Thursday, November 7, 2013

Principles of Modernism: Art Deco

This interior from a 1919 film
typifies what we think of as Art Deco---
Geometric ziggurats in black and white

I've been grouping trends in modernism according to the labels that artists have chosen for themselves. I've also used labels that art historians have given to a style. Art Deco is a commonly understood term today that was popularized in the English-speaking countries in 1968 by British art historian Bevis Hillier. His retrospective look at modernism used a French term that was in use in the 1950s and '60s to describe type fonts, jewelry and industrial design. 

The French name Art Déco derived from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925. Arts Décoratifs was shortened to Art Deco to parallel Art Nouveau. Art Deco with design based on geometry was thought to have supplanted Art Nouveau with its emphasis on natural curves.  

The International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts was what might be called a World's Fair with the theme of modern design. 

The architectural theme was symbolized in Rene Lalique's Crystal Tower Fountain.

Wasserorgel print
by Carl Otto Czeschka
for the Viennese Workshop about 1910.

The Paris Expo in 1925 did not introduce modern design, whether geometric or organic . Similar imagery goes back to the turn of the century. Designers in Vienna, Germany, Eastern Europe, Scotland and England had been experimenting with the look of modernism for a generation. 

Vassily Kandinsky On White, 1923
Kandinsky was Russian-born.

After World War I, Paris attempted to re-locate the center of art back to France by presenting an overview of the trends, highlighting French designers and manufacturers. They were quite successful. German, Russian and Viennese culture was not popular with the Allies who won the Great War. Trend setters were glad to forget that trends had been born anywhere else. Paris was again considered the capital of art.

Read more about the Paris Exposition at the Victoria & Albert Museum website:

Better Homes & Gardens in 1968

Hillier's 1968 book on Art Deco enchanted young designers in the 1970s. Art Deco emphasized ornament---something in short supply in the late 1960s. 

Reproduction Art Deco wallpaper

Bevis and others describing Art Deco chose certain elements of modernism,

particularly, imagery based in geometric shapes,

epitomized in the Chrysler Building
and architectural details in metal work.

Certain natural images--- gazelles and grayhounds --- were repeated.

But geometry ---particularly parallel lines and circles---
was predominant.

The Pan Pacific Auditorium, Los Angeles,
built in 1935
burned in 1989.

The 1960s-'70s revival of interest in the machine-age, streamlined look in which a building resembled an ocean liner led to a historic preservation movement. Many of these futuristic gems were saved from neglect.

Bullock's Wilshire Department Store
Los Angeles

Not everyone likes Art Deco, however:


  1. I have always struggled with the terms Art Deco vrs Art Noveau. I think that I love each equally

  2. I think of Art Nouveau as natural curves and Art Deco as mathematical curves. They are both very appealing.