Art Term Tuesday: Art Deco

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

Keeping track of the various art movements throughout history, many overlapping or happening consecutively in different countries, is a struggle even for those of us working in the art world. Art Deco is one that sticks with me, however, not because of it its ties to art, but to literature: The Great Gatsby. The hedonistic high rollers in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel luxuriate in the flashy fabrics, geometric patterns, exotic materials, and smooth lines of their fine, functional pieces. Their quest for excess extended into items of everyday use, because why shouldn’t what is made for the masses be beautiful?

Art Deco derives its name from Arts Décoratifs and the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts) held in Paris in 1925. Seeking to reestablish itself as a top-tier producer of the decorative arts, France founded the Société des Artistes Décorateurs (Society of Decorative Artists) around the turn of the century to acknowledge and elevate objets d’art. Artisans moved from “makers” to artists, and glasswork and jewelry joined painting and sculpture as works of art.

Peaking in the Roaring 20s, Art Deco’s luxury emerged from a war-torn Paris rejecting the natural twists and undulations of sensuous Art Nouveau for sharp angles and edges representative of the growing industrial movement. Optimistic despite the economic and social carnage of World War I, artists fought to prove man’s ability to progress and move forward by harnessing the geometric lines of Cubism, symmetry of Egyptian motifs, and brilliant colors of the Fauves. While evident in paintings, Art Deco shines brightest in 3-dimensions as a design aesthetic on furniture, jewelry, glass, ceramics, interior design, and buildings. Two of the most famous examples reside in NYC: the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Arguably the most famous example, completed in 1930 the Chrysler Building’s radiating triangles resemble the sun shining toward a mountain peak, represented by the rounded tiers, to create an industrial behemoth looming over the city. The metal gargoyles are sleek in comparison to their Gothic and Victorian cousins, more industrial hood ornament than savage creature, another nod to the growing industrialization.

Unique luxury items were made during this period but modern manufacturing techniques and rapid industry allowed many items to be made in multiple editions; inspired by the British Arts and Crafts movement, this philosophy introduced high quality design to a broader market. A reaction to The Great War, the population shied from the now too decadent Art Nouveau for a modern sleekness that emphasized strong lines, geometric shape, and bold materials. Industrialization, the formation of the middle class, and rising skylines and hemlines built upon foundations laid by the Bauhaus, de Stijl movement, Cubism, Constructivism, and Futurism. Artists quickly adopted the new technologies and non-traditional mediums, playing and bending them to their artistic will. It would take the next great war, World War II, and the Great Depression to return to plastics and more affordable materials in the wake of supply chain demands and a failing economy.  

Until then, the sleek, streamlined designs of Art Deco reined supreme. Looking at the vases from David Huchthausen’s collection, below, which visual cues do they employ: repetition, simplified figures/shapes, long lines with sharp edges, geometric or linear designs that employ patterns (triangular, zigzag, chevron, etc.), and expensive materials?

Art Deco found a home on canvas and in sculpture, too, alongside its functional furniture and towering buildings. Sculptors like Paul Manship and Emile-Antoine Bourdelle brought life to the public spaces around these buildings, particularly their outdoor plazas. Nods to classical mythology and the human body abound, as seen in the FWMoA’s Manship sculptures from 1938 showing the moods of time:

Ultimately, Art Deco was a short-lived movement ensconced between the two world wars that formed from a desire to live, spend the wealth of a booming post-war economy, and embrace a future that was no longer guaranteed. Today, it remains in large and small everyday things–buildings and skyscrapers, vases and fonts. You can learn about the glass sculptors of the movement in the current exhibition on view at FWMoA, Art Deco Glass form the David Huchthausen Collection, through August 6th.

2 Replies to “Art Term Tuesday: Art Deco”

  1. The items on the first picture are to my eyes Art Nouveau and not Art Déco. Are they really from the 1920s or 1930s?

    1. Yes, they are. David Huchthausen’s collection does include a few Art Nouveau pieces, but the majority are Art Deco.

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