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Art Deco Facts and History

Updated on April 10, 2013

Art deco is a style of decorative arts, graphics, and architecture of the early 20th century that is considered the first universal style based on legitimate principles of design to have emerged in Europe in over 100 years. The 19th century largely failed to create a distinctive grammar of ornament design of its own; critics referred repeatedly to its revivalist tendencies as le style sans style, or "the style without style." Art deco's predecessor, art nouveau, although unified and international in scope, was later judged as a worthy, but invalid (for not adhering to the dictum that ornament should be subservient to design), attempt to break new ground. Just as the fussiness of Louis XV decoration was superseded by the discipline of the Louis XVI style, so art nouveau gave way to a new, regimented form of modernism, now known broadly as art deco.

The term art deco, which was coined in the 1960s, is a contraction of the title of the period's premier world's fair, L'Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, staged in Paris in 1925. However, art deco has wider connotations and has been understood by many to describe all of the decorative arts of the interwar years (1919–1939), whatever their particular stylistic influence. In an attempt to define its meaning more precisely, recent scholarship has made a distinction between the "high-style," largely Parisian and Paris-derived, decorative style of the 1920s—a decade of boundless optimism, known also as the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age—and that of the austere Depression-era 1930s, during which humankind was forced to draw in its aspirations sharply. Art deco most accurately describes the designs of the 1920s, and art moderne those of the 1930s, although the debate continues concerning the issue of "high-style vs. modern."

The philosophy of most art deco artist-designers was based on three tenets: a decorative vernacular inspired by developments in the field of modern art, including abstraction (cubism), distortion (Russian constructivism), and simplification (Italian futurism), as seen in the bold, striking posters of A.-M. Cassandre and Edward McKnight Kauffer; the use of beautiful and often exotic materials, by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Jean Dunand, and others; and the carefully studied proportions of pure forms, as in Jean Puiforcat's exquisite silver vessels. Banished forever was the overabundance and clutter of Victorian and art nouveau design and in its place was an inflexible dictum: form must follow function.


In the 1920s a bold and colorful repertoire of abstract art deco ornamentation dominated in architecture, the decorative arts, and graphics, especially at the Paris salons, which at the time determined the speed and direction of vanguard art. Popular motifs included sunbursts, ziggurats, and fountains; overlapping or repeating images of lightning bolts, chevrons, and lozenges; sleek does, gazelles, and greyhounds; geometrically styled baskets of fruit and flora; and slim, often androgynous and sports-playing, women. Further influences included the world of haute couture, Egyptology, Mayan and Aztec art, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and the arts of Asia and tribal Africa, all of which together provided artist-designers with an inexhaustible, if not sometimes conflicting, mélange of images and themes applicable across the entire gamut of the decorative arts. The forms, materials, and techniques of the great 18th-century French furniture makers also inspired designers such as Ruhlmann, who often added ivory, sharkskin, and other lavish touches to his veneered and lacquered pieces.

In reality, art deco was an evolving style that did not start or end at any specific moment. Although its starting point is generally taken as the end of World War I, it was conceived in Paris in the years immediately preceding the hostilities, during which time many of the style's most celebrated objects were created, including sumptuous furnishings by Ruhlmann, Paul Iribe, Clément Rousseau, Paul Follot, and the partnership of Louis Süe and André Mare. Nor did the style cease abruptly at the end of the 1920s, although its high point was the triumphal 1925 Paris Exposition, after which art deco yielded ground increasingly to the more functional Bauhaus-inspired design ideology that came to the fore in the next decade.

The 1930s witnessed a retreat from exuberance and playfulness. The world economy, and with it the spirits of its citizenry, had plummeted following the Wall Street crash of 1929. Hopes were pinned on modern technology and its offspring, mass production. An intellectual rather than emotional response was necessary. Streamlined, aerodynamic forms emphasized the increasing importance of the machine in the search to remedy society's ills; the previous decade's cause for celebration had passed, and with it the use of superfluous ornamentation.

Although art deco developed in France and remained an essentially Gallic phenomenon, its motifs were borrowed after 1925 by a host of other designers and architects throughout the world. Most notably, American architects adopted art deco designs to enhance their new buildings, particularly "stepped-back" skyscrapers—such as the Chrysler and Empire State buildings in New York City—and sleek movie palaces and gleaming diners, which sprouted up all over the country. The United States lacked a modern style of its own in the early 1920s, so its architects looked to Paris for inspiration. Elsewhere, such as in northern Europe, France's preoccupation with decoration was eschewed in favor of a more cerebral interpretation of modernism based on the theories of functionalism and economy espoused earlier by the German architects Hermann Muthesius and Walter Gropius and their disciples, among others.


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    • billd01603 profile image


      5 years ago from Worcester

      Thanks for writing whyjoker. I enjoyed this HUB

    • whyjoker profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Yes, there is also Art Deco architecture.


    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 

      5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      This is a fascinating discussion of the philosophical elements of art deco. I'd love to see more connection between the ideas and the images that illustrate the ideas. Also, isn't there Art Deco architecture - I think particularly in the Empire State Building. Do I have that right?

      Voted up and interesting.

    • whyjoker profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      You're welcome

    • cabmgmnt profile image


      5 years ago from Northfield, MA

      Very informative and well written. I love art deco design and Erte is one of my favorites. Thanks for sharing this information.


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