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The Origin Of Art Deco Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4003 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Art Deco, one of the most influential art movements in the art history which was influenced by various cultures and art movements of past and present, lifestyle and society of the period between two life changing world wars, was diverse in design and glamorous and luxurious in style. Key influences include many styles of art and design including the high-style French crafts, different cultures of the far distant past and contemporary avant-grade art. It has reflected these inspirations intellectually and stylishly on its wonderful designs from finest French Art Deco furniture to mass produced modern household consumer goods. It was not just a style which reflected travel and adventure, leisure and entertainment, but a taste that was highly enjoyed by both high-society elite and common man with ‘new spirit’ after the Second World War. It had handed down its concepts of design and visuals of both traditional and modern style to younger art movements as well as its vibrant, bold, and glamorous style becoming an influence to many contemporary designs.

Art Deco’s characteristics cannot be defined easily as the term Art Deco includes a mixture of styles ranging from ancient arts and traditional French Decorative Arts to mass produced Avant-grade Modernism. Benton(2003) has found that Richard Guy Wilson said in ‘Defining Art Deco’, Art Deco Society of New York News that:

If we can use the term Art Deco not to designate a specific style, but rather that it is inclusive and connotes the tremendous fertility of ideas, culture and design beginning in the early twentieth century and reaching a peak in the 1920s and 1930s we will better serve our own purpose. (Benton, 2003, p16)

Thus according to C. Benton (2003), ‘Art Deco can be described as the body of artefacts including works inspired by, but not copied from, historic and traditional high styles, works inspired by various cultures of past and those inspired by contemporary avant-grade art.’ All these influences and inspirations which helped to become what Art Deco is started at the first major appearance of Art Deco at the 1925 Paris World’s Fair – the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, where the term Art Deco derived from.

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Paris was the cultural centre of the Western world, as well as home of many famous artists and designers. However, after the First World War when the United States hosted several art expositions and it seemed likely to have the leadership role in vital areas of art as it had less damage physically and economically, French was determined to retain her leadership in this area. Hence according to Chandler(2000), with the return of peace and prosperity, French once again hosted an international exposition to reassert her power as the ruler of taste and style. The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was set to show the world that French taste would lead the way again and to define the elements of the new style which would soon be known as Art Deco. The exposition exhibited works of artists and designers from various countries where the early French Art Deco’s influences came from. Chandler(2000) has found that the exposition was supposed to bring together the nations of the world and to show some sense of a developing common aesthetic among the practitioners of decorative arts and architecture. In fact countless talents from many countries had shown what could be done without turning back to the tradition in art and culture. The exposition was a success and the Art Deco style was born out of it. Moreover, since the exhibition, Art Deco expanded from Paris to other countries all over the world and although Americans did not participate at the exposition, the influence of this style had sprung across the country for the next two decades.

The style developed mainly in France where it showed its emotional stylish playfulness. At the same time the rays of Art Deco touched upon the modern western architecture, decoration, design, and fine arts around the world, and even non-French Art Deco somehow relates to the early Parisian Art Deco designs. French-inspired ornamentations were used on American buildings continuously until the 1940s. Duncan(1999) said that the early French Art Deco style had in its moment of glory provided America with the legacy of rich architectural ornamentation. It is found that many international artists and designers adopted or adapted the design elements of high-style French Art Deco on their later modernized Art Deco.

…the furniture of the German Bruno Paul or the jewellery of the American firm Black, Starr & Frost…many other designers throughout Europe and the United States paid vestigial homage to the French style, among them the creators of the spectacular American and English motion picture palaces, the Russian-born Serge Chermayeff and the British Clarice Cliff with her jazzy, brightly hued pottery (P.Bayer, 2000, p 10).


However, one could say that the beginning of the style Art Deco showed an early presence since before the 1925 Exposition, as early as the last years of ninetieth century when Art Nouveau gained its appreciation. The 1900 Exposition Universelle which was held in Paris, was one of the most successful and ambitious exhibitions in the history of Paris. Works of twenty four participating nations and their numerous colonies including European, American, African and Asian countries were exhibited. Hence there were varieties of fine arts, jewellery designs, ceramics and pottery, furniture and all sorts of craftsmanship which had inspired the Art Nouveau designers and some young designers who would later introduce the style Art Deco to the world. Two years later Art Nouveau became the most fashionable and sought after design style of the early twentieth century, and many designers became to develop interesting, variations and historical themes into their work. However, the style began to decline afterwards because of the First World War and the rise of industrialization.

After World War I, because of the result of the dramatic changes in social, personal and economical matters, expensive highly stylised and hand crafted Art Nouveau lost its favour and was replaced by new design concepts of mass produced modernism. The decorative aspects of the style became unessential and many European designers followed mass production and functionalism of German Bauhaus movement. Art Nouveau style was applied to low quality uninteresting products for commercial gain. On the other hand younger avant-grade designers began to experiment the modern design concepts by combining them with their predecessors’ fine craftsmanship to produce a design style that has both intellect of modernism and visual of the traditional styles. The cluttered floral designs, pastel colours and the overly decorative patterns and curls of Art Nouveau were stripped down to angular geometric shapes, clear bright and bold colours, uncluttered clean shapes and refined detailing of the new style Art Deco.

Art Deco designers still kept their predecessors’ stylised designs and superb craftsmanship and adapted them in many of high-style Art Deco. Hence Art Nouveau style didn’t come to an abrupt end but continued as Art Deco for several more years until it was replaced by mass produced modernist Art Deco designs.

Art Deco is not the opposite of Art Nouveau; it is in many aspects an extension of it, particularly in its preoccupation with lavish ornamentation, fine materials and superlative craftsmanship. (Duncan, 2000, p6)

Art Nouveau style mainly influenced the French Art Deco designers such as Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann who was famous for his French style Art Deco furniture designs. Moreover the influence of Art Nouveau can be seen in many of French Art Deco pochoir illustrations which adapted the elements of floral, stylised Art Nouveau with the combination of bold colours, and glamour of Art Deco’s characteristics.


As Art Deco was already gradually forming since the 1900 exhibition, the inspiration of the style is very diverse and came from different art forms and cultures. Among these influences, ancient Egyptian art and Aztec and Mayan architecture of ancient Mexico art were best known and adopted by many Art Deco artists and designers. Because of the discovery of the Tutankhamun tomb in 1922, the Egyptian art was popular among the Art Deco designers, that the craze touched every aspect of design. Fashion accessories, furniture, products and interior designs at that time had combination of Egyptian-inspired geometrical shapes with the Art Deco’s own stylised and decorative patterns. Egyptian art’s usage of colour and ornamentations were also adopted for architectural decorations. Examples of these can be seen in usage of bold flashes of gold colour on the black granite surface of Raymond Hood’s American Radiator building, and Egyptian-inspired eagle-shaped gargoyle ornaments on the Art Deco’s iconic, the Chrysler Building.

The ancient Mexican architecture also directly influenced Art Deco skyscrapers and interior designs. The geometric forms and patterns of rigid stonework Mexican art can be traced in many of 1920s and 1930s architecture and design. According to Baddeley(2003), ‘the block-like mass, ziggurat forms and patterns of Manhattan’s skyline evoked rather than replicated the militaristic decorations of Aztec temple design.’ Even the zoning law applied on the New York’s skyscrapers was based on the Aztec architecture concepts. According to Duncan(1999), the zoning law is applied to the high buildings to ensure adequate light and air for the city’s working populace, hence architects developed a series of setbacks, or terraces, which stepped backwards and upwards like Ziggurats of the Aztec architecture. However, the decorations on the building and inside of the building had influences from historical art styles of Japanese, Islamic, Celtic besides Egyptian and Mexican, and sometimes all the styles appear together to give the impression of an unspecified historicism.


Art Deco was purely decorative and was not the leading intellectuals of the period although it had approach to functionalism of modern designs. Since World War I and rapid industrialization, most modernist artists and designers were keen to produce mass-produced designs made in new, low-cost materials and rejected any decorative intentions. However, according to Robinson(1988) many of these designers soon realised that functionalism alone cannot fulfil the customers’ demands as certain amount of fantasy, luxury and embellishment were required in order to fulfil their aesthetic dreams.

Many designers working in more mundane materials, for mass production and the popular market, came to see forms and motifs derived from fine art as capable of bringing aesthetic value to even modest domestic environments, as well as giving value to their own practice. (Benton, 2003, p105)

Thus Art Deco is decorative even when it doesn’t employ ornaments and surface decorations, to provide sense of emotional fulfilment and luxury to bold machine-made items. This concept of Art Deco was practiced in many areas of designs including industrial, interior and furniture designs as well as in architectural design. According to Duncan(1999),’ in traditional architecture, Modernist decoration was used as a transitional device to alert the eye to a change in the building’s contour.’ Vertical and horizontal decorations were used to emphasize a skyscraper’s height and rhythm of the setbacks, moreover colour was also applied along the setbacks on the building to provide definition to the passerby far below. Duncan(1999) has found that Hildreth Meiere, American artist and architect said in July 1932 ‘The Question of Decorative Architectural Forum’ that:

Decoration is that which gives color or texture, scale or pattern or interest, which is used, whether functionally or not, because it gives pleasure or expression. An architect instinctively employs it because he is an artist who designs for aesthetic enjoyment as well as a builder who must build adequately for physical needs. (Duncan, 1999, p150)

Thus Art Deco’s modernized traditional style or decorative modern style of decorations and ornamentations were applied on everyday household products, automobiles and buildings to give certain amount of interest and luxury, as a result Art Deco became widely appreciated by the high society and considered to be the functional form of elegant and luxurious modernism.


Art Deco designers and Avant-grade designers shared the same interest in applying decoration since the latter themselves became to practice the decorative arts on their artworks. Benton(2003) believed that the association between avant-grade art and Art Deco was also encouraged by decorative artist’s ambitions. Likewise, Art Deco designers also adapted the avant-grade movement’s elements in many areas of its decorations. Many of Art Deco’s graphic posters and illustrations showed the influence of cubism and futurism by adding abstract, fragmented, overlapped geometrical shapes with crisp rigid lines to show the period’s occupation with speed and power. The influence also can be seen in the areas of product design and furniture design, for instance Erik Magnussen used the abstracting and fragmentation techniques of Cubism on his coffee service called ‘Cubic’ or ‘The Lights and Shadows of Manhatten’ to produce interesting and eccentric look of an usual and functional coffee set.

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Art Deco style was influenced by past and present art movements and styles, but on the other hand, the influence came from not only creative environment but also the lifestyle and the ever changing society of the period between two world wars when the movement reigned supreme. The First World War gave a sense of break from the past and provided modernity to the whole new world which accompanied urbanization, standardization, and mass society. The new lifestyle of the modern world and the new roles for the common men resulted in mass consumption and demanding society, hence mass production became vital in manufacturing and producing areas. Deco style graphic design and posters with the illustrations of expanding leisure activities such as dance halls, and entertaining sports such as tennis and golf, as well as the brochures for holidays and beaches became the popular media between the consumers and the manufacturers as a result of demanding entertainment and pleasure by the mass society of not only elites but also common people. Furthermore, developing science and technology which is a crucial element in the modern society also played an important role in creating modernity in the new world.

Production and utilization of electric power, discoveries of new materials such as plastics, and the advancing techniques in creative area provided the whole new concepts to Art Deco designers and hence many artists and designers began to experiment with new design forms and materials to provide new satisfaction and fulfilment to the changing taste of the society. Robinson(1988) wrote that soon after the 1925 Exposition, superficial copies of Art Deco style products began to appear in large department stores that this took away the essential aesthetic understanding and quality of craftsmanship that had elevated the original Art Deco designs to a truly modern art form. Hence the rapid expansion of mass society and the advanced technology had soon produced a new style of Art Deco called streamlining which would replace the traditional techniques and style of Art Deco.


The mass production of transportation methods, which is the result of the rapid expansion of mass travel, was the vital reason that the Art Deco designers turn to a new style of design and streamlining technique. According to Atterbury(2003),’ streamlining reflected contemporary enthusiasms for science, technology, engineering and, above all, travel and transportation.’ Streamlining was applied to a new generation of automobiles, aircrafts and trains, to express speed and mechanical efficiency, as well as to domestic and commercial objects where speed and efficiency were irrelevant. Atterbury(2003) also mentioned that streamlining and speed became synonymous in the public mind, and so streamlined forms were widely applied to domestic motor vehicles despite having little or no impact on their actual performance. Despite the science and rationality, the image of speed was more important and streamlining was used as decorations to appeal the surface look and seduce potential customers as the sleek contoured horizontal lines and smooth surfaces not only provide modernity, but also suggest luxury, comfort and restfulness. Works of industrial designer Raymond Loewy strongly reflected the streamlining style of Art Deco since he was one of the logical leaders who emphasized on styling this to promote mass consumption and mass production among the commercial competition during the Great Depression in America.

The industrial designer’s attempt to modernize consumer goods as a means of boosting sales led him(Raymond Loewy) in the 1930s to the pursuit of a new style, one which evolved from the preceding fashionable Art Deco style of the 1920s and could be applied to industrial products. (Duncan, 1999, p 270)

Hence new principles and application of streamlining became a fashion statement and was applied on almost every item from book covers and pencil sharpeners to the building’s decoration and the automobiles and trains. Examples of streamlining on buildings, which is known as streamline modern architecture, include the Coca-Cola Bottling Company plant, the California Petroleum Service Station and many roadside diners in Los Angeles, as well as the buildings and pavilions of the 1939 New York World’s Fair which is known for acting as an endpoint of the Art Deco style.

Like traditional stylised Art Nouveau was replaced by the mass-produced streamlined modern Art Deco after the World War I, so was Art Deco by total machine aesthetic Modernism when the Second World War definitely killed off the flame of Art Deco and the style lost its glamour after the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Even though streamlining was popular after the 1925 Art Deco Exposition in the design of buildings and transportation, the original Art Deco’s decorative motifs had become out of date and took over by the pure functionalism of Post-modernist designers.

Though some notable expressions of decorative exuberance inspired by Art Deco practices survived, the style’s characteristic decorative repertoire and cheerfully commercial traits were widely abandoned in favour of design languages redolent of the larger social good. (Benton, 2003, p429)


However, Art Deco recovered with the growing interest in advertising, graphic design, fashion design and glamour and individualism in the 1950s and 1960s. The major exhibitions on the subject and publications books on Art Deco fashion and fashion illustration had encouraged the revival of Art Deco. This new interest influenced many younger artists and designers such as The Memphis Group of the 1980s. According to Benton(2003), Art Deco also encouraged Post-modern architects and designers to employ a richer iconography to be playful and to take risks with materials, colours, surfaces, shapes and visual references. Although Art Deco style had left many good influential examples of designs for the future generations, there were some disadvantages in those influences it had handed down to later design movements especially popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business art movement in the 1950s which was known as Pop art. Late Art Deco’s mass consumption and mass production concepts of design were the certain part of the origins of mass media, and the illusion of popular artificial fulfilment of the modern art culture. Like mass produced cheap Art Deco products fulfilled the desires of the mass society after the First World War, according to Belting(2003) today visual advertising blinds the consumer’s eye to the thing itself and hides the illusion, its true nature behind the effects and lies of advertisements. Hence Art Deco’s both illustrative influence and conceptual influence has reappeared in nowadays graphic and advertising designs.

Besides, Art Deco architecture and interior design also regained its popularity nowadays and the style was adapted in many of the recent architecture and replicated for the interior designs of contemporary buildings. The Parkview Square in the downtown area of Singapore, for instance is proof that the Art Deco influence is still surviving in some parts of the world today. The building design is classic Art Deco style and inspired by the Chanin Building as well as the lobby of the building is filled with Art Deco style hand crafted details and decorations. Similarly, the Williams Tower which is also known as the Transco Tower in Houston, Texas is also a fine example of Art Deco inspired skyscraper with rigid lines, angles and setbacks of the 1920s Art Deco architectural characteristics. What is more, the rotating beacon at the top which lights up at night put emphasis on the influence of the glamorous and luxurious night light of the pure Art Deco style. In addition, there are a few commercial and residential buildings surviving in Houston which are designed in postmodern interpretations of Art Deco streamline moderne style. Indeed, Art Deco may not be as popular as it was in its period of 1920s and 1930s,its intellectually and visually fascinating design concepts are still influencing the contemporary world and many design aspects of everyday life.


To conclude, Art Deco was a style as well as a total result of styles, a wonderful mixture of traditional and contemporary designs, with diverse cultures and technologies. It not only took inspirations from past and its predecessors, but also was influenced by the changing lifestyle and modernity of the period. Even though the time and the age between two wars was unrest and unstable, Art Deco had lived long for three decades and flourished successfully until the spirit died down entirely in 1939 at The New York World’s Fair. Many iconic and notable examples survived until these days and the style’s elements and characteristics are being adapted or replicated in contemporary designs by today designers. The style’s concepts of uniting mass production and the artist, function and decorations, commercial profits and emotional fulfilments, had passed essential examples and lessons in the history of art and design to younger generations and new birth of modern designs. Art Deco was decorative using fine craftsmanship in traditional style, yet it was modern and advanced in technologies and creations. Art Deco had gained its satisfying popularity during its high time, and in fact the style is still being enjoyed by today’s society. What is more, the fact that it is still influencing many designers these days is undeniable.


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