Art Deco Furniture
Feb 5, 2014 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
The Art Deco period is one of our favorites: from the slick and graceful beauty of its profiles to the shine and pizazz of its metalwork, it captures our imagination. Join us as we explore the splendor of Art Deco furniture – its influences, material choices, and beautiful designs.
Art Deco Furniture History
On the heels of the Art Nouveau movement, Art Deco furniture found inspiration in late 18th century cabinetmaking and French antiquity, specifically the period of Louis XVI. Art Deco began in Paris and while London and American retailers crafted imitations, the city remained the hub of the movement.
Blending the longstanding ideals of simple, elegant form with technological advancements, Art Deco expressed itself with geometric patterns and stunning craftsmanship. It was a time when the desire for functionality lived hand in hand with a renewed longing for glamor in daily life. The adage of form following function was the premier rule for designers working in this style.
Typically the first World War is seen as the beginning of the Art Deco period, yet there are many examples dating back to the 1910s. Fifteen years later, at the movement’s peak, the first display of Art Deco items were shown at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. At this exhibition designers showed off pieces lacking elaborate decoration, replaced with subtle decorative elements that never outshone the essential geometry of the work. Stunning material or color contrasts accented angular, bold shapes. Common motifs included chevrons, sunbursts, or zig-zags.
Patterns and shapes took cues from exotic lands. Taken in context, this was the time of international travel, safaris, and daring expeditions. Department stores, seeking to captivate a bored client base, engaged high-end designers to fashion quality pieces for mass production. For the first time, everyday people could bring home some of the luxury originally reserved for the elite.
This is not to say that exclusive furniture stopped being commissioned. Artists crafted many exquisite pieces for individual rooms as well as luxury ocean liners, such as the SS Normandie. These giant, roving spaces provided an international showroom for French designers. The movement gained amazing traction publicly, but fell out of favor with the start of the second World War.
Art Deco Furniture Materials
During a time when form followed function, metal and glass reflected the identity of the 1920s and 30s perfectly: its sleek characteristics meshed well with the machine-centric age. Yet beyond a philosophical connection, metal solved a few modern day issues. Firstly, veneers were very expensive and metal lent itself to the demands of mass production. Secondly, the advent of central heating was threatening many wooden pieces – metal provided a way for designers to enhance the lifespan of their items.
Metal furniture first was introduced publicly in 1927 at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. While it was very controversial, within a couple years’ time it was the iconic material for art deco furniture. You may assume shiny metal would be the star of the art deco show, but wrought iron was equally important. While metal was in its heyday, keep in mind it was not the only material to inspire designers of this era. Exotic choices, such as ivory, were still prolific.
In terms of wood, ebony was the top choice for the Art Deco artisan. Within the ebony family, the parallel grain of Macassar was the most coveted. The popularity of this material created a profound shortage and forced many craftsman to use it in veneer form only. Other popular woods included the tropical palmwood, Brazilian jacaranda, and zebrawood. Yet designers didn’t abandon the traditional all together: mahogany, maple, burl wood, ash, and sycamore were often pulled into a composition to juxtapose the more textured exotics.
Just as designers were looking to the future for material inspiration, they were also bringing older techniques to bear. Lacquer saw a resurgence during the Art Deco period, but man-made varnishes soon replaced the more time intensive hand-made process. This extremely glossy finish may be referred to as “japanning” (as a nod to its older technique, which started in the East).
Galuchat (or shagreen) also became popular again. It is the skin of the small spotted dogfish. The skin is cut into small sections and bleached in chlorine. After bleaching it is scrubbed, filed, and glued onto furniture. Most often you will see this in a desk top or dressing table. While it is typically varnished, it may also be tinted a blue or green color. The spotted dogfish was not the only desirable animal skin dating to this time period: snakeskin and pony skin were used as well. Vellum was utilized primarily in wall paneling.
A discussion of Art Deco materials would not be complete without mentioning straw marquetry. This was a pretty time intensive approach, but yielded a beautiful amber glow to the piece. Craftsmen would take bales of rye straw and soak them in water. Once they had softened, they would take individual pieces, slit them with a razor, and flatten them with a burnishing tool. After they were flat, they were glued one by one onto the furniture’s wooden structure. The application would be completed with a layer of varnish.
Cause A Frockus would like to thank our tremendous resources: Art Deco Furniture by Alistair Duncan, BBC Homes, Art Deco Style, Wikipedia, and the amazing people who post their images without restriction.
For our readers: do you love art deco? What’s your favorite thing about it? Do you have a favorite designer? Tell us all about it in the comments!