An Art Deco primer

art deco primer

You can almost feel the wind in your hair!

This weekend while enjoying a morning stroll with dear friends, our chat turned to art. We discussed our favorite mid-century modern pieces and then discovered we share an appreciation for all things Art Deco. Art Deco is so distinctive, yet it’s hard to pin down in everyday conversation.

This movement seems to defy easy categorization and indeed, the style went by various names during its heyday. The only thing folks could agree on – at the time – was classifying it as modern. It was known as the style moderne or even jazz modern. The name Art Deco didn’t appear until the 1960s (roughly three decades after the movement’s peak). Dreaming of my favorite style I couldn’t help but want to write more about it for this week’s article. Join me as we stroll through key features and figures in this Art Deco primer.

To understand Art Deco, we must travel back to the Victorian era. Admittedly this isn’t an obvious pairing, but the Victorian era was the first time when designers and artisans sought to make a complete vision. Meaning that every aspect of domestic (and commercial life) was united by an aesthetic. This stylistic ideal was also meant to create something entirely new. Some scholars argue that Art Deco was a continuation of this thesis (albeit with different results).

art deco primer

The Tourism Pavillion in Paris, 1925

In many ways Art Deco can be seen as an appreciation of industrial advancements. For the first time people were able to travel farther, faster and in greater comfort. The difficult transition into an industrial age had given way to efficiencies and slick technologies. All of this happened as the world was just stepping away from the tragedies of the First World War. Artists responded with exuberant creations such as jazz, women became flappers and people craved new backdrops. Coming off the heels of Art Nouveau, Art Deco translated the intricate pattern work of days gone by into streamlined, sleek shapes. Nature was defined as pure geometric forms.

There were many factors that influenced this movement, but the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb and the debut of the Ballet Russes provided pivotal inspiration. From the onset, Art Deco was an international phenomenon with a global palette. In the beginning it was also an expensive movement. As with any artistic trend, the first patrons were the wealthy. But the Bauhaus group kept Art Deco from remaining an elite movement through advancements in mass production. Use of chrome, glass and wood kept things from being too fussy and these materials leant themselves to the Art Deco aesthetic. Colorful ceramics, bold silhouettes, vibrantly patterned textiles, richly colored paintings, and bronze statuettes became key players in the movement. The pace of artistic creation was dizzying. It was a highly prolific time period, as if all the joy people couldn’t express during the war was bubbling over onto canvases and into workshops all over the world. It was soon obvious that this movement was bigger than any one artist.

Art Deco leapt from its scattered origins into a united movement in 1925 with an exhibition in Paris. How I would have loved to stroll through the pavilions, take in the illuminated crystal fountain in the moonlight, or see the Eiffel Tower towering above the city. I imagine the energy was palpable. Each country’s exhibit was unique, but the thread of Art Deco united them. Visitors must have known they were witnessing the start of something special. Interestingly enough, while Art Deco spanned the globe, America is where it found its most enthusiastic patronage. It’s easy to reference the glamour of Hollywood during this time, but Art Deco buildings were popping up in cities across the United States.  From Miami to Tulsa, gleaming skyscrapers were bursting forth from the horizon line. It’s hard to even ponder what New York City would be without the Chrysler Building. Even touring that structure today, you can’t help but feel like you’re stepping into the future. Then, venturing a little bit further into the city, you come across the impressive Rockefeller Center lobby. The towering murals still give me the goosebumps!

art deco primer

Weil-Worgelt Study on display at the Brooklyn Museum

Art Deco is an immersive experience, regardless of its number of dimensions. Enjoying a portrait, appreciating a vase, or walking into a building – irrespective of the medium, the style is captivating. The great mystery to me is how artisans from the early 20th century created objects and spaces that feel futuristic to the 21st century viewer. If anything, modernism has trended more minimalist since this time. Yet there is something about Art Deco’s bold embrace of color and material that sets it apart. Even scholars today have trouble defining when the movement started and finished, it’s one of those styles where you know it when you see it – when you feel it. Perhaps that’s the point of it all. Art Deco transports us to a time when the future seemed limitless, when every new and wonderous thing was at our fingertips. 2020 has been the antithesis of the roaring 20s, but that’s not to say we can’t look back to Art Deco and find some hope for the future!


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