration was superfluous for Le Corbusier. It wasn't until the late 1960s, when interest in the style was reinvigorated, that the term "Art Deco" was used in a positive manner by British art historian and critic Bevis Hillier.
In the U.S., the reception of the Art Deco movement developed in a different trajectory. Herbert Hoover, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce at the time, decreed that American designers and architects could not exhibit their work at the Exposition Internationale as he contended that the country had yet to conceive of a distinctly American style of art that was satisfactorily "new enough." As an alternative, he sent a delegation to France to assess the offerings at the Exposition; and then to apply what they saw to a contemporary American artistic and architectural style. Included in the contingent of aesthetic emissaries sent by Hoover were important figures from the American Institute of Architecture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The New York Times. The mission inspired an almost immediate boom in artistic innovation in the U.S.
By 1926 a smaller version of the French fair called "A Selected Collection of Objects from the International Exposition Modern, Industrial and Decorative Arts" traveled through many U.S. cities such as New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Boston, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia. The American World Fairs in Chicago (1933) and New York City (1939) prominently featured Art Deco designs while Hollywood embraced the aesthetic and made it glamorous across the country. Even American corporations such as General Motors and Fords built pavilions in the New York World Fair.
Among the best-known examples of the American Art Deco style are skyscrapers and other large-scale buildings. In fact, the American iteration of Art Deco in building designs has been referred to as Zigzag Modern for its angular and geometric patterns as elaborate architectural facades. However, overall American Art Deco is often less ornamental than its European predecessor. Beyond the clean lines and strong curves, bold geometric shapes, rich color, and sometimes lavish ornamentation, the American version is more stripped-down. As important influences such as the New Objectivity and the International Style of architecture as well as the serious economic setbacks of the late 1920s and early 1930s began to exert themselves on the Art Deco aesthetic, the style became far less lavish. For instance, this transformation might be symbolized by the replacement of gold with chrome, of mother of pearl with Bakelite, of granite with concrete, etc.
The American Art Deco style developed as a celebration of technological advancement, including mass production, and a restored faith in social progress. In essence, these achievements could be considered a reflection of national pride. In the 1930s under Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA), many of the works that were created were Art Deco, from municipal structures like libraries and schools to massive public murals. The WPA was intended to jumpstart the post-war U.S. economy by creating jobs in public works, and sought to serve the community by creating jobs and instilling American values within design. The use of American Art Deco thus brought forth an expression of democracy through design. Some materials often used in the Art Deco creation were expensive and therefore beyond the reach of the average man. However, the use of inexpensive or new materials made it possible to produce a broad range of affordable products, and thus brought beauty into the public sphere in a new way. Art Deco inspired the design and production of an array of objects - from magazine covers and colorful advertisements to functional items such as flatware, furniture, clocks, cars, and even ocean liners.
The Art Deco style took hold in world capitals as diverse as Havana, Cuba, Mumbai, and Jakarta. Havana boasts an entire neighborhood built in the Art Deco style. The London Underground railway system heavily incorporates the style. The port of Shanghai contains more than fifty Art Deco structures, most of which were designed by the Hungarian Laszlo Hudec. From war monuments to hospitals, cities as far reaching as Sydney and Melbourne in Australia have absorbed the phenomenal style as well.
Art Deco's main visual characteristics derive from repetitive use of linear and geometric shapes including triangular, zigzagged, trapezoidal, and chevron-patterned forms. Similar to its predecessor, Art Nouveau, when objects such as flowers, animals, or human figures are represented, they are highly stylized and simplified to keep with the overall aesthetic of Art Deco. The nature and extent of the stylization and simplification or stripping down varies depending upon the regional iteration of the style. For instance, a figure like The Firebird (1922) by the French designer René Lalique, is elegantly slender and attenuated, while Lee Lawrie's Atlas (1937) outside of Rockefeller Center is solid and robust with emphatically linear musculature although both are considered fine representations of Deco style.
In keeping with the movement's emphasis on modern technology, Art Deco artists and designers exploited modern materials such as plastics, Bakelite, and stainless steel. But when a splash of wealth and refinement was needed, designers incorporated more exotic materials such as ivory, horn, and zebra skin. As with the Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movements, the Art Deco style was applied far less to the traditionally highest-ranking visual art forms of expression: painting and sculpture.
The Art Deco style exerted its influence over the graphic arts in a manner that reveals the influence of Italian Futurism with its love for speed and adoration of the machine. Futurist artists used lines to indicate movement, known as "speed whiskers" which would streak out from the wheels of fast-moving cars and trains. In addition, practitioners of Art Deco utilized parallel lines and tapering forms that suggest symmetry and streamlining. Typography was affected by the international influence of Art Deco and the typefaces Bifur, Broadway, and Peignot immediately call the style to mind.
In terms of imagery, simple forms and large areas of solid color are reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints, which had become a major source of influence for Western artists, especially in France, following the end of the isolationist Edo period in 1868. The subsequent influx of art from Japan to Europe made an enormous impact. In particular, artists found in the formal simplicity of woodblock prints a model for creating their own distinctly modern styles beginning with the Impressionist.
Until the late 1920s, avant-garde furniture design in France was mostly variations on the Art Nouveau style but simplified and less curvilinear. As the decade progressed, Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann emerged as the foremost furniture designer (Ruhlmann had a pavilion of his own at the 1925 Exposition). While his designs were primarily inspired by pieces from the eighteenth century produced in the neoclassical style, he eliminated much of the ornamentation while still using exotic materials favored by Art Nouveau designers such as mahogany, ebony, rosewood, ivory, and tortoise shell. Of course, his pieces were often too expensive to acquire for anyone aside from the most affluent.
In contrast to Ruhlmann's lavish designs, which seemed to straddle the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles, the more definitively Art Deco furniture designer in France was Jules Leleu. He had been a traditional designer until the new style supplanted Art Nouveau and is known for the design of the grand dining room of the Elysee Palace in Paris, and the luxurious cabins on the first-class deck of the elegant steamer, the Normandie.
In contrast to Leleu and Ruhlmann, Le Corbusier was a proponent of a very pared-down, ornament-free version of the Art Deco style, often creating furniture suitable for the austere interiors his own architectural structures. His intention was to design prototypes, particularly of chairs, that could be mass-produced and therefore affordable to a broader market. Also of note, Donald Deskey's interior design of New York City's famous landmark, Radio City Music Hall, is an excellent example of American Art Deco furniture design which is still intact in its original form today.
Art Deco architecture is characterized by hard-edged, often richly embellished designs, accentuated by gleaming metal accents. Many of these buildings have a vertical emphasis, constructed in a manner intended to draw the eye upward. Rectangular, often blocky forms are arranged geometrically, with the addition of rooftop spires and/or curved ornamental elements to provide a streamlined effect. New York skyscrapers and Miami's pastel-colored buildings rank among the most famous American examples, though the style was deployed in a variety of structures throughout the world.
In the United States, the Works Progress Administration helped Art Deco architecture become mainstream. Interestingly, the merger of Art Deco and Beaux-Arts classicism seen in many Depression-era public works has come to be known as PWA Moderne or Depression Moderne.
A movement that in many respects sought to break away from the past, has now become a nostalgic, fondly remembered classic. Since the 1960s, there has been a steady, continued interest in the style. Echoes of Art Deco can be seen in Mid-Century Modern design, which carries forward the streamlined aesthetic of Deco and revisits the clean simplicity of the Bauhaus. Deco also helped to inspire the Memphis Group, a design and architecture movement centered in Milan during 1980s. Memphis also drew from Pop art and Kitsch as sources for its colorful, consciously postmodern designs.