A History of Art Deco

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Art Deco was one of the most influential Western aesthetic movements of the twentieth century, particularly in France and the United States. Short for arts décoratifs, or decorative arts, Art Deco was named after the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, which was held in Paris in 1925. In part it arose as a response to the Art Nouveau movement (1890-1910), which was the dominant aesthetic during the turn-of-the-century period. Whereas Art Nouveau took inspiration from nature, with flowing, organic forms and motifs, Art Deco looked to the future: to technology, geometry, clean lines, and luxurious modernity. It incorporated rich colors, simple shapes, and decadent detailing, with expensive or newly developed materials such as stainless steel, Bakelite, silver, jade, and ivory.

Art Deco peaked in the Roaring Twenties, an era of significant economic growth and technological advancement—for the first time, electricity, cars, radios, and refrigerators became widely accessible, and everyone wanted a taste of opulence. The aviation industry took off. Movie theaters began to pop up, and by the late 1920s, films with sound were introduced. It seemed as though man could do anything, and accordingly, a new aesthetic took shape to reflect and exalt this progress.

The Rise of the Decorative Arts

In France, until the late 1800s, furniture designers, textile, glass, and jewelry designers, and other craftsmen were considered artisans rather than artists. In 1875, the establishment of the term “decorative arts” gave these designers official artist status. Now, art was more than paintings and sculptures—it was also jewelry, glasswork, pottery, fashion, and everyday objects. The Art Deco movement reflected this shift, with a focus on the decorative arts rather than traditional art forms. Painting was neglected, but sculpture thrived, particularly bronze sculptures that reinterpreted figures from classical mythology, such as Atlas by Lee Lawrie and Rene Chambellan, which stands in the Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Another famous example is Paul Landowski’s Christ the Redeemer, located on a mountain that overlooks Rio de Janeiro. These works displayed the power and grace of the human form with sleek, angular lines. Through Art Deco, sculpture also took on new territories. Many objects that previously weren’t seen as ornamental became reimagined through design, like the elaborate car hood ornaments fabricated by jewelry designer and glassworker René Lalique. These objects, ranging from silverware to teapots to furniture, were designed as purely ornamental, valuable for their beauty rather than their practicality.

Paul Landowski’s Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

Art Deco design evolved alongside other art movements, like cubism, which simplified forms to their geometric roots, and some elements of Bauhaus architecture in Germany, such as symmetry and streamlined designs. Exoticism also played a significant role—Asian motifs, the Russian Ballet, ancient Egyptian art, Aztec and ancient Central American art, all very popular at the time, found their way into Art Deco designs.

Art Deco Cities

Art Deco was also incorporated into architecture, especially cinemas, theaters, banks, and hotels. Building façades were adorned with sculptural friezes and bas-reliefs showing modern depictions of classical gods, like on Chicago’s Board of Trade Building and Sheridan Theater. Movie theaters were called “palaces,” and got the royal treatment, with neon lights and luxurious, modern interiors and screening rooms. Art Deco also developed in tandem with new urban zoning laws that led to the construction of skyscrapers, perhaps the greatest manifestation of the era’s man-over-nature, sky’s-the-limit ambitions. The Chrysler Building in New York, designed by William Van Alen and completed in 1930, is the most prominent example, crowned with a glimmering, tiered, stainless steel spire adorned with triangular windows that seem to shoot upward into the sky. It was also decorated with around fifty sleek, stainless steel gargoyles in the style of hood ornaments, including the famous 61st floor eagles. At 77 stories tall, it was the world’s tallest building for just 11 months before being overtaken by the Empire State Building, another Art Deco skyscraper designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon.

The Chrysler Building in New York, designed by William Van Alen.

The interiors of Art Deco buildings were just as spectacular and lavish as their façades. They shone with bright colors and a combination of decorative elements including sculpture, murals, and reliefs, and materials such as marble, glass, stainless steel, and ceramic. The furniture too was extravagant, with elegant tables and dressers by designers like Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, who worked with the rarest, most expensive woods and inlaid pieces with ivory and mother of pearl. Another designer, Jean Dunand, was known for his lacquered wood furniture with a Japanese aesthetic.

Eclectic Design Schemes

By the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II, the flashiness and luxury of Art Deco began to feel incongruous with people’s lives, and designs began to take on a simpler, more austere aesthetic—one that would soon be dubbed modernism. But in the 1960s it experienced a resurgence, and again in the 1980s, another era of great technological advances and economic prosperity that made luxury stylish again. Today, we’re most likely to see elements of Art Deco incorporated into more eclectic design schemes. It isn’t typically used to make a grand statement, but rather to add an accent, a touch of glamour and sophistication.


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