The three American shows that minted deco American-style were far behind the European tide. It took almost a whole decade for the US to start showing deco exhibitions, following the now infamous 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.
Beginning in 1933, with Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, the US frenzy for deco in the home grew ten-fold. The huge success of ‘Century of Progress’ inspired investors to plan the next two shows, both commencing six years later—in 1939. That pivotal year 1939, the year of iconic movies such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Women, etc, was a style hey-day, despite the outbreak of World War II in Europe. In that same year, both San Francisco and New York blasted the world with the combined work of the art deco greats.
All the best, established artists were there–from Bel Geddes on—but, I think, the most interesting thing about the expositions is that alongside sponsored, successful artists there were artists from all walks of life—the down-and-outers working in the WPA, the independents, and the average pottery studio mills. The Golden Gate Exposition lasted 7 months, while the World’s Fair in New York went into 1940. It’s ironic that the US should mount such stylized exhibits at the end of the deco period, for the 40’s began the era of thrift and DIY that became the standby of WWII. Materials used so prominently in art deco work to emphasize man taming their forms became too valuable for ornament and decoration. Solid forms became transient ones, with cloth becoming one of the most useful design elements in the modern American lifestyle.
When I think of the 1920’s, sometimes I think of the iconic image of spoiled heiress Nancy Cunard modeling dozens of African-inspired arm bangles, or “Shipwreck Kelly” sitting on his flag pole in rain coat and hat for days upon end with masses of spectators at his feet. Why did they do it? Was Nancy really trying to make a statement about African relations or did it actually start before she became an activist on all things African? Why did Shipwreck Kelly die immediately after a pole sitting reprise in the 1950’s with only clippings of his glory days in his pocket? There was something about the Jazz Age…
What people did then was all about novelty–doing something exotic and doing it over-the-top. Some of it was the reaction after World War I and the horrors of poison gas and general world turmoil. The Bentons, art deco historians, wrote that the need to create fantasy was “functionally necessary for survival.”
The interesting thing, I think, is that most Americans were bitterly aware of their need to be frivolous. It was a self-conscious act of desperation. In 1927, Edwin Avery Park, the American critic, wrote that a “new spirit in design is creeping in about the edges. It fastens first upon objects of a transitory and frivolous nature.” Frivolity became the catch-word of the day. But the “fragility and tragedy lurking behind the glitter,” from all the painful leftover emotions of WWI, that combined the dream’s fundamental frivolity with ruthless commercial interests to create something grandiose… its transitory effects, the wave of color in shop windows … became art deco, in fact.
The U.S., or, more correctly, Herbert Hoover acting as Secretary of Commerce, declined to participate in the 1925 Paris Exposition that defined Art Deco. Why? American advertisers were not modern! In fact, they were still relying on text to sell their wares, when most of Europe had moved to images a long time prior to 1925. As the deco historian Steven Heller put it in 1989, “American mass-market manufacturers and their advertisers had not yet really focused on the visual style of their objects or advertisements as part of their bid for the consumer’s dollar.”
I take comfort in this. It reminds me that American ingenuity is all about taking something, getting to the bottom of it, then adding a little know-how and hard work to blow it up larger-than-life. There’s something innocent and charming in this, something child-like in our love for playing with something to create infinite variations on a theme. The energy that surrounds mass media is all about this child-like wonder.
If you wondered, as I did, who the first innovator was to break the American deco barrier, it was none other than General Motors! In 1925 the great design head Harley Earl–one of those larger-than-life characters–flamboyantly bet the farm on style over product and the rest, as they say, is history. By 1927, Ford’s Model T lost 35% of the market, which was a direct result of style changes, according to University of South Alabama sociologist David Gartman.
In honor of the transitory nature of style and the ever-changing need to have something au courant, I went with a modern asymmetric repeat in this design. In a few years, we may think it is sadly outdated and need a new sofa cushion, but, for right now, this pattern on a bolster pillow will add some tang to the cream-colored sofa in the living room.
Many art deco themes revived old ethnic patterns. Designers and architects who favored Art Moderne design features were really culling the past for inspiration. It was a time of enjoying the exploration of the globe and all its ethnic influences. Picture merchant ships from around the world all docking at the same port and the richness in pattern, texture, and material all went straight to artist’s heads! They couldn’t resist the use of foreign influences in their designs.
Ghislaine Wood, the curator for the 2003 art deco show from the Victoria and Albert Museum (the same year Karl Lagerfeld sold his art deco collection for 8 million dollars!), said there are three sources in art deco: folk art, ancient cultures and European avant-garde art movements. Basically, anything non-mainstream European and unfamiliar was worth exploring.
So, basically, anything was fair game. There’s a great quote from Lucy Fischer (who writes on art deco film), “Art Deco’s appropriation of the primitive, ancient, and exotic was both contradictory and problematic.” Exactly. How does something old become “moderne?”
I think there are 3 things that help: (1) the artist has used the pattern in a novel manner; (2) it is a pattern that everyone recognizes as ethnic, but it is clever and unique; and (3) the artist makes a stylized reference to the work, rather than copying it directly. It’s called regeneration, the revival of the old, which is exactly what we are doing today with art deco, and that makes it fun!
When Art Deco was in production, it was called many things, like “zig-zag” and “modern.” It wasn’t until 1966 when Yvonne Brunhammer put together a seminal show at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which she called “Art Deco” (for the decorative arts), that Art Deco was coined. The full title of the show, “Les Années 25: Art Déco/Bauhaus/Stijl/Esprit Nouveau,” tells you that the term is just a charming French syntax quirk. Prior to this show, one man, another Frenchman, named Le Corbusier, is attributed for coining the term “arts deco” in his articles in the journal L’Esprit nouveau leading up to the show. Shortly after this, Bevis Hillier, a Brit, used the term “art deco” in the title of his 1968 seminal book “Art Deco of the 20s and 30s,” and the rest is history, as they say.
But where did they get the idea? From the 1925 Paris World’s Fair named: “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,” which is known as the start of the art deco movement.
The curious question is why did it take so long to coin the term art deco? And what made art deco come to the center of the art world in the 1960’s? Was it “counter-culture,” as deco historians Charlotte & Tim Benton muse, or was it just the individualistic and incredibly creative style of deco work that always keeps it relevant. Phases come and go, but Art Deco never goes out of fashion.
One of the most interesting things about the Art Deco period is how omni-present, or wide-spread, this decorative style was in the United States. It was applied to all the decorative arts – from iron railings to ceramic doo-dads to architecture and faucets. It was found in every small town in America, from local pottery works to furniture makers and textile manufacturers. It was done up in every major city all the way from fancy architects and designers in New York to California and found in every small city in corner gas stations and movie theaters. It was regionalized like the Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe railroad campaign by Taos artists to spur on visitors to the southwestern American Indians. It was in the movies (Cedric Gibbons) and on theater sets (Norman Bel Geddes), in magazines (Vogue) and clothes (available anywhere through the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog). It was for the middle-classes and the well to-do, from bakelite jewelry to emeralds and gold. It was even for the less prosperous as many five-and-dimes were decorated in art deco style, like the S. H. Kress & Co. chain that populated main streets across America. Woolworth’s–one of the biggest five-and-dime stores–sold transfer patterns for do-it-yourself art deco craft projects. You might say America threw its head back and roared art deco.
I think because of the extent and variety of art deco goods in America, this enduring art form is forever tied to the time-period of the 1920’s and 1930’s and its technological innovations. It’s broad scope and clear style continues to inspire us and allows us to carry a little nostalgia for a time when drawing and producing abstract lines and shapes was exotic and new and ANYONE could do it–and there is nothing more American than to embrace a concept that anyone can do.
As a result of WWI, the American economy was booming. Factories and industry kept people employed while causing a lot of social changes. The rhythm of industry, the new wages and shifts in acceptable behavior covered over the underlying sense of desperation from the War and created the blinding glamorous facade known as the Jazz Age.
A perk of this period was the creation of modernization in the home. From time-saving devices like toasters to electric lamps, it was common to see shiny, metal objects on a daily basis. Art celebrated this advent of mechanical gizmos by stylizing gears and mechanical parts. Frequent themes featuring gears similar to this design were employed to decorate everything from iron work and wood veneers down to carpets and screens. In a way, we are doing the same thing today by featuring bits of digital-age technology in designs on everything from bags to soda cans.
What exactly is the difference between the Arts & Crafts movement, Art Nouveau and the Art Deco movement? It’s a combination of technique and shape.
At the end of the 19th century engineering and design merged to create wicked curves. Blame the advancements of the railways, but curves lent themselves to the depiction of exotic shapes from nature, hence the new, organic feel. Art Nouveau artists began to bend metal and glass into strange, new shapes.
Arts and Crafts designers reacted against these influences of the industrial revolution, insisting on hand techniques rather than assembly lines. Their work sought to keep alive centuries of tradition falling by the wayside in the industrial rush to produce goods faster and cheaper.
Art Deco, occurring after the first World War, turned back to machinery and industrial production against the hand craftsmanship of the Arts and Crafts movement. Additionally, geometric patterns and rectilinear themes became paramount over the curves in the Art Nouveau movement. Now it was no longer about the curve but about sky scrapers and automobile roads and advancements in electricity.
Because of the hand-carved and stamped images in this work, the example design here is clearly arts and crafts.