Art Deco’s Streamlined Designs Envisioned a Glamorous Future

Surya Tubach
Sep 18, 2018 10:07PM
Tamara de Lempicka
Auto Portrait
Winchester Galleries
Erté (Romain de Tirtoff)
Florida (Pearl Dress) , 1989
Martin Lawrence Galleries

Art Deco grew out of a yearning, aggressive desire to be rid of the past and embrace the future in all its man-made, machine-driven glory. The aesthetic movement rose and fell in the period between the two World Wars and played an outsize role in shaping the West’s modern imagination, particularly within France and the United States. (New York, Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco—to name just a few American cities—all boast prominent Art Deco architecture.) A Gatsbyish hedonism descended on prosperous post-war America; new technologies made cars, radios, and refrigerators accessible to the average person; and consumer tastes for ornament and luxury skyrocketed. As a result, design evolved to reflect and enhance this heady sense of advancement.

The sleek, streamlined designs of Art Deco—also called “style moderne”—emphasized speed, power, and progress, contrasting with its lighter, airier predecessor, Art Nouveau, the dominant fin-de-siècle style. Art Nouveau took inspiration from the natural world: twisting vines, flower petals, and undulating waves characterized sensuous paintings by Alphonse Mucha, as well as fantastic architectural designs by Antoni Gaudí. While Art Nouveau celebrated organic shapes, Art Deco lionized clean lines and geometric patterns.

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. Cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque reduced three-dimensional objects to flat, geometric forms; the Dutch architecture and design faction De Stijl, exemplified by Piet Mondrian and Gerrit Rietveld, touted a simplified aesthetic. The popularity of exotic, oriental motifs—spurred on by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 and epitomized by ballets like Scheherazade—also played a role. Theater and dance, particularly the Ballet Russes, influenced figures across disciplines. Artists such as Sonia Delaunay and Léon Bakst, for instance, designed costumes and sets for the ballet, and the elaborate productions likewise featured in paintings and sculptures. Indeed, the intermingling of art, design, performance, and fashion played a large role in shaping the evolution of Art Deco.

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 Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann was known for artfully shaped end tables and angular chairs. His series of interior design sketches, published as the compendium 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.

Maurice Dufrêne was another sought-after furniture designer known for his elaborate interiors of salons and boutiques (he headed the design workshop at the Galeries Lafayette, the mammoth Parisian department store). Another peer, Jean Dunand, earned a reputation for his lacquer furniture, created with novel Japanese techniques.

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 René Lalique turned his attention to glasswork, metal, and enamel: expensive man-made materials that befitted the new style’s obsession with modernity. In addition to sleek vases and perfume bottles, Lalique crafted hood ornaments (also known as “mascots”) for cars—also a technology becoming more widely accessible during this time—which are miniature sculptures all unto their own. In Cinq Chevaux (1925), created for the new Citroën 5CV, five simplified horses with streamlined manes and tails leap forward, implying force and energy.

Jean Després was another famed jeweler and designer. His Unique Tea Service (ca. 1935) takes the familiar, rounded form of a teapot and turns it into a gleaming silver prism, full of right angles and sleek lines. Reimagining everyday objects like tea services and silverware shows the extent to which Art Deco’s practitioners envisioned the reach of modernity into daily life. (Ironically, this desire was often more aspirational than functional, as many of the tea sets were simply too impractical to actually use.) Museums helped canonize these objects as fine art: In 1923, the 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

Erté (Romain de Tirtoff)
Pearls and Emeralds, 1990
Martin Lawrence Galleries

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.

The designer Paul Poiret, in particular, revolutionized women’s fashion, and is credited with the “death of the corset,” paving the way for the daring flapper style (though he took issue with the look’s short skirts). Poiret designed dresses that relied on sensuously draped fabrics rather than fussy, tailored styles. One fashion illustration shows two women, outfitted in loose, flowing Poiret dresses, examining an image of a woman in a tightly corseted gown. The work draws an explicit comparison between the old guard and the new: The “modern” women are depicted in color, while the rest of the image is black and white, lending a sense of vivacity and life to the pair.

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 Erté was the first and most lavish Art Deco stylist; he earned the title “Father of Art Deco” for his luxurious designs featuring flowing lines, draped fabric, and sparkling geometric ornamentation that celebrated all things modern. Erté went on to outfit everyone from Joan Crawford to Lillian Gish to Anna Pavlova, both in movies and on the red carpet. Over 22 years, he created more than 250 covers for Harper’s Bazaar.

Other illustrators like Paul Colin and Georges Lepape were also instrumental in shaping the era’s fashion trends: Colin’s posters of dancing women and Lepape’s slender, boldly colored women in straight-cut skirts have stuck in the popular imagination as quintessentially Art Deco.

Traditional arts take on new forms

Tamara de Lempicka
Winchester Galleries

Lee Lawrie and Rene Chambellan, Atlas, TKTK, at the Rockefeller Center, New York, NY, 2016. Photo by Travis Wise, via Flickr.

While the decorative arts thrived, traditional art forms like painting took a backseat. In fact, Tamara de Lempicka was the sole painter who worked in an Art Deco style. Independently successful, the elegant Polish artist, who worked in France and New York, embodied the new roles for women. Rendered in a style inspired by Cubism and imbued with a sense of motion, the stylish socialites in Lempicka’s paintings—curls bouncing, dresses flying—ooze power and sexuality. Often gazing straight at the viewer, her subjects have agency (scenes rarely include men), and seem to emphasize the idea of the “modern woman.”

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 Demetre Chiparus and Jan and Joël Martel created stylized bronze miniatures of animals, women, and mythological gods. Maurice Guiraud-Rivière’s La Comète (1925), for example, evokes the speed and excitement of the moment with a streamlined female form who slices through the air as her hair streams above her, conjuring a blade or an airplane wing.

Larger sculptures by artists like Paul Manship and Emile-Antoine Bourdelle livened up public spaces, particularly the plazas of notable Art Deco buildings. Sculptors had a taste for reinterpreting classical mythological themes that centered on the body. Lee Lawrie and Rene Chambellan’s Atlas, located in front of New York’s Rockefeller Center, is one of the most visible examples. Linear muscles pattern the Titan, whose gracefully arcing arms hold up the world on his athletic shoulders. Like the majority of Art Deco sculptures, Atlas is made of bronze.

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.

Surya Tubach