Art Deco – A Revolution of Design & Style for the Modern Age

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Art Deco (1920 – 1940), a revolution of design and style for the modern age, eached the apex of its popularity between two global conflicts, World War I and II.

It was the perfect expression of Paris during the 20’s to the 30’s, when it embraced every area of design and the decorative arts, including architecture, interiors, furniture, jewellery, painting and graphics, bookbinding, costume, glass and ceramics.

Many were influenced greatly by the louche lifestyle at Paris during the early 1920’s and as the pace of life quickened its protagonists wanted to ward off the threat of a civilization dominated by either industry or technology.

The sumptuous French design styles of around 1910, which managed to survive World War I intact, culminated at Paris in 1925 at the great International Exhibition of the Decorative Arts (Exposition Des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels) – Art Deco for short.

Art deco pavilionIt was one of the greatest of all design style movements and the first universal style in over 100 years, borrowing from most of the design styles of the past to fashion the future.

Modernism is a term the art community has adopted in recent years to describe the many and diverse styles of art and design created between 1880 and 1940. There was so much going on all at once.

Art Deco German chaise c1930 from Online Antiques

Art Deco German chaise c1930 from Online Antiques

These include in England the Aesthetic Movement and Arts and Crafts Movement, there was French Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession and Wiener Werkstatte, the Northern European Jugendstil (Youthful Style), French Art Deco and the German Bauhaus Modernists.

Not that we should forget the brilliant Scottish architect, designer, water colourist and sculptor Charles Rennie MacIntosh (1868-1928), who was the main exponent of Art Nouveau in the U.K and architect designer, writer and educator an all round genius, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959) in America who were really in a class of their own.

The term Art Deco, coined first in the 1960’s, was meant to embrace every area of design and the decorative arts of the period 1920-40, including architecture, interiors, furniture, fashion, jewellery, painting, graphics, bookbinding, ceramics, costume, glass, silver, metalware and ceramics.

“Art Deco in France found its American equivalent in the design of the New York skyscrapers of the 1920s. The Chrysler Building … was one of the most accomplished essays in the style.” said architectural historian John Julius Norwich.

In New York many fine examples of the distinctive Art Deco style in skyscraper architecture, which still punctuate the city skyline including the mighty Empire State building. It was completed in 1931 and surpassed the Chrysler building’s height within eleven months of its being completed, although it has retained the record of being the world’s tallest steel-supported brick building. Its distinctive radiating terraced arched roofline is clad in a non-rusting steel.

Henri MATISSE France 1869 – 1954 designer 1920 LES BALLETS RUSSES DE SERGE DIAGHILEV commenced 1909 – 1929 producer (organisation) Marie MUELLE France costumier

Art Deco manifested itself emotionally with great zest, colour and playfulness in an age that was all about prospering. It was also about fulfilling a deeply felt need for a style that would not be threatened by change, because as it turned out it was adaptable for almost every culture on the planet. In many world cities you will still find marvellous examples of the Art Deco style lurking gloriously. It was definitely all about a hunger for life and a desire for feeling good about self.

The clientele were all wealthy, fashionable art-lovers, who enjoyed living in a luxurious environment and, for the moment.

The style was influenced by exotic design, including the costumes and sets of the Russian entrepreneur Serge Diaghilev (1872 – 1929) and his outstanding Ballet Russes including a black and white number designed by Henri MATISSE France 1869 – 1954 and manufactured by Marie MUELLE France costumier.

The lives of women were enhanced by the wearing of classy couture clothes, by such as Paul Poiret, whose gowns reflected their all new avant-garde status.

Glamour star painter Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) was born into wealth and for a long time lived the life of a bohemian artist, one that was racy, risky and renowned until she retired into the seclusion in Garboesque fashion.

The style’s beginnings were all about simplifying form and fitting it to suit function. Its characteristics become evident in architectural elements used in the design of buildings from around the 1880’s onward and, in objet d’art produced from as early as 1906.

At the 1925 exhibition in Paris exceptional designers and manufactures such as Jacques Ruhlmann, Sue et Mare, Jules Leleu, Andre Groult and Maurice Dufrene collaborated with the artisans and designers from the major Parisian department stores, to create splendid pavilions in which to show off their new contemporary designs.

Furniture gained exotic and well figured veneers, ivory inlays and stylised floral motifs. Jaques Ruhlmann (1879 – 1933) was unrivaled in his field in the France of the early 1920’s and declared the salvation of art depended on an elite, and that in the end, everyone would have gained.

He made his debut at the Salon d’Automne of 1913, exhibiting furniture par excellence.

His three legged corner cabinet of lacquered rosewood inlaid with ivory, ebony and rare woods was a revolution in style.

Architecture encompassed all shapes; curves that were sleek,  streamlined and highlighted by painted lines and the use of stylish new age lettering; verticals soaring upward as skyscrapers surmounted by stepped pyramidal shapes; horizontals that were all at once clean, cool filled with light and space.

In cities around the world local idiosyncratic motifs, unique to each time and place, were incorporated into a building and its architectural detail.

At Sydney, Australia a twelve storey building constructed for doctors who, at the time were members of the British Medical Association, is a mini skyscraper with Gothic and Tudor details, including some extraordinary gargoyles.

Originally built on a stylish street filled with elegant English Victorian style stone and lace balconied mansions, of which only two remain today, it must have taken the locals some time to come to terms with.

Near the top of its facade, which is resolved into the stepped elements now so characteristic of skyscraper Art Deco architecture, there is a group of seated knights.

They are bearing the caduceus, a symbol from classical antiquity, sometimes used as a symbol of medicine on their shields. They are there to remind the building’s occupants about their pledge of fealty to the profession of medicine.

Two large koala bears disposed symmetrically are hugging the building, perhaps reminding the doctors inside of their need for compassion in an often unfeeling contemporary world.

Art Deco gathered design elements from as far away as ancient Egypt, adding aspects of every other style since and then reaching forward to the futuristic world of popular American space cowboy Buck Rogers.

Savvy and streamlined at first as it progressed the style became a cultural melting pot that included a fascination for Byzantium, the Gothic, classical Greece, the exotic Near and Far east, for South America, tribal Africa and the Ballet Russes, whose dancing troupe with their celebrity leader, Russian art critic, patron, impresario and founder, Serge Diaghilev, were busy touring around the world.

It was also about the fashionable world of haute couture as dresses began to ape the crisp clean lines of a new international architectural style, while their owners sought to become celebrities,  living style icons.

The Vaudeville Brasserie at Paris was just one of a new wave of glittering, glazed and glorious marble sheathed eating establishments where the art of dining in style was practiced well.

It was filled with sleek sculptures of stylized classical, but modern maidens, exuberant bronze relief panels and modernist lighting fixtures evoking an image of extreme elegance.

Its clients during the 20’s and 30’s were wealthy, fashion conscious art lovers. They enjoyed living in luxurious environments, eating out in elegant restaurants and being admired for the couture clothes they wore. They sought to reinforce their avant-garde status by living art.

Stunning glass by art glass workers Rene Lalique and Daum, lighting and wrought-iron fixtures by Edgar Brandt and Charles Schneider, beautiful lacquer and metalwork produced by Jean Dunand and porcelains by the famous ceramic factory at Sevres, were featured in many glamorous interiors.

The most fashionable traveled on trains and ships glimmering with glass and mirrors and shimmering from the lavish, but stylish application of gold and silver leaf.

The Orient Express was the ultimate expression of style, for those wanting to project it.

Its very fit out evoked the mystery, romance and period flavour of the time. The dining car was decorated by genius glassmaker Rene Lalique, whose works were considered the height of avante garde?

Dining on exquisite French cuisine under the auspices of the ‘three fates’ from antiquity, now in their new streamlined form, was very much de rigeur.

As were the public rooms of the Normandie, an ocean liner launched in May 1935.

They were that of a latter day Galerie des Glaces reminiscent of Louis XIV and the court at Versailles.

Two hundred tables and chairs were set amid a shimmering windowless, but air-conditioned hall, again illuminated by the genius sculptor of glass himself, Rene Lalique.

Massive pendent ceiling lustres were at either end, the walls veneered in hammered glass panels interspersed with over thirty elongated lighting fixtures and twelve fountains of light on pedestals adding to the sparkling atmosphere.

An allegorical mural dominated the Normandie’s Grand Salon whose subject was the history of the sea and navigation. Executed in the Verre eglomise technique, in which panels of plate glass are painted on the reverse, they were also embellished with gold and silver leaf and finally fixed to a canvas backing.

Tapestry from the Huguenot Tapestry Factory Aubusson in France covered chairs and sofas that were rose red and abloom with floral designs, scattered about the room. Artificial light emanated from five tiered fountains placed in the center of its circular banquettes.

Comfort and conviviality were major concerns. Art Deco is an exciting style, and should; ‘like the archetypal drink of the period be enjoyed while it is still laughing at you’ said Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, who was always a law unto himself.

Furniture shapes of the ‘Art Deco’ period were also grounded in eighteenth century role models.

Art Deco’s purpose was luxury and leisure perfectly exemplified by Paul Iribe whose designs celebrated classicism and styles favoured originally by the royal courts of France.

A delightful commode, laquered in celadon green,  is a pared down version of an intimate piece of furniture conceived during the reign of Louix XV and his mistress, a Woman of Influence: Mme de Pompadour.

Its stylized sunburst motif is one of Art Deco’s most favoured.

Paul Iribe also used the stylized rose, a popular motif championed by the great Spanish painter, sculptor and draughtsman Pablo Picasso himself. The more masculine commode he designed has a swag of stylized flowers, including a rose in the drape at the base, which is very classy.

Armand Albert Rateau designed for fashion icon Jeanne Lanvin. Fixtures and fittings in a sleek bathroom became a lavish and exotic essay on flora and fauna. Bird shaped taps. A carved stucco wall panel with a forest scene behind the bath, bathtub and basin of cream Sienna marble.

The floor was a crisp statement of geometric design. The metalwork of mirror, lamp and fixtures of patinated bronze.

Exotic materials such as sharkskin, or shagreen as it became more commonly known, was a favoured material dyed a soft green in imitation of antique Chinese celadon ceramic wares, which looked so at home in Art Deco interiors.

Austrian architect, interior designer and applied artist Josef Hoffman (1870-1956), who was an elder statesman of the movement, reasserted an ornaments right to exist for its own sake.

Ivory carving was first established in Dieppe in the sixteenth century. French sculptor Ferdinand Priess had a taste for classical figurines and worked on a series of nude and partly draped Greek goddesses made of bronze and ivory.

He also designed a large number of statuettes of children, clothed or naked made in ivory or in bronze and ivory like the flame leaper.

Art Deco was the direct expression of that will to power, which only lies behind free competitive enterprise.

It was building art with a touch of wizardry and illusion, playing with effects of materials. It was the global depression that put an end to the art of the skyscraper, just as American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was declaring ‘they are monotonous’ and that ‘dizziness has given place to nausea’.

The Art Deco Style was about integrating contemporary living with art, and turning life into art, against those consciously working for the undoing of art, and its purpose was enjoyment.

Carolyn McDowall The Culture Concept Circle 2010 – 2013

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