The term “Art Deco” has become a collective term for almost any object of conscious design, whether sophisticated or naïve, if it was created between the First and Second World Wars. Included in this bewildering array are objects arising from opposite philosophies and representing all levels of aesthetic quality. Art Deco, as the term is used today, has been applied especially to the decorative arts (furniture, ceramics, silver, interior design) as well as to architecture, graphics, painting and sculpture. Artists as different as Mies van der Rohe and Marie Larencin, Fernand Leger and Rene Lalique have been included under the broad umbrella of this stylistic term.
Art Deco is an abbreviation of the title of the most important Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925. Although extensive and influential, the Exposition was not an unbiased representation of modern styles. It included talents as divergent as the architect Le Corbusier, the ebeniste, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, the silversmith Jean Puiforcat, and the sculptor Jacques Lipschitz, but it did not include artists of the Dutch De Stijl movement or Weimar Bauhaus. A desire to promote Paris as the preeminent center of world design and the lingering animosities of World War I kept work of German and Austrian designers out of the Exposition in spite of the existence there of excellent schools of modern design for several decades. Today the term is used loosely to cover a wide range of styles, particularly in the decorative arts, whether or not these were included in the 1925 Exposition.
Some critics object to the “jazzy” sound of the words “Art Deco”, pointing out that this emphasizes the flashy “roaring twenties” aspect of the style, bringing to mind “the saxophone, the raccoon coat, black lace stockings, feather fans and the Stutz Bearcat.” (1) It might be more accurate to describe the period styles as “The Nineteen Twenties Style” (2) or “Les Annees ‘25: Art Deco/Bauhaus/Stijl/Esprit Nouveau” (3) or “style moderne” as it was called at the time. Others maintain that it was precisely the exuberant popular side of the style that was most innovative and is of the greatest lasting interest. (4)
Differences in emphasis and meaning have been reflected in previous exhibitions. These have tended, on the one hand (the pioneering 1966 exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratif, Paris, and the 1970 exhibition at Finch College, New York), to emphasize the “high style” work of the architect-designers and the designer-cabinet makers, ceramicists, glassmakers, and metal workers. On the other hand, the 1971 exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts combined mass-produced objects ranging from well-designed to kitsch with the “high style” to produce a more complicated, and perhaps more confusing portrayal of the period style.
The present exhibition is an attempt to define more precisely the term “Art Deco.” It presents the various styles of the 1920s and 1930s, emphasizing that diversity is typical and characteristic of the period as a whole. “High style” design in the traditional sense of the ebeniste cabinetmakers and silversmiths (examples by E.J. Ruhlman, Edgar Brandt, Jean Puiforcat, Rene Lalique, Jean Durand and others are represented in this show), was reserved for the wealthy elite who could afford to pay the exorbitant premium for custom production. In spite of the modernist characteristics of simplified design influenced by cubism, Futurism, and the colorful exoticism of the Ballet Russe, these designers thought back to the French craftsman tradition. They, like their 18th and 19th century predecessors, spared neither labor nor material. Richness was achieved by the use of rare woods, precious metals, and even animal skins, often in exotic combinations, rather than through applied sculptural decoration. Style and “taste” were all-important and these designers thus assumed not only the attitude of their predecessors but sometimes borrowed forms which they simplified from 18th and 19th century prototypes. Of particular influence are the classicizing Louis XVI, Empire, and Biedermier styles.
This traditional point of view was contrasted by Le Corbusier, those working at the Bauhaus, and French designers like Robert Mallet-Stevens. These artists were keenly attuned to the implications and needs of a highly industrialized mass society. Designs by master avant-garde artists could be made available through mass production to a vast number of people. These men denounced “style,” traditional taste and historicism as meaningless to modern society. The chaise longue of Le Corbusier and the cantilevered tubular steel chair of Mies van der Rohe represent successful accommodation of design to industry. If one compares these objects with the chair by Ruhlmann, the diversities of the Art Deco style should become clear. The spare, functional, geometric aesthetic of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus lent itself better to mass production. Many handsome, well-designed objects for daily use, whose designers are not well known, owe much to these architects, as can be seen in the Sunbeam coffee pot on exhibition in the Bergman gallery.
Today these more avant-garde architect-designers are generally considered to have made the most important contribution to 20th century design. Some maintain that their work is on an entirely different plane from a Ruhlmann or a Dufrene and should not be considered in relation to Art Deco at all. Although both philosophies included certain similar characteristics such as simplification of line, geometric forms and plain surfaces, it is interesting to note that at the time of the 1925 Exposition, Le Corbusier’s Pavillion de l’Esprit Nouveau was considered by Brandt and Ruhlmann, principal organizers of the Exposition, to be of secondary importance. Le Corbusier’s Pavillion was relegated to an obscure corner of the fair grounds and received little critical attention. Today a fair appraisal of concurrent trends between the two World Wars would be incomplete without the inclusion of the Bauhaus designers, Le Corbusier, and other French designers of similar interests.
A characteristic common to both of these polar opposites was that they designed “ensembles” where an interior was conceived and coordinated by a master designer or governed by one philosophy. Originating with the teachings of William Morris and groups such as the Weiner Werkstatten, founded in 1903 by Kolomar Moser and Josef Hoffman, and the Deutscher Werkbund of 1907, this organization into groups of common approach and philosophy gained in importance after the War. It was exemplified not only by the Weimar Bauhaus founded by Gropius in 1919, but, in a very different way, also by the Compagnie des Arts Francais, founded in 1919 by Louis Sue and Andre Mare, the Primavera gallery at the Parisian department store Au Printemps, and other Parisian workshops.
The majority of objects classed today as Art Deco fall somewhere between the two extremes. These often lack the considered and exquisite craftsmanship of Ruhlmann furniture or Brandt ironwork or the tectonic lucidity of Le Corbusier or Bauhaus designers. In addition, other influences were numerous. Modern fascination with speed and machines inspired artists and designers to incorporate dynamic geometric forms to express and reflect these phenomena. The excitement caused by the opening of Tutankhamens’s tomb in 1922/3 is revealed in many of the objects of the period. A new interest in the Indian cultures of North and South America is seen in objects as different as furniture with decoration in the form of a ziggurat (exhibited in the Bergman gallery) and a Tiffany Desk Set (exhibited at the Renaissance Society). Other motifs such as stylized flowers, elegant animals and fish (borzoi, gazelles, and angelfish), sunrays, and lightning bolts became familiar Art Deco vocabulary. Contemporary fashions and interests from modern dance, tennis and archery were executed in a stylized way in bronze, porcelain and ivory. Mass production made these designs, too, available to a large number.
The concurrent trends that have come to be known as Art Deco operated at many different levels. Some distinctions can be made however, without necessitating the exclusion of interesting or pertinent objects.
This text was originally published in the exhibition catalogue.