Art Deco is an artistic style that arose in France in the early twentieth century. And quickly grew into a major movement. Moreover, within a short time, swept around the world becoming the first “global decorative art style”. It had a profound impact on every facet of design including furniture making, fashion, and graphic arts. But perhaps its most enduring contribution is its influence on the skyline of the world’s most notable cities.
We will get to all that in a minute but first, as a whisky enthusiast, why should I care? Well, it’s also the style designers use most often to convey a sophisticated and elegant whisky lifestyle.
The roots of the Art Deco movement date back to 1900. French artisans grew concerned that Germans and Austrians were usurping their position as world leaders in the luxury trades. It’s important to note, however, that a great deal more was at stake than simply their egos.
The luxury trades — jewelry, furniture, fashion, decorative arts — represented an important part of the French economy. So, in 1901 the French established the Société des Artistes Décorateurs (the Society of Artist-Decorators). The society’s goal was to encourage higher standards for design and production in France.
In 1912 the French government lent their formidable support to the effort. And announced the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, a world’s design fair. Unfortunately, WWI delayed the fair until mid-twenties. When the fair finally opened in April 1925, fifteen thousand exhibitors from twenty countries displayed their work. Seven months later when the fair closed, over sixteen million visitors had passed through the exhibit halls. As a result, the exposition was a rousing success and its influence immediately felt around the world.
Significant art movements often arise during disruptive periods of social and cultural change. The early 1900’s was such a period. The Industrial Revolution was giving rise to the “machine age”, which was redefining modern life. And since art is a reflection of society, artists were exploring ways to capture the essence of this new age.
Art Nouveau considered the forerunner to the Art Deco movement, was one of the first styles to respond to industrialization. And it flourished between 1890 and 1910. But unlike other movements, which celebrated technology, Art Nouveau placed a greater emphasis on harmonizing modern items with natural forms. Consequently, it relied more on curvilinear shapes inspired by organic forms, especially floral patterns.
Art Deco, on the other hand, incorporated bold geometric patterns and clean, streamlined forms. Trapezoidal, zigzagged, and triangular shapes, as well as, chevron patterns, stepped forms, sweeping curves and sunburst motifs typified Art Deco designs. Unlike Art Nouveau, Art Deco celebrated the future and modern ideas of progress and reflected the “modernity of the machine.”
It is also important to note that Art Deco initially evolved as a reaction against the austerity imposed by World War I. Early Art Deco designs featured expensive materials such as silver, crystal, ivory, jade, and lacquer. However, following the Depression, designers broadened the genre’s appeal in an attempt to reach the emerging middle-class. For this reason, they incorporated mass-produced materials like chrome, stainless steel, inlaid wood, plastics, and other industrial items.
However, the intent remained the same, celebrate elegance, sophistication, and wealth.
The Art Deco movement also drew inspiration from other art styles including Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Constructivism, and to some extent the Bauhaus movement. From Cubism, it borrowed geometry and abstract fragmented forms. Constructivism and Futurism inspired its machine-like forms; its use of intense colors from Parisian Fauvism.
In addition, Art Deco borrowed from Egyptian and Classical Art. Also, decorative ideas came from Aztec and American Indian artwork. Like Art Nouveau, nature was often a source of inspiration. Motifs such as the nude female figures, animals, foliage and the sun’s rays inspired Art Deco artwork.
And like the Bauhaus, Art Deco celebrates the beauty derived from mass-produced machine-age technology. Designers enhanced the appearance of everything from clocks and ashtrays to cars, trains, and ocean liners. However, unlike the Bauhaus, the Art Deco movement has no philosophical foundation, it’s purely decorative.
Art Deco’s Demise
The austerity of the First World War was the impetus for the Art Deco movement. Ironically, it would be the austerity of the Second World War that would trigger its demise. Art Deco’s flamboyant and pretentious spirit seemed inappropriate with the world in turmoil.
Industrial and technological advances brought on by WWII radically changed the aesthetics of contemporary design. Modernism and its minimalist principles displaced Art Deco as the dominant style. Modernist designers strove to capture the inherent beauty of an object in spare precision. All ornament was stripped away, machine-like simplicity and smoothness of surface defined the new aesthetic. The use of new materials, such as molded plywood, and new production methods blended the disciplines of technology and art.
However, Art Deco may have been gone but it certainly was not forgotten. With the advent of the “consumerist culture” in the 1960s, the style experienced a brief revival. Interestingly, it was not until 1968 when Bevis Hillier published the book — Art Deco of the 20s and 30s — that the term Art Deco was widely applied to the style. Hillier’s work was a major academic statement and helped to establish Art Deco’s legitimacy as an artistic style. Art Deco is often cited as influential in the development of Post Modernism‘s and its artsy and playful use of classic forms, cultural icons and ornamentation.
Today’s art movement is not easily quantified. In fact, art today is many styles and mini-movements. Some call this Artistic Pluralism, an acceptance of a variety of artistic intentions and the expression of individual’s unique perspective. But no matter how art evolves, Art Deco will continue to inspire the design of everything from crystal decanters to trendy interiors, and even to the design of this website.