ART DECO."BE MODERN"
THE ART OF LIVING
The term art deco originates from the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts that took place in Paris. Initially planned for 1916 and postponed because of World War I, this exhibition consecrated a style that is often associated with the postwar years but that dates back to the early twentieth-century reaction against the lyrical excesses and flowerings of art nouveau, which is sometimes referred to as noodle style. It was therefore as early as 1910, at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, that critics hailed the emergence of a truly modern decorative art, with refined geometrical forms, just when the names of its future great masters in France, such as Maurice Dufrêne and Paul Follot, were emerging. After World War I, the need for change and the desire to create a totally new living environment contributed to the final repudiation of the Belle Epoque style. For Dufrêne, the art of 1900 belonged to the realm of fantasy, whereas the art of 1925 would belong to the realm of reason.
However, the style of 1925 was more than a reaction to art nouveau. It emerged and developed within a social context dominated by the slogan "be modern." Nevertheless, unlike the modernist movement, for which modernism was an ideological concept, this style responded to the aspirations of the middle classes, with their sensitivity to a particular French tradition as well as to speed, the machine age, and the trends of fashion, while also drawing on an amalgam of exotic inspirations originating from Turkey, Russia, Egypt, Africa, and Japan. Space in art deco is also different from the modernist concept of space; it rejects the universal project, internationalism, and the notion of collectivism in the broadest sense, instead combining individual and national values under the common denominator of modernity and contemporaneity. It is realist in accordance with its age—the space is both functional and decorative in the traditional sense of the art of living in this period.
The 1925 International Exhibition in Paris marked the apogee of this movement. The pavilions offered an insight into the prevailing situation, in which innovative standpoints (seen in the Dutch, Danish, and Polish pavilions) alternated with traditional concepts (seen in the Spanish and Greek pavilions). The high point of the exhibition was the plan for a French foreign embassy, organized by the Société des Artistes Décorateurs, which arranged twenty-four spaces in collaboration with interior designers such as Jacques-émile Ruhlmann, Pierre Patout, Jean Saudé, and Robert Mallet-Stevens. The dominant aesthetic of the embassy was toward luxury, a deliberate choice on the part of these "traditionalist" interior designers, whereas art deco is characterized by a twofold dialectic of tradition and modernity, elite and social art.
Department stores played an important role in the creation, circulation, and democratization of art deco by establishing studios dedicated to the modern decorative arts. The first to appear were the Ateliers Primavera (1912) in the Le Printemps chain of department stores. In 1922, Maurice Dufrêne was appointed to run Ma?trise, the creative studio at the Galeries Lafayette; the following year, Paul Follot took charge of the Pomone line in Bon Marché and Studium in the Le Louvre department stores. Art deco gained mass circulation through these channels, which presented it as the new art of living. Original artwork and personalized architecture were thus replaced by a collection of furniture and ingenious design creations that achieved mass circulation at affordable prices.
In general, architecture, interior décor, and furniture production in art deco were guided by an idea of beauty that was expressed predominantly in ornamentation: they drew inspiration from a sense of refinement and aimed to develop good taste in the general population. Daily living and households were made considerably more pleasant through a profusion of objects created for every budget: the stoneware of René Buthaud, the furniture of Robert Block and Pierre Legrain, the Swedish-manufactured Orrefors vases, the glassware of René Lalique, the wallpapers of Victor Servranckx, the creations of Marcel Wolfers, the jewellery of Dario Viterbo, the fabrics of Atelier Martine and the collections of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. With art deco, fixed household decor could also be changed at will through the addition of new elements: ornamental paneling and sculptures, low-reliefs and friezes, moldings, stucco, mosaics, wrought iron, works in bronze and copper, stained-glass windows, ornamental paintings and frescoes, lacquerware and fabrics.
Among the best-known objects and creators of this period are the furniture of Francis Jourdain and Eileen Gray, who also designed many lacquer screens, having learned the technique from the Japanese artist Sugawara. In 1919, Gray caused a sensation by decorating the apartment of the fashion designer Suzanne Talbot, covering it in black lacquer panels mixed with eggshells. At the other end of the spectrum was Jacques-émile Ruhlmann, descended from the line of great eighteenth-century cabinetmakers, the quintessence of French genius in the classical tradition. André Groult, who signed the work he had done decorating a bedroom for the embassy at the 1925 exhibition, represented yet another trend, that of the modernizers who revived tradition by combining ancient refined styles, including Louis XV and empire, while also being overtly contemporary in their simple lines and rigorous proportions.
After the 1925 exhibition, the art deco style continued to feature in many buildings, including the spectacular entrance hall of the Daily Express (by Robert Atkinson) and the Strand Palace Hotel (by Olivier P. Bernard) in London. The depression of the 1930s brought some decline in the luxury market, as well as in the artistic professions with which art deco was associated. However, the movement continued to develop in the United States, which had been conspicuous by its absence from the 1925 exhibition and which adopted and adapted this style for large symbolic building projects such as the Chrysler Building in New York and for everyday objects created by European émigrés such as the Austrian Paul T. Frankl and the Dane Erik Magnussen.
It is probably in its tremendous capacity for adaptation that the immense success of art deco resides, and the style proved to be highly versatile. Free of all doctrine and difficult to define, this movement continued to be called modern right up to the 1960s and is undoubtedly one of the most protean styles of the twentieth century.
Art Deco 1910–1939. Exhibition catalog, Victoria and Albert Museum. London, 2003.
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Duncan, Alastair. Art Deco Furniture: The French Designers. New York, 1992.
Hillier, Bevis, and Stephen Escritt. Art Deco Style. London, 1997.
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art dec·o • n. the predominant decorative art style of the 1920s and 1930s, characterized by precise and boldly delineated geometric shapes and strong colors, and used most notably in household objects and in architecture.