Art Deco – Seeing Beauty in Function and Geometry
In the shock waves that rippled through Europe from the First World War, no aspect of life was left unshaken – and this included the style of buildings, furnishings and fashions. Some people looked back nostalgically to Edwardian values and tastes, and for them the Arts and Crafts movement kept its appeal; but others still admired much older styles and revived the Neoclassical lines of late Georgian and Regency times. Progressive designers, however, sought to wipe the slate clean. They wanted a new look to reflect the new world. The progressives developed two distinct strands, Art Deco and the Modern movement, which were pursued particularly enthusiastically in France and Germany, and later in the United States.
British designers were left out. Only dress designers showed enthusiasm for radical change. Women’s legs were in public view for the first time as “flappers” took to shift-like knee-length dresses. Flat chests, dropped waistlines and hair styled into neat caps banished traditional signs of femininity, but shapely legs, hip-hugging waistlines and swaying fringes on dresses had a new allure.
By the 1930s, however, both Art Deco and Modernism began to influence style in Britain, and not just among the smart set. Ordinary homes too had some Art Deco and Modernist objects because industry produced masses of them and shops promoted them.
Designers had seen the folly of ignoring modern materials and machinery, for these offered the chance to express the carefree and racy fashionable mood. Society people were blotting out horrid memories of the war with a giddy round of parties, dances and cocktails, with the syncopated rhythms of jazz and of frantic new dances such as the Charleston. Art Deco – modern, glamorous and fun – provided a suitable backdrop for this life.
Art Deco, like Art Nouveau, centered on a bold progressive style and aimed to give a visual surprise. But instead of the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau, Art Deco favoured flat surfaces and angular, geometric shapes. It was closely related to the fragmented, multifaceted view of Cubism and Futurism then dominating art. There is also an echo of Aztec style in Art Deco’s stepped and sunray motifs – as seen in jewellery, clocks and door frames.
A fascination with speed, movement and mechanics shows in Art Deco’s treatment of the human form, for example in the angular profile of a face with streaming hair raked back with machine like precision. The wild splashes of colour in Art Deco – vermilion, emerald green cornflower-blue and a vivid orange called tango – can be traced to the exotic costumes designed by Leon Bakst for Diaghilev’s ballets staged in pre-war Paris.
STILL NOT MODERN ENOUGH
There were plenty of critics of Art Deco who protested that it continued to look back to old, if exotic, styles. Apert from Aztec inspiration, there was a flavor of things Egyptian in the use of motifs such as papyrus leaves and eagle’s wings after the tomb of Tutankhamun was found in 1922. There was even a hint of Classical, especially Biedermeier elegance in the furniture of Jaques-Emile Ruhlmann.
Art Deco was also criticized for aiming at a narrow band of wealthy clients. Despite its claim of celebrating the machine age, many of its most famous products were made by craftsmen. Furniture by Louis Sue and Andre Mare, for example, was beautifully crafted in exotic woods such as amboyna and ebony, decorated with repousse leatherwork and inlaid with ivory, mother of pearl and sharkskin. The outstanding silversmith of the era, the Frenchman Jean Puiforcat, produced cube shaped tea sets with glass handles, pieces that were simple and innovative, but certainly not factory made.
Some critics complained about Art Deco’s hint of decadence, found in the figures of scantily clad, athletic young women in provocative poses. Exquisite Art Deco figures were made in gilt bronze, or in chryselephantine (a combination of bronze and ivory), by such skilful modellers as Dimitri Chiparus, Ferdinand Preiss and Bruno Zach; many cheaper figures were made of spelter.
THE MODERN MOVEMENT STRIPS OFF FRIVOLITY
Art Deco had a frivolity that was at odds with serious social attitudes. A greater concern for the needs of industrial society drove some designers to seek a truly new international style. They developed a severe look, pared of ornament, which became known as the Modern movement or Modernism.
Function was its main criterion. What does a cupboard look like if it is designed simply as an efficient unit to put things in? What does a chair look like if it is built simply to support the human form? Such questions produced a daringly fresh approach to architecture, furniture, lamps, glassware – to all fields of design.
Any material could be used if it was suitable to serve the function. The design potential of steel, laminated wood, plate glass, Bakelite plastic, and other industrial materials was explored. The Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer produced the first chair made of tubular steel – his Wassily chair as early as 1925. Another Bauhais, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, made chairs exploiting the tensile strength of steel, notably his “Barcelona Chair” (1929).
Many Modernist architects liked to carry their vision into the furniture and fittings for their buildings. A cold, austere result was all that some achieved; but others, notably the American Frank Lloyd Wright, composed shapes with a new geometric elegance that has been influential ever since.
Although the Modern movement claimed to design for the masses, like Art deco it depended on a wealthy clientele, for many of its products were hand-finished and costly. Modernist rooms –simple. Efficient and hygienic – were conceived as ideal for workers’ families in apartment blocks. In practice they appealed only to a fashionable elite willing to take a stylish leap. The rest of society clung doggedly to homely comfort.
MODERNISM MARRIES ART DECO
The fun-loving tone of the 1920s was already fizzling out before the economic depression and massive unemployment of the 1930s. The straitened circumstances favoured a sober tone in design yet the Modern movement, which seemed to suit a mood, still held little appeal for the general public.
Art Deco, on the other hand, was too frivolous – but it adapted, swallowed some features of Modernism and became Modernist Art Deco. This simpler and more geometric version lost the richly inlaid surfaces of the original and relied more on hard-edged shiny effects from chrome, plate glass and mirrors.
Manufacturers played a key role in this development. Art Deco was a style that lent itself to industrial methods at lower costs. And designers were looking to industry as an employer now that the flow of private commissions for individual pieces of furniture, jewellery and metalwork had ended.
The United States had a strong influence on international style by the 1930s, although it had not exhibited at the 1925 Exposition in Paris. Streamlining, developed in the United States, was a feature of 1930s Art Deco, Speed was still smart, and it was evoked in design by such devices as closely set, parallel, horizontal lines and fluid, rounded corners. Vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and buildings were streamlined as readily as cars, trains and ships. The US was also the source of another powerful modern symbol: the sky-scraper. Its tapering, staged silhouette was used in decorations on buildings, lighting equipment and company badges.
In the US itself, Modernist Art Deco flourished in lavish interiors for wealthy clients despite the Depression. Hollywood sets reflected the styles commissioned for real rooms and of course Hollywood films spread the vogue across the world.
The films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers show rooms where Modernist severity is offset by deep upholstery on armchairs with rounded lines; by carefully planned lighting effects from globe-shaped milk-glass lamps and up-lights on the walls; and deep-pile, geometric-patterned rugs. Films of the thirties also show the wide-shouldered, tailored suits the women wore by day and their figure–skimming, bias-cut evening frocks held up by shoe-string straps. The men meanwhile wore easy-fitting, wide-cut suits.
SUBURBAN PEOPLE’S TASTE
The 1920s and 30s witnessed a massive boom in building and home ownership in Britain, mainly through the work of speculative builders who put up some four million homes on new estates around the cities and towns. Most builders tended to opt for save revivalist styles. Modernist buildings with their blank facades and metal-framed corner windows generally provoked public outcry.
The new generation of householders in their suburbs, were able to make choices about decoration and furnishing that only a much narrower and wealthier band of citizens had previously had the luxury of making. Industry, waking up to the spending power of suburbia, created a vast range of furniture, crockery and tableware, paints, wallpapers and ornaments to fill the shelves of shops. Suburbia also offered a large market for those designers who could tap it successfully.
Many of the most collectable pierces of the period were produced on a factory basis. The ubiquitous Lloyd Loom products, for example, were factory made; they appealed to both popular and high-fashion tastes.
It was a similar story with pottery. Susie Cooper added bright, abstract designs to pottery made for her in the Staffordshire potteries. Clarice Cliff designed for the Newport Pottery Company series with such names as “Bizarre” and “Fantasque”; the pieces had bold and colourful hand-painted decoration but were non the less produced in bulk.
Through industrial design, therefore, Art Deco and some traces of the Modern movement reached the furnishings of a very broad band of homes in Britain, though often in a watered-down version. In their purer forms, however, especially in architecture, these international styles were not much liked, except possibly in a few extravagantly Art Deco cinemas – and time has not made the British public feel any fonder of them.