Art Deco Style – Art is Life, Old is New, Fashionable & Fun

At the turn of the twentieth century the ‘waltz’ city of Vienna (Wien) in Austria gave birth to new stylistic attitudes in both art and design.

They first surfaced in its literature and intellectual ideas and were reflected in the music of composers such as Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) and Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951). They wanted to abandon established norms at the same time as the citizens of Vienna were seeking to establish essential truths about the body and the mind.

It wasn’t about what you appeared to be any more, but who you were and ensuring that your words, deeds and actions all aligned.

To each century its art, to art its Freedom’ was the credo of the modernists during that period, which started with the founding of The Vienna Secession, a society of Austrian artists, who staged their first exhibition in March 1898. With an act of youthful idealism, a spirit of sacrifice and displaying a willingness to work hard, they plunged headlong into leading Vienna into a new age of modernity.

The social ideal “The Art that is Life” was all about its proponents wanting life to be idyllic, simple, self sufficient, practical and in close contact with nature.

Technical innovation was promoted by world exhibitions, which were harbingers of ecological building. New materials and new methods of construction led the way to transparency and lightness of construction.

Carefully formed spaces related to the scale, needs and desires of humankind while offering diversity through decorative elements. The new Vienna was struggling to leave behind the conservatism of the past and they eagerly embraced contemporary ideas and change under the influence and leadership of its artists, intellectuals and scientists who were helping to imagine a very different future.

Austrian architectural and urban planning genius of his time Otto Wagner (1841-1918) had a firm commitment to bold innovative modern design. He won a major planning competition in Vienna in 1892 and launched his dictum of form following function that found near perfect expression in the aluminium and glass façade he created in 1902 for the newspaper Die Zeit, which was demolished by 1908.

Reconstructed in 1985 in Vienna, the glittering nickel plated iron, aluminium and glass form of the façade reveals refined, minimalistic lines that are today also an intrinsic and important aspect of contemporary visual culture.

In the 21st century such simplicity of line has universal appeal. Together with nature, economy, quality of materials and fine craftsmanship, simplicity has become the hallmark of a new generation seeking to reflect their own sophisticated approach to issues that affect the future of the whole world.

Is this a new phenomenon, entirely innovative or is everything old really becoming new?

Modernism is a term the art and design community of our contemporary western world has adopted to describe a diverse range of architectural and interior decorative styles, as well as applied and graphic arts that were created between approximately 1880 and 1940 on an international scale.

Modernism demanded a distinction between interior architecture and decoration. There arose a distinct preference for open planned living and interiors, which were meant to be devoid of applied decoration.

They concentrated solely on geometry, uninterrupted lines and form.

The Secession Building in Vienna is today affectionately known by the Viennese as “the cabbage head’ because of the big ball of gilded laurel leaves that surmounts the structure, snugly fitting into what has now become an architectural icon.

Designed for the young idealists by Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867 – 1908), who was apprenticed to Otto Wagner, in what was a brief life and brilliant career, Olbrich left his mark with this splendid building that he called ‘a cathedral for art’.

Modernists, such as Swiss French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier (1887-1965), ensured that space became a recognised aspect of design.

Those those who inhabited his buildings experienced their reviving spirit. I am not sure however, that he would have wanted space to become a fashion statement of luxury, power and status.

In 1905-1 Austrian architect, interior designer and applied artist Josef Hoffman (1870-1956) designed the Palais Stoclet in Brussels for Belgian industrialist Alfred Stoclet and it has been described as a universal, complete, flawless masterpiece of a thousand years of architectural history.

Stoclet ‘wanted a large house, he loved the arts and gave us an entirely free hand’ said Hoffman. Under Hoffman’s direction, the Palais Stoclet in Brussels (begun 1905) became the extreme statement of Viennese avant-garde design.

A strange astonishing edifice the Palais Stoclet might have come from another planet; it was in fact transposed far from the city of its conception to a setting, which is still alien to it.

It exemplified in embryo the major features of the coming new international Art Deco style, of which it was to become one of its great founding monuments.

This new design style emerged between the two world wars, exuding both optimism and ingenuity.

Josef Hoffman was one of those rare individuals, who could turn his hand to designing in many mediums. The pliant and pleasing style practiced by artists was a veritable box office hit…with handicraft allowed to form a synthesis with interior design and the liberal arts; bringing with it a sense of ‘liberated living.

Josef Hoffman became an elder statesman of the movement, reasserting an ornaments right to exist for its own sake.

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.

As a style Art Deco is now being recognized as a classic: of renowned excellence, simple, restrained, of such a high quality that is always fashionable and elegant.

It has attained that status because, just like the original classicism of the ancient Greeks and contemporary design, it was based on lines that were clean-cut and pure. Its colours were neutral and subdued or, bountiful, bright and bold.

It was cleverly conceived and stayed so true to its original intent that it adapted well over a long period to constant change.

It came to full fruition through the Paris Salons of the 1920’s, manifesting itself emotionally with zest and playfulness.

There was a pastiche of styles within itself and it borrowed artistic impulses from the ancient past to the distant future, from Pharaonic Egypt to the Aztecs and on to the futuristic world of Buck Rogers.

Wit was an important aspect and so teapots became ocean liners made from new wave materials like plastic, Bakelite and chrome.

Manufacturers and designers wanted to ensure that everyone benefited from the rapid development in mass production.

Cabinetmaker designers produced furniture that was both decorative and discreet crafted from quality timbers and inlaid with exotic materials such as ivory or tortoiseshell.

Macassar ebony and gilt bronze was greatly favoured along with sensational examples of lacquer inspired by Japanese originals.

European metalworkers, ceramicists and glass workers had a field day because by now their art forms had solved a great many difficulties associated with their production and were able to produce items more economically.

The fashion industry started to burgeon as hemlines rose and women threw off their many petticoats, bobbed their hair and embraced their newly found independence.

The confirmation of ‘design as art’ appeared in the aftermath of an International Exhibition of Arts – The Exposition Des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels. (Art Deco for short), which was held at Paris from April to October in 1925.

Its protagonists, according to Modernist author Alastair Duncan, were escaping the’ tyranny of historical styles and a calcified culture’.

In the 1930’s, lured by the romantic classicism of Paris, Americans arrived on great liners and locomotives which had been reduced by graphic artists, to fabulous fashion statements of line, form and colour and images of speed and power.

Paris became the meeting ground of both the ‘ancients’ and the ‘moderns’. The future was now.

The rapidly expanding ‘middle class’ could now acquire quality goods and many treasured possessions arrived in Australia with the migration of European people following WWII.

There is a real bonus today for those collecting furniture, textiles, ceramics, glassware, metalware, clocks, watches, textiles, rugs, jewellery, paintings, posters and sculpture as special pieces from the original Art Deco period.

They work so splendidly in contemporary settings whether commercial or residential. A select coterie is already haunting auction houses and second hand dealers endeavouring to snap up special pieces to display as style statements.

Today these vintage pieces are becoming valued for their beauty, functionality and simplicity of design and style.

Internationally, and contemporarily today it is all about a mixture of art, science and technology that is informing fashionable design, art and architecture, especially the construction of buildings, both domestic and commercial that are all about having a care for the environment.

Works of art and design we admire have for centuries reflect the evolution of humankind spiritually, socially and culturally. They will continue to work effectively as long as their proportion pleases the eye, their subject challenges the mind, engages the spirit and connects with the soul.

Designers with an International reputation, such as award winning Thomas Hamel of Residence Australia while keeping in touch with trends, also ensures that there is an underlying current of timeless tradition in his interiors.

As well as designing and creating contemporary pieces for clients of Residence Australia, he often uses pieces from the past if they suit the philosophy of what he is creating for his clients.

Purchasing modernism in Australia is not always easy, but Diane Pickett of Online Antiques, a member of the AA&ADA is certainly offering some of the most interesting pieces around.

Materializing out of the societal revolution of the sixties, where flower power was all pervasive, the environment and its conservation is now of global concern. Recycling as much as we can from the past is a positive step and way of moving forward.

To ensure that it happens well, we just have to ensure that it is both fashionable and fun.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

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