Art Deco was an art movement that manifested itself between the two world wars, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, and involved architecture, furniture design, decorative art, as well as painting and sculpture. The description ‘Art Deco’ means different things to different people. To some it implies opulent Parisian furnishings. To students of Modernism it suggests Minimalism in design. For others it means Manhattan skyscrapers or bakelite radios. The influence of painting movements such as Cubism, Russian Constructivism and Italian Futurism, with their abstraction, distortion and simplification, are all evident in Art Deco decorative arts. The style could be said to represent a ‘machine age aesthetic’, where the flowing, floral motifs of Art Nouveau were replaced with streamlined, geometric designs that expressed the speed, power and scale of modern technology.
At the beginning, the Art Deco movement just occurred in France, but grew to extend into Britain, Italy, other European countries, and to North America. The extensive artistic exchange between Paris, France, and New York City that occurred after World War I expanded its influence in this country, and the style caught on in the U.S. in the late 20s. Although Art Deco as a decoration style was popular in 1920s and '30s, it was not known by that name until its revival in the 1960s. The term Art Deco was derived by a British art critic from the name of the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs Industriels et Modernes, which had been publicized as a celebration of living in the modern world.
Considered to be an elegant style of cool sophistication, Art Deco began as a Modernist reaction against the detailed patterns and curving lines of the Art Nouveau style. In contrast, Art Deco is more aligned with the Precisionist movement, which developed at about the same time, as it utilizes crisp, symmetrical, geometric forms. Art Deco designers use stepped forms, rounded corners, triple-striped decorative elements and black decoration, and experimented with industrial materials such as metals, plastics, and glass. Although the style was originally started in Europe, it had strong effect on architecture and interior design in the United States. Especially in New York City, Art Deco reached the height of its achievement in soaring skyscrapers of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Examples would be the Chrysler, Daily News, and Empire State buildings. Because many Art Deco buildings went up during a period of economic collapse known as the Great Depression, the style is sometimes known as ‘depression moderne’.
Art Deco in fine arts, like sculptures, paintings, handmade crafts, and glass, were based on simple format, clean lines, and vivid colors. Practitioners of the style in the United States include names such as Gilbert Rohde for his furniture and Donald Deskey (1894-1989) for his industrial design. In the realm of graphic design, Art Deco has sometimes been referred to as the "Cassandre Style" after the well-known posters of French artist Adolphe Mouron-Cassandre (1901-1968). Born in the Ukraine, and mainly based in Paris, Cassandre lived in New York for periods of time between 1936 and 1938. He created covers for Harper’s Bazaar and was given a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. Cassandre’s sleek designs of towering ships and speeding trains are still considered quintessential Art Deco images.
The main characteristics of Art Deco are derived from a variety of avant-garde painting styles of the early twentieth century. It also was a ‘modernization’ of various artistic styles from the past, and showed the influence of everything from Far and Middle Eastern design, to Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and even Mayan themes. Works might include aspects of Cubism, Constructivism, and/or Futurism.
In response to the growing impact of the machine in the 1920s, Art Deco often celebrated the rise of technology, commerce, and speed. Machines, gears, and wheels were visible in images, and streamlined forms, inspired from the principles of aerodynamics, were also used. Shapes might be simplified, distorted, or abstracted, and colors were often intense. Particularly well-known artists within the movement were painter Tamara de Lempicka (1890-1980) who was born in Poland, but ultimately settled in Hollywood, where she was an artist of the stars. Russian-born painter and fashion illustrator Romain de Tirtoff (‘Erte’) (1892-1990) went by the name Erte (after the French pronunciation of his initials), and for over twenty years created memorable covers for Harper’s Bazaar. The resulting high visibility of his style had significant influence on the Art Deco movement.
The paintings of James C. Ewell (1889-1963) were recognizably figurative, but influenced by modernism and the Art Deco style, as was the work of John McCrady (1911-1968). Some of the work of Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1893-1953) was decorative with Art-Deco motif, such as the wall paintings he did in Radio City Music Hall in New York. Many of the works of sculptor Paul H. Manship (1885-1966) show a strong Art Deco influence, as do the sculptures of Wilhelm Hunt Diederich (1884-1953), who is known for his stylized Art Deco figures and animals in iron. Boris Lovet Lorski (1894-1973) is noted for bronze female sculptures with impossibly narrow, boyish hips, bodies broadening as they rise to the shoulders, and wide-spread arms, seemingly created by the artist to be almost mechanized, gleaming and streamlined like the latest airplanes, motorcars, and other machines and technology that found particular expression in Art Deco. Through the 1940's, California artist Jason (‘Jessie’) Emerson Herron (1900 - 1984) was among the leading women sculptors of California. Especially active in Southern California during the WPA era, her Art Deco style sculptures can be found in several public buildings and monuments. With her colleague, Henry Lion (1900-1966) Herron created the Art Deco figure, ‘Power of Water’ for Lafayette Park in Los Angeles.
In architecture, William Van Alen, the designer of the Empire State Building, is considered to have created one of the greatest Art Deco buildings. Also in New York, the Art Deco plaques on the exterior wall of Radio City Music Hall were created by muralist and mosaicist Hildreth Meiere (1892-1961). Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959) used Art Deco elements in the shapes of many of his buildings, such as the exterior of the Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, Iowa; the textile block patterns of his Ennis house in Los Angeles; and in his decorative trims as well as stained glass and light screens.
Visually somewhat similar to Art Deco is Precisionism, another art movement that developed at about the same time. Known also as Cubist Realism, Precisionism represented objects in a realistic manner, but with an emphasis on geometric form.
Evidence of the ongoing interest in Art Deco is evident in the influence the style has had on contemporary artists, designers, and architects, one example being Art Deco revivalism in architecture that recalls the fantasy stages of 1930s Hollywood productions.
Written by Teta Collins and Lonnie Dunbier. Credit for the above information is given to artcyclopedia.com; retropolis.net/history; artlex.com; erte.com; geocities.com; askart biographies.