Art Deco: History of Design In The Machine Age
Art Deco emerged in the 1920s out of Art Nouveau, the Bauhaus school of design, and Cubism. It was in part a product of the post-World War I economic boom–rapid expansion and accelerating modernity–and in part a reaction against it. It was a refreshing reworking of austere modern forms through traditions from the Far East, Africa, Egypt and indigenous America.
The first use of the term Art Deco is attributed to Le Corbusier, who penned a series of articles in his journal L’Esprit Nouveau under the headline “1925 Expo: Arts Déco”. He was referring to the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, where a number of what we now consider the first works of the Art Deco style were shown.
Art Deco exudes symmetry, stylized geometry, and the synthesis of contradicting motifs. Deco emphasizes geometric forms: spheres, polygons, rectangles, trapezoid, zigzags, chevrons and sunburst themes. Elements are often arranged in patterns. Modern materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, Bakelite chrome, and plastics are frequently used. Stained glass inlays, and lacquer are also common. Colors tend to be vivid and high contrast.
A classic example of Art Deco is the Chrysler building, completed in 1930. A skyscraper that, for the first 60 floors, looks more or less like any skyscraper–with a sleek modern design and unassuming form. But the upper floors collapse into a sunburst of semi-circles piled one on top of the other, shrinking as they rise and culminating in a spire–an extravagant crown.
Art Deco Furniture Design: Ruhlmann and Dufrène
Two of the leading lights in Art Deco furniture-making were the Frenchmen Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Maurice Dufrène. Ruhlmann, 1879-1933, had roots in the violent curves and relative extravagance of Art Nouveau. But like other progressive artists of the time he eventually rejected that movement and the related aesthetic of Romanticism, considering them too bombastic and uncontrolled.
His is a neo-classical approach to Art Deco, a more refined encounter with modernity, designed for the new rich of the Second Industrial Revolution. As the New York Times wrote, “Ruhlmann practiced an art of making wood look wealthy.” He used rare and elegant materials like amarynth and palissande. His subtly curved cabinets stole the show at the 1925 Expo. In his later career he also worked with standard metals like steel and nickel, but classed-up to look like silver.
Dufrène, 1876-1955, unlike Ruhlmann, opposed Art Nouveau from the start, committing himself to tidy, logical designs embellished discreetly with carved scroll motifs. He was a designer from a very young age, and in his early work he often used dark mahogany. He embraced the phenomenon of mass production, but cautioned that it should not lead to laziness with regard to design; he lamented the emergence of boring tubular steel chairs that became ubiquitous in the 1920s and 1930s, believing that designers should continue to make their work unique, even if producing for a mass market. Later in his career, he began to experiment more with glass and metal.
The work of Ruhlmann and Dufrene inspired many other designers of the era to create beautiful furniture, lighting, and decorative pieces. Explore more Art Deco pieces now on The HighBoy: