Style Guide: Art Deco

Later renowned as being the mother of the Modernist movement, Art Deco began in Paris in the 1920s and flourished internationally until the 1930s and the beginning of World War II. The term “Art Deco” was not used until the 1960s in an exhibit about the style. The style followed Art Nouveau and the Arts & Crafts style, both strongly embedded in natural motifs and elements. Art Deco’s straight lines and geometric shapes replaced the fluid, natural lines of Art Nouveau. Art Deco is closely related to Machine Age and Streamline styles, both popular for industrial applications, including cars, planes and appliances.

The most famous examples of Art Deco architecture in America are the Chrysler building (1930) and the Empire State building (1931), both of which are in New York City. The Chrysler building was the tallest building in the world for 11 months before being surpassed by the Empire State Building. These buildings demonstrate the Art Deco’s style Classical roots. Art Deco is influenced by Greek, Roman, and Egyptian styles, as well as Aztec designs. Popular ornaments include chevrons, sunbursts and zig-zags. Figures and portraits are highly stylized. Mythological creatures and gods are other common design elements.

Materials used in Art Deco design, both industrial and decorative, include aluminum, stainless steel, chrome and Bakelite. In furniture, mirrored surfaces, inlaid woods, and exotic material such as shagreen (sharkskin) and zebra, along with exotic woods such as rosewood and ebony were favorites of Art Deco designers. Art Deco pottery followed the geometric lines of architecture and furniture. Susie Cooper pottery is very collectible today.

The Chicago World’s Fair in 1933-34 was a celebration of Art Deco design and innovation. Many Art Deco design motifs and innovations can be seen in the poster for the fair. Steamship designs, especially in the French Line of the 1920s and 30s, were heavily influenced by Art Deco. From the advertising posters to stateroom design, these ships were resplendent in Art Deco design. This is now a highly collectible market for Art Deco enthusiasts.

European Art Deco began with the Parisian designers in the 1920s. One of the top French designers was Emile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933). A sideboard by Ruhlmann in rosewood with a stylized chariot design is an example of French Art Deco. Other European designers who embraced the Art Deco aesthetic include fellow Frenchmen, Le Courbusier (1887-1965), Austrian Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956), and Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) from Scotland. Each country interpreted Art Deco in a unique way while adhering to the basic principles of geometry and classical references.

American Art Deco shows an influence of French Art Deco but stands on its own. Machine Age and Streamline styles can be seen in many of the furniture and decorative arts designs of such designers as Norman Bel Geddes (1898-1953) because they worked in both decorative and industrial designs. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), known for his Prairie School interpretation of Arts & Crafts, also worked in the Art Deco style in both his architectural projects and furniture designs. Eileen Gray (1878-1976) was one of the leading American Art Deco designers. Her rue de lota apartment is pictured above with her Bibendum Chair, Serpent Chair and Block Screen in the doorway. Images 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7

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