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What is Art Deco, you may ask? When was it most popular, is it still, and will we see it reign again?
Art Deco was the predominant decor style of the 1920s and 1930s. More than a style, it was a movement.
It captured fine and decorative arts, fashion and large scale architecture.
It excited the decade of the Roaring Twenties and engaged the nation as the times slid into the Great Depression.
Art Deco was (and is) to a great extent a pan movement.
Not only something that was found in just one discipline. In fact, movement may be the best single unifying descriptor.
It was something that affected architectural works, decorative efforts, art, fashionable attire, jeweled adornments, and city style in general.
Origins of a unique stylistic time
We cannot claim that it originated in America: It did not. France saw its origin. It came into prominence at the time of the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925. But the United States embraced it heartedly, as did much of the European continent.
Definitely a city-style, it screamed luxurious, even glamorous, times. But not quietly. It was completely in sync with the day: the Roaring Twenties. For its time, it was the most modern of ideas: It was also called Style Moderne. It had an exciting edge to it.
Until you’ve seen in, it can be hard to describe or understand abstractly, because many attributes are drawn from, actually unexpected combinations of a variety of preceding and coexisting influences. It was eclectic. Colorful pieces were created with an exotic air.
A confluence of influences
- Cubism, geometric design
- Asian, Egyptian and ancient cultures
- French architecture
Precursors of the innovative look
Arts and Crafts movement
The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century was a time of utilitarian emphasis, the rise of machinery and practicality.
In later decades a backlash movement in the arts came as the Arts and Crafts movement, originating in Britain.
The United States was also very receptive to it, and it flourished.
Notably, it featured a relatively simple back to nature outlook, enjoyed hand-made craftsmanship and woodworking. Also, William Morris, the textile designer, is closely connected.
The sinuous, organic lines indicate an attempt at the natural creation of architecture and fine art.
We see it in the decorative arts of book design and posters.
Who does not know (and probably value highly) the stained glass lamps and other items that we attribute to the American designer, Louis Comfort Tiffany?
Coming a bit later, Art Deco was further impacted by Cubism. Meanwhile, it also did continue many of the attributes of Art Nouveau: its connection to nature themes and imagery, especially.
How the movement evolved
Most exuberant during those scintillating ‘20s, it seemed to simplify a bit during the 1930s. After all, it was now the Great Depression, when much was no longer shining.
An interesting, less complexly ornate, variation came into being during these later years: Streamline Moderne. You don’t hear much about that anymore, but it was prime at the time of the 1939 World’s Fair and markedly influenced the architectural styles there.
The sleek metallic lines of automobiles and the new airplanes were the most prominent influences.
Such attributes often made a building look like it was about to move!
We’d have to say that new developments beginning with World War II were no longer a part of Art Deco. It had largely run its course and now was the time for practical looking, clean-lined, and functional construction.
What we admire about it: the epitome of decoration
In best characterizing this trend, the word that comes to mind is decoration. Of course, there was a big decorative interest in previous movements: take, for example, everything Victorian.
But there was always a staidness or correctness to the British-inspirations that was not seriously part of the one we are now discussing! (Are the French and English different … duh.)
There were definitely practical underpinnings that made the glories of Deco have the potential to soar architecturally: improvements in building with concrete and large expanses of glass. We would also have to add that the addition of aluminum enabled lightness and some flexibility to be present that were not possible before.
Interestingly, although it was recognized during the most active years, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the name art deco came into recognition as such. Although the term and practice of decorative artists were identified in the late 19th century, not specifically for this use.
Architectural triumphs in America
Although America was hardly the center of the Art Deco world, it came to predominant in the development of modern skyscrapers.
We showed an example of the grandness of the skyscraper architecture in our post on the Roaring Twenties: the striking Chrysler building.
America’s favorite architecture
Truth be known, you may be too familiar with the outline of the next building we want to bring up, because it is so well known, to recognize it to be an exemplary example of this building era: the Empire State Building!
It was part of a race to put up the world’s tallest building. That title was so far and briefly, held by the Chrysler Building.
This new structure was destined, in 1931, to tower over everything at 1454 feet and 102 stories. Now there is a skyscraper!
The architects, Shrive, Lamb, and Harmon Associates, took not much more than a year (410 days), which was so fast, obviously, it was due to the race ongoing.
An embellishment of movie theaters and entertainment halls
The extravagance and ornateness suited its use in the facades, lobbies, and stages of movie theaters and music halls.
At one point, they dotted the landscape of small cities all across our country.
To us as casual distance visitors to Florida, going to Miami always brings up the vision of the Deco structures in South Beach. Construction in these neighborhoods started and continued a bit later historically, some even after World War 2.
Now here you will see the smaller, cheerful, and colorful hotels, theaters, and dwellings in the Style Moderne that captivates our heart.
It is all on a much less grand scale than the sky-scraping marvels that are so awe-inspiring. In contrast, here is pure fun and lightheartedness. Is neon what you want? Like pastel more than anything? This is the place for you.
Interestingly, there was little other indication of interest in this approach for personal residence buildings (home architecture). However, as you will see below, it became very popular for furniture and adornments within the home.
The genius of sculpture
In the U.S., large sculptures also took up the Deco effect. Along with that, themes of mythic heroes predominated.
We bet you have been to Rockefeller Center in New York in person, or at least know someone who has.
The renowned three-dimensional image is unmistakable. It is the most photographed large sculptural piece in New York City.
According to Greek mythology, Prometheus provided fire to humans, thereby laying the foundation for civilization.
Art, posters, and all that jazz
Poster art was made fabulous by the influence of this artistic style.
Art Deco and jazz are indelibly connected. You could call the artistic trend “jazz art”!
Growing up together, it is hard to say which influenced the other more.
We included one of these, Harlem Jazz by Reiss, in our article that was in the nineteen twenties.
Of course, jazz music may seem to have had more staying power, or at least stayed on beyond its Deco phase.
But both are forever young and vibrant.
Speaking of music, the gramophone of the 1920s brought recorded music into one’s home.
The unexpected murals of the Great Depression
Individuals and nations lost the ability and interest to spend enormously after the crash of the stock market in 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Interestingly, the country invested in large murals placed in public areas funded by the Work Progress Administration (WPA), the Federal Art Project. The WPA had the intent of putting artists to work and stimulating the economy. It was a fascinating way to do that.
The elegance in furniture
The trend’s relation to furniture grew over a couple of decades.
Find wood, with designed geometric inlays, were lacquered and painted.
They were quite distinctive of the artist’s endeavor.
In the later years, especially the 1930s, comfort edged into the cause, resulting in classic overstuffed couches and living room pieces.
Decorative objects to grace the home
More than any other style, when we think of this one we connect it with decorations and accessories that grace the interiors of our homes: objects that are not necessary for utility, but ones we have just because they are beautiful.
Art Deco also graced utilitarian pieces, and by its use, transforming them into works of art.
If there is anything that has lived on until today, it is the influence upon jewelry.
It is what first drew us to the art.
It emphasized fairly simple repeating geometric shapes and high contrast between the colors of precious gems.
Diamonds and the new white gold became quite popular.
Fashion according to Erte
If you never heard anything else, you would have heard of Erte.
The Russian-born Frenchman astonished French theater with his luscious stage environments and costumes. He is pretty well synonymous with Deco.
With the decline in European opportunities in the economic derailment that followed WW1, his efforts switched to the United States.
He illustrated for over 20 years of Harper’s Bazaar magazine covers that affected American fashion tastes since.
He may be why our image of ladies’ high fashion still retains the Deco aura.
Flappers and the Roaring Twenties
Besides upholstered furnishings, women’s fashion enables one to see the color, flowing themes, and floral influences of this trend.
Dresses were long, soft, and draped; beads were in, and corsets were definitely out.
If you can get the idea of casual elegance, that is a good descriptor.
Could the 1920s liberated females have truly roared in the absence of such clothing to wear?
Literature and the movies
The Great Gatsby is the quintessential novel in the style. F. Scott Fitzgerald penned a masterpiece of American literature n 1925, with the setting in 1922. The decadence of the Roaring Twenties and the phenomenal talent of the Jazz Age are on full display. (See more below.)
Animation was a major part of the relatively new industry of moving pictures.
Fantasia is one of our all-time favorites.
Disney’s splendid 1940 Mickey Mouse achievement premiered as World War II was starting and therefore blunted its impact and distribution.
It shows the late design influence of the Deco movement in the arts.
To our minds, the classical score, conducted by Leopold Stokowski and the Philharmonic Orchestra, remains among the best.
Did Art Deco ever go away entirely?
Actually, the answer is no. While its major role in buildings and furniture in the early third of this past century waned to the point of almost nonexistence by mid-century. The vintage world continues to embrace the mode.
Special interest periodically has resumed, especially during periods of the 1960s and 1980s. Restorations and new editions gained interest and enthusiastic embraces.
A lovely restored setting exists in Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, with the original dating from 1933.
The Rockwood tiled ice cream parlor is real and ready to serve you the tastiest treats.
This effort is why we can all enjoy Miami Beach’s joint places even today. (See more above.) They were saved by the restoration and conservation efforts as the Miami Beach Architectural District.
Neo Art Deco
Neo Deco (or Neo Art Deco) is probably one of the most exciting trends we have become aware of in recent years. It’s a modern, color overachiever trend that is definitely today: a crossover of Art Deco becomes modern for our age.
In 1989, the NBC Tower appeared in Chicago, built anew for modern sensibilities.
It derives its Deco inspiration from 30 Rockefeller Plaza (currently the Comcast Building).
The earlier sky-scraping tower is part of the New York City Plaza. The masterpiece was built in 1933.
Style Moderne has remained a small but a significant player for decorative items, especially jewelry, interest in it waxing and waning, even into our time. Instead, you still see it, not infrequently, in wedding settings and designs.
And probably most of all in typography, paper goods, invitations, and photography framing.
Will Art Deco trend again?
Periodically, Art Deco becomes a subject of fascination anew. You only have to consider that there have been four movie versions over the years (1926, 1949, 1974, and 2013) of The Great Gatsby to get the idea that we can’t leave our interest be.
Another reason to consider watching the most recent film edition (2013) is because of the wonderful cinematography. (It won 2014 Academy Awards for Best Production Design and Best Costume Design.)
Here’s your chance to see, recreated, of course, glimpses of the era as though you were there.
Use Art Deco ideas in your modern house
As you might discern, doing so will work best if you don’t have a major or widespread competing look throughout your abode. For example, it is not going to work well alongside country decor. But it might do with a rustic interior or exterior, and definitely in a modern house.
Before you go
Writing about the 1920s and other entertaining developments around the turn of the last century and several decades since inspires us to recall to you some of our other posts that address those eras.
We think especially of vinyl records and the early record players! If you love them too, don’t hesitate to check out a relevant article.