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Art Deco 1909 to 1939: Groundbreaking Exhibit's Final Stop at MFA Boston

Art Deco 1909 to 1939: Groundbreaking Exhibit’s Final Stop at MFA Boston – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – September 2004

A groundbreaking exhibition in its final U.S. venue at Boston’s MFA

by Tony Fusco

One of the reasons the Art Deco style is so difficult to define is that it really is not a single style. Today, the name “Art Deco” is applied to a whole complex of trends in the decorative and applied arts, architecture, and even the fine arts in the period roughly between 1909 and 1939. The term itself only came into popular usage during the late 1960s, and is derived from the title of the 1925 Parisian Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which emphasized the “Arts Décoratifs” or the decorative arts: furniture, glass, ceramics, textiles, and the like.

Wrongly thought by many to be the starting point of the Art Deco style, the 1925 Exposition actually marked the culmination of a de luxe French Art Deco style and the emergence of a more geometric, Germanic-influenced “Modern” style. A third and final “phase” of the Art Deco style in the late 1930s reflected the impact of the industrial designer on transportation, machines, and household appliances, and is today often referred to as “Streamline.” The sleek, smooth, bullet-nosed designs for “Streamliner” trains were soon applied to everything from ceramic dinnerware to toasters to lawn mowers.

How far Art Deco metamorphosed from the extremely delicate eggshell lacquer of Jean Dunand, the exceptional glass sculptures of René Lalique, and the sharkskin-covered exotic furniture of Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann to the geometric furniture of the “Moderns” and finally the mass-produced household furnishings of the Depression, streamlined automobiles, and the razzmatazz of Hollywood!

Understanding this evolution and these three major design “phases” — French Art Deco, Modern, and Streamline — will help you recognize and appreciate the full range of the Art Deco style, and avoid some of the confusion around the term.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that as Art Deco spread to become the first truly international design style, it was confronted and changed dramatically by national preferences, cultural differences, and social and economic forces. The Art Deco pastel paradise of Miami Beach architecture owes more to the German Bauhaus and the design of ocean liners than it does to anything French. Flamingoes may be Miami’s Art Deco bird, but in Australia it is usually a black swan one sees depicted.

In addition, scholars have traced many of the influences on Art Deco to turn-of-the-century and pre–World War I designers and design movements: Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, the Vienna Secession, the Glasgow School in Scotland, Cubism, the De Stijl movement in Holland, and Italian Futurism.

Not only was Art Deco influenced by these European design movements, it was also highly influenced by the design of numerous traditional and ancient cultures: Egyptian, Japanese, sub-Saharan Africa, Mayan and Aztec cultures, and others. Some popular “Art Deco” designs are direct copies of motifs from these ancient civilizations!

Now, for the first time ever, a major traveling exhibition from the Victoria & Albert Museum, Art Deco: 1909-1939, puts the evolution of Art Deco into a global context, tracing the development of the style from its emergence in Paris prior to World War I, to its widespread popularity around the world by the late 1930s, with its most exuberant expression seen in the skyscrapers, jazz and cocktails of Manhattan. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is the last stop, and only the second U.S. venue, on the international tour of the exhibition which has already dazzled audiences in London, Toronto and San Francisco.

The exhibition at the MFA opens August 22, 2004 and continues through January 9, 2005. It will feature more than 240 works including furniture, textiles, ceramics, sculpture, fashion, jewelry, photography, and paintings from public and private collections around the world, some of which have rarely been seen in the United States, with about 50 exclusive to the MFA’s presentation of the show. For more information or to order tickets, visit the Museum’s web site at

It is fitting that this major retrospective on Art Deco — the first since the mid 1980s — be hosted by the MFA in Boston: the exhibition includes about 35 objects from the MFA’s own collection, with several notable examples given by or on loan from John P. Axelrod, a Bostonian who is widely recognized as one of the leading collectors of Art Deco in the world. The exhibition also buckles a buckle for the MFA, which in 1926 was the first of only nine venues to host a touring exhibition of 400 works selected from the 1925 Paris Exhibition.

Now, almost 80 years since that 1925 Paris Expo, works from the Art Deco period are highly valued, widely collected both by individuals and museums, and have taken on a platinum patina as we enter into the 21st century. This exhibition is surely riding the crest of a “third wave” of interest in Art Deco.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the first wave of Art Deco collecting in this country, reflected in the first major museum retrospectives in 1970-1971, and in attracting avant-garde collectors such as Barbra Streisand and Elton John. The next wave of interest corresponded the groundbreaking American Art Deco and Machine Age in America museum exhibitions in the 1980s. Specialized shows and fairs, such as Sanford Smith’s “Modernism” in New York began to spring up in 1986, and the market expanded significantly through the 1990s.

In addition to the Victoria & Albert exhibition, other recent, important specialized exhibitions, such as American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2000, featuring the collection of John C. Waddell, and the current Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco, also at the Metropolitan and on view through September 5, 2004, have fueled enormous interest once again in what is now a mature field.

Art Deco: 1910-1939 presents a stunning, breathtaking array of works by the “Who’s Who” of Art Deco design: Masterpieces in metalwork by Edgar Brandt and Jean Dunand will accompany furniture by renowned designers Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann and Eileen Gray. The galleries will be graced by fashions designed by Coco Chanel and Jeanne Lanvin and given sparkle by the jewelry of Cartier, Jean Fouquet and Raymond Templier. The spread of the style and the development of the skyscraper style and streamlining in the United States will be exemplified by the works of such renowned designers as Paul Frankl, Donald Deskey and Norman Bel Geddes.

The exhibition itself is divided into eight different sections by theme. A splashy entry space features key works including Tamara de Lempicka’s signature painting Young Woman in Green (Jeune fille en vert), ca. 1927, and a section called “The Style and the Age,” draws together a number of iconic works that epitomize and demonstrate the rich diversity and global reach of the style, as well as its luxurious beginnings with the Lotus dressing table, ca. 1919-1923 by one of the greatest French designers, Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann.

The exhibition then offers visitors an insightful understanding of the roots Art Deco in a section called “Sources.” For anyone seeking a real understanding of the style, this section, though not a dazzler, is a real eye-opener.

Art Deco borrowed from diverse European design movements, regional and national traditions, and the contemporary avant-garde, while at the same time looking back for inspiration to Egypt and the Classical world. Non-Western cultures such as those of Meso-America, East Asia and Africa also provided a rich supply of form, materials and ornament. Works of art representing each of these sources are displayed together with interpretations by European and American designers in the 1920s and 1930s. Look for the 1928 Storks of Alsace panels for an elevator cage designed by Edgar Brandt for Selfridges department store in London, influenced by Oriental motifs and an African-inspired Stool from about 1923 designed by Pierre Legrain.

This section of the exhibition also draws important lines between the decorative arts and contemporary Avant-Garde movements such as Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism, which contributed significantly to the development of the style. Pablo Picasso’s cubist Portrait of a Woman, 1910, is juxtaposed with a Czech cubist Bookcase from 1913. Cubism is certainly reflected in other objects throughout the exhibition, and this section prepares the visitor to “see” Art Deco through a new lens.

The next section of the exhibition, The Paris Exposition of 1925, is one that lovers of the French Art Deco style will find overwhelmingly beautiful. The 1925 Paris Exposition had been in the planning before World War I, and was intended frankly to boost the French economy and solidify Paris as the world center of style and design — and it worked to some degree! Works from around the world were displayed, and over 16 million visitors attended. While eventually the United States would rival, and then surpass France for preeminence in the design field as the world turned increasingly towards industrialization, the United States did not participate in the 1925 Exposition.

Art Deco: 1910 – 1939 displays works from the 1925 national pavilions of Sweden, The Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Britain. Notable works featured include: a French Desk, ca. 1925 by Pierre Chareau, on loan from Primavera Gallery in New York and reflecting the movement towards a “Moderne” style; a British Writing desk, 1925 by Sir Edward Maufe; a Swedish Senna chair, 1925 by Erik Gunnnar Asplund; a Dutch Clock, 1925, by Jan Eisenloeffel; and an Austrian silver Bow, 1924 by the leading Vienna Secessionist designer Josef Hoffmann. While many of these objects cannot be called “Art Deco”, they do represent other concurrent modern design idioms, and once again illustrate how French Art Deco both synthesized and competed with the design production of other countries.

One of the highlights of Art Deco: 1909-1939 is the recreation of a magnificent room setting from the Paris Exposition — The Grand Salon of The Hôtel d’un Collectionneur — which brings together a number of works designed for the 1925 exhibition, particularly a lacquer Cabinet, 1925, by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann and Jean Dunand, on loan from Anthony DeLorenzo in New York; a Spider Table, and Pair of Armchairs, both 1925, both by Ruhlmann; the 1925 erotic painting Les Perruches (The Parrots), by Jean Dupas; and even a fragment of the original carpet.

The exhibition also addresses the fashion phenomenon around 1925. Paris had long been recognized as the international capital for haute couture. The industry had seen a strong revival following the deprivations of the First World War and it was hoped that the 1925 Exhibition would succeed in reinstating Paris as the world center for luxury shopping and generate a much needed economic boost. Among other fashion items, on view is an exquisite evening gown by Jeanne Paquin called Chimere (Dream).

From its beginnings Art Deco drew upon the “exotic” in two different senses of the term: both borrowing from non-Western cultures and in a very sensual means of expression. Among the many exotic influences that contributed to the emergence of the Art Deco style were the opulent sets and costumes of Les Ballets Russes (The Russian Ballet) which arrived in Paris in 1909 and set off an explosion in the design and fashion world. From the Ballets Russes it was just steps to Josephine Baker — the celebrated American-born entertainer who shocked and delighted Parisian audiences with a sophisticated fusion of the primitive and modern black American music and dance, often in the nude.

Tropical flora and fauna, bird and animal life became commonplace, used as both form and decorative motif. Exotic furniture commissioned by leading French tastemakers, such as a black and gold lacquered wood Screen, 1928, and Canoe (Pirogue) day bed, ca. 1919-1920 both by Eileen Gray, lead to a room setting displaying works for the couturier and collector Jacques Doucet — which includes such objects as a Mantelpiece and Pair of Andirons, ca. 1928 designed by Jacques Lipchitz, and a Pierre Legrain Chair, ca 1924, all designed for Doucet’s Paris studio.

The seeds of the “Modern” phase of the Art Deco style were already planted at the 1925 Paris Exposition. By the late 1920s, progressive designers, inspired by the visual repertoire of the avant-garde, had turned to the abstract and geometric for both form and decoration. The early French Art Deco motifs, replete with stylized fruits and flowers and leaping gazelles were set aside. “Modern” designers, often as driven by social and economic imperatives as by design concepts, adopted an increasingly spare style better suited to mass production. The rare and exotic woods of early French Art Deco furniture increasingly gave way to tubular steel and other metals.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression of the 1930s devastated the luxury goods market, adversely affecting many leading designers and firms. An increasing demand for inexpensive, yet still fashionable consumer goods generated the move away from hand-made, unique pieces towards mass, machine-made productions. Designs of the 1930s are characterized by sparer decoration and simpler lines, with more emphasis being placed on the material. This new aesthetic often relied on reflective surfaces, such as chromium, nickel, aluminum, or mirrored and colored glass. Additionally, plastics came into widespread use in the 1920s and 1930s. Many plastics are better known by their trade name, such as Galalith, Catalin or Bakelite, marketed as the ‘material of a thousand uses.’

The accoutrements of the fashionable Art Deco lifestyle of this period are represented by an array of accessories including a ca. 1927 vanity/cigarette case by Cartier; a ca. 1930 Mappin & Webb cocktail shaker; paintings by Fernand Léger; stunning jewelry by Jean Fouquet, and Raymond Templier; shimmering evening gowns by Jeanne Lanvin and Coco Chanel; and photographs by Man Ray and Edward Steichen epitomize the supreme elegance of new trends in fashion design.

Art Deco became the first truly international style, spreading quickly around the world during the 1920s and 1930s. Though often born on the wings of colonization, each country assimilated the style in different ways, adapting and incorporating it into their own historic traditions of design, materials and techniques. Questions of cultural identity were strongly debated, as Westernization and modernization were seen to be at odds with nationalism and traditional social and artistic values. The Deco World section of the exhibition explores the interpretation of the style in India, Japan and China.

It is interesting to note that of the 25 Art Deco Societies which comprised the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies (ICADS) today, several of them are located in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, countries which heartily adopted the Art Deco style just as their major urban centers were being built in the 1920s and 1930s. The impact of Art Deco is seen on every continent.

Leisure travel rapidly gained popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. The Art Deco period saw the high point of exclusive, luxury travel before its demise in 1939. Ocean liners are remembered as the perfect blend of style and speed, and it is the generation of liners from the 1920s and 1930s that established the concept of the liner as a floating hotel.

Streamlined trains were also a phenomenon of the period, as the image of luxury and modernity they represented was more important than the reality of the moderate pace achieved. Striking travel posters also played an important role in glamorizing international travel. Highlighting this section of the exhibition are the iconic posters Normandie, 1935 and Nord Express, 1927, both by A.M. Cassandre, the leading Art Deco poster designer who essentially established the world’s first advertising agency.

The final section of the exhibition focuses on the extensive and profound impact that Art Deco design had on the United States. Numerous European designers emigrated to the U.S. and American designers traveled to Europe. Designers strove to “Americanize” Europeans models, adapting them to cheaper materials and machine production, as well as to American social habits.

In their search for a national repertoire of motifs, artists and designers celebrated the American city for evocative symbols of progress and modernity. The phenomenon of Jazz is represented by Viktor Schreckengost’s prominently-displayed 1931 “Jazz Bowl”. Products of the 1920s building boom, the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan, with their distinctive setbacks, became recurrent motifs in everything from furniture and textiles to tableware. The ‘Skyscraper Aesthetic,’ is represented by sculpture, furniture, and photographs such as Margaret Bourke-White’s Chrysler Building, New York, ca. 1932.

Furniture and metalwork from the period illustrate the specific American expression of the style. Renowned designers’ works include Donald Deskey’s ca. 1927 Table lamp and Paul Frankl’s “Skyscraper” Desk and bookcase, ca. 1928. Paul Frankl once remarked how different the world of 20th century design might have been if the United States had exhibited a skyscraper or two at the Paris Exposition of 1925.

The 1930s witnessed the emergence of “Streamlining” as the dominant design idiom. Manufacturers hit hard by the Depression sought new ways of producing cheap products. Responding to their demands, a group of U.S. designers developed an innovative approach known as ‘styling.’ Considered an American phenomenon, streamlining transformed contemporary design and architecture, from factories and cinemas to transport, film, fashion and household wares. Products were encased in contoured shells, based on the principle of ‘minimum drag.’ These forms lent themselves to mechanized mass-production processes and new materials such as plastics. Important “industrial design” works in the exhibition include the Normandie water pitcher, 1935 by Peter Müller-Munk; and Norman Bel Geddes’ Patriot Radio, Model 400, 1940.

Art Deco: 1909-1939 concludes with examples from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. High-style Art Deco souvenirs from the 1939 Fair, called “The World of Tomorrow” are eagerly snatched up by collectors today. More than 50 million people attended the 1939 World’s Fair—and estimates are that more than 25,000 different souvenirs were sold at the Fair. But by 1940 the Art Deco style was almost too stylish for a world faced with the horrors of war.

In America, Art Deco also became highly associated with Hollywood. The costumes, set designs, furnishings for movies, posters, and other Hollywood design from the 1920s through the 1940s helped to popularize the style to the widest possible audience. In the end, perhaps, it was Hollywood’s “Screen Deco”—a continual exaggeration of the style—that caused Art Deco to fall out of favor with designers. No leading-edge designer wants to be thought of as merely repeating what is already popular.

Impressive in scope, in depth and in the quality of the objects it has brought together under one roof, Art Deco: 1909-1939 is a not-to-be missed exhibition. Not only does it provide the visitor with a real understanding of the sources and evolution of Art Deco, it offers by way of that evolution a glimpse into how dramatically the world was changing in the early decades of the 20th century.

Exhibition Information: ART DECO: 1910-1939, August 22, 2004 – January 9, 2005 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Admission to Art Deco: 1910 – 1939 is by ticket only for a reserved date and time of entry at half-hour intervals. Although same-day tickets will be sold when available at the Museum’s box office, advance reservations are recommended to ensure admission to the exhibition. Tickets are available by calling NEXT Ticketing at 617-542-4MFA, by visiting the MFA’s Box Office or the Museum’s Web site at Entrance to Art Deco: 1910 – 1939 requires the purchase of an exhibition ticket in addition to full-price general admission. Tickets include a free repeat visit to the Museum’s collections within 10 days.


Tony Fusco, President of ADSB, will present two lecture programs at the MFA in conjunction with the exhibit. (For information on registration on these and other programs visit )

“What is Art Deco?” on Tuesday, October 12, at 10:30am and Thursday, October 14 at 7:00pm. This lecture will trace the evolution of the Art Deco style in Europe and America, from its flowery and highly decorative beginning in France, through the more geometric Modern phase, to its final expression in Streamlining during the Depression.

“The Age of the Industrial Designer: Art Deco for the Masses” on Tuesday, October 26, at 10:30am, and Thursday, October 28, at 7:00pm. This lecture will feature the work of the talented designers for industry, mass production, and the mass media who dominated the last decade of the Art Deco era, from the stock market crash of 1929 to the New York World’s Fair of 1939.

c/o One Murdock Terrace, Boston, MA 02135 (617) 787-2637

Walking Tours: ADSB will offer Walking Tours of Art Deco in Downtown Boston on Saturdays October 2, 9 and 16. Starting times to be announced. Duration 2 1/2 Hours, maximum 25 people per tour, $20 per person.

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