Celebrating Art Deco in the 21st Century

While design and fashion are sometimes difficult to define and assign to an era, Art Deco is one style that is easily identifiable, whether it’s a building’s architecture, a piece of jewelry, or a decorative object.

French Art Deco as a design era is unique and different, but like many, represents an evolutionary vision of what came before it and propelled it to consumer popularity. In this case, it’s the influence of such modern-based European design movements as Art Nouveau, Avant-Garde, and Bauhaus coming out of other European countries, which all came to play and display at the 1925 Paris Exposition in what can only be considered Style Moderne fusion. The unified message was that Europe had entered into the Modern Age.

Although the definitions for these alternative modern design movements of the early 20th century have been refined by a more retro perspective, they are in their current iteration generally and popularly defined as follows: Art Nouveau – “a style of decorative art, architecture, and design prominent in western Europe and the US from about 1890 until World War I and characterized by intricate linear designs and flowing curves based on natural forms”; Avant-Garde – “a modernist term for a movement in art, culture, and politics coming out of Eastern Europe, that cuts at the vanguard of ideas both in terms of their mode of expression and the social impact that they have for everyday living”; Bauhaus – “an influential art and design movement that began in 1919 in Germany and championed a geometric, abstract style featuring little sentiment or emotion and no historical nods”; Style Moderne – “an international style of Art Deco architecture and design that emerged in the 1930s”; and Art Deco – “the predominant decorative art style of the 1920s and 1930s, characterized by precise and boldly delineated geometric shapes and strong colors and used most notably in household objects and in architecture..”

The Paris Exposition, as you will read in our feature story “1925 Exposition: Art Deco on the World Stage” on page XX, was about post-war France wanting to emerge on the world stage as the arbiter of taste and fashion with its Art Deco interpretation of Style Moderne, an umbrella catchall for a modern design aesthetic sweeping Europe that embraced the future rather than venerating the past in form, function, and materials. The intent of the fair was to show the world a bolder, more modern interpretation of design as fashion using man-made materials in creative and functional ways. Although the Art Deco aesthetic was already popular in France by 1925, the Exposition was the first time it would be introduced to an international audience.

Interestingly, the term Art Deco was not assigned to this aesthetic, design period, and the fair until the 1960s, and has since been retroactively applied. Now re-emerging in interest again after a century and a 1960s resurgence, original items from the Art Deco era, roughly the 1920s through the late 1930s – from furniture and decorative art objects to jewelry and home appliances – are entering the pantheon of antique collectibles. Leading the market are such names as Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), Josef Hoffman (1870-1956), Rene Lalique (1860-1945), Clarice Cliff (1899-1972), and Eileen Gray (1878-1976). These European design trendsetters and the success of 1925 Paris Exhibition fueled a movement that spread to America in the second half of the “Roaring 1920s,” creating a new luxury consumer market for European art deco-inspired home furnishings, graphic art, and personal luxury goods such as perfume bottles, jewelry, vanity table items, decorative objects, and desk accessories.

Although the United States did not participate in the 1925 Paris Exposition due to an unfortunate mis-interpretation of the fair’s guidelines, hundreds of American tourists, department store buyers, artists, and journalists attended anyway. They returned inspired with a new vision for a “Modern America ” based on the boldness and design precepts of Art Deco Style Moderne.

The outgrowth of this inspiration was a uniquely American design interpretation of European modernism that launched and influenced American consumer fashion, home goods, and modern architecture from the mid-1920s through the Great Depression and essentially ending with the start of the second world war.

American Art Deco differed from European Art Deco in its simplicity and use of clear-cut lines. While both styles (particularly 1920s American Art Deco) feature precise design lines, bold arches, geometric patterns, and vivid colors, American pieces tend to be more subtle and less ornate; a more stripped-down, sleeker version of European Art Deco that was more appealing to a broader American consumer market. American companies were able to translate the essence of Art Deco design into aesthetically appealing, machine-made objects available and affordable to everyone.

Art Deco’s influence on architecture was also embraced by almost every emerging metropolitan city in the first half of the 20th century as a symbol of their progress. The bold use of technology and man-made materials in the building of new skyscrapers defined rising skylines with iconic structures that today are preserved as historic landmarks. Art Deco also found a home in such suburban cities as Los Angeles, Miami Beach, and South Beach. Miami Beach still celebrates its Art Deco heritage with an annual Art Deco Weekend, this year January 14-16, 2022. Art Deco Weekend was created nearly 43 years ago by the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) to showcase the beautiful Art Deco buildings of South Beach.

Art Deco fell out of style in Europe during the 1930s but thrived in America up until the second world war. Theatres, homes, government buildings, and even cruise ships followed the Art Deco style, inside and out, as did more than a decade of American-made consumer home goods and decorative objects that today fall into the realm of authentic antique collectibles, making them more desirable and collectible among anyone with an appreciation for its symbolism and aesthetic.