Art Deco’s Streamlined Designs Envisioned a Glamorous Future
The sleek, streamlined designs of Art Deco—also called “style moderne”—emphasized speed, power, and progress, contrasting with its lighter, airier predecessor,
Art Deco grew out of a desire in France to reestablish the country as a top-tier producer of decorative arts. The establishment of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs around the turn of the century raised the respect for objets d’art. The definition of art began to expand beyond painting and sculpture and into domains like glasswork and jewelry, with creators of the latter coming to be considered artists, rather than artisans.
The movement also evolved in step with avant-garde art movements and other aspects of culture. particularly the Ballet Russes, influenced figures across disciplines. Artists such as
The style reached its apex in 1925, when the French government sponsored the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The design fair’s only real requirement was that all work had to be “thoroughly modern.” Widely visited, the expo established the movement on the world stage and prompted the official title of “Art Deco” (a shortened version of “Arts Décoratifs”). In the 1930s, the glamorous style began to wane, becoming more austere as the Great Depression shifted popular taste toward less extravagant, ostentatious forms.
A modern architecture for modern cities
The rise of the modern city came with the rise of the skyscraper: a thoroughly modern invention that emphasized clean lines, solidity, and dizzying scale. The Art Deco treatment was often applied to public buildings like theaters or banks, but the skyscraper goes furthest in embodying the style, which achieved international popularity.
New York’s Chrysler Building may be the most famous example. Completed in 1930, it held the title of the world’s tallest building for a proud 11 months before it was eclipsed by the Empire State Building. Triangles emanate from the rounded tiers decorating the top of the Chrysler Building; the arrangement resembles the sun radiating toward a peak, invoking the man-over-nature power captured by the gravity-defying skyscraper. As an architectural cherry on top, the building’s iconic metal gargoyles are extraordinarily sleek, bearing more of a resemblance to the hood ornament of a car than the motif’s traditionally fearsome Victorian counterparts.
Sculptural friezes and bas-reliefs were also popular adornments to building façades. Stylized renditions of classical gods proved popular, appearing on Chicago’s Sheridan Theater and Buffalo’s Industrial Bank Building, to name a few.
Renewed interest in Art Deco has more recently prompted various restoration projects, most notably at movie theaters. Talking pictures were a wildly popular new medium in the 1920s, and movie stars became public obsessions. Movie theaters were dubbed “palaces” and bedecked with bright neon lights, chicly decorated interiors, and huge screening rooms. California in particular boasts a host of movie palaces; today, you can catch a film at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre or San Francisco’s Alameda Theatre in all their original splendor.
Good design for all people and all things
Alavoine of Paris and New York, Wel-Worgelt Study, ca. 1928-1930. Designed by Henri Redard and executed by Jean Dunand. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.
To complement the modern extravagance of Art Deco architecture, the splendor of the interiors had to match. During this time, interior designers became celebrities in their own right. The furniture designer Harmonies: Intérieurs de Ruhlmann, offers mesmerizing glimpses into the ideal Art Deco home. Bright colors and luxe materials qualify the gracefully rounded tables and colossal mirrors in one entryway, while his bedroom designs offer patterned walls and enormous, sculptural seats.
This aesthetic also extended to functional design objects such as car ornaments, tea sets, and jewelry. Everyday objects were often made of new materials that reflected the thirst for cutting-edge technologies. A popular design for the newly accessible home radio, for instance, was as a stylized object made of Bakelite, a recently developed type of consumer plastic. Many artists didn’t restrict themselves to one medium, but worked across disciplines.
In the 1920s, jewelry designer and glassworker
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York established its first modern design gallery, filling it with Art Deco pieces by the likes of Ruhlmann and Lalique.
Freeing fashions for the new woman
Clothing was as much a part of the Art Deco style as furniture, jewelry, and sculpture. Women’s choice of dress reflected their fight for civil liberties and increasing independence. Glamour and liberation, therefore, overtook tradition and constraint.
Illustrations such as these were popular. Printed in widely read magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, they emphasized Art Deco’s role in everyday life. Russian-born, Paris-based costume and fashion designer
Other illustrators like
Traditional arts take on new forms
While the decorative arts thrived, traditional art forms like painting took a backseat. In fact,
Her Self-Portrait in the Green Bugatti (1929), in particular, embodies Art Deco’s ideals of technology and progress: The power of the automobile—and the novel independence of a woman driving it—is topped off by the subject’s cold and unapologetic stare. The angular lines on the car, the hard gloss of the metal, and Lempicka’s flying drapery all underscore the image as something new, a creation of the 20th century.
While Art Deco neglected painting, it doubled down on sculpture, which was prolific in both the public and private realm. Small figurative sculptures were popular; artists like
Larger sculptures by artists like
Art Deco is one of the most lasting styles to come out of the past 100 years; it has become so ingrained in our day-to-day lives that we often don’t notice it at all. Institutions like Radio City Music Hall in New York or the Palais de Tokyo in Paris have become Art Deco icons, but smaller, more everyday things—from fonts to salt and pepper shakers to movie theaters—are often shaped by this modern style’s high hopes for the future.