What is Art Deco exactly and how can we distinguish between this particular style and similar types of decorative art? Art Deco characteristics are easily distinguishable. We usually recognize Art Deco designs and objects intuitively, once we see them, but when it comes to the definition of this visual arts style, things tend to be a little more complicated. First of all, there are different national variants of Art Deco and the Art Deco style itself is often described as a pastiche of styles and an eclectic combination of influences, materials, and shapes. Therefore, it is sometimes hard to distinguish Art Deco from similar schools like Art Nouveau, Art Moderne, Bauhaus school, or Arts and Crafts movement. However, there are certain characteristics that can help us decide whether we are looking at Art Deco artworks and in the next couple of paragraphs, we will try to establish those essential and typical features of Art Deco, exploring the characteristics of this decorative style in its various forms, from visual arts and Art Deco paintings to design and architecture.
When we talk about Art Deco definition, we usually tell that it was certainly one of the most influential decorative styles in the first half of the twentieth century. It first appeared in France in the 1920’s taking its name from 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. After its debut in Paris, Art Deco style was quickly accepted around the world, drawing from the different sources and affecting various disciplines, from visual and decorative arts to fashion, architecture, filmography and product design. Although it was the most popular movement in the period between two World Wars, it wasn’t recognized as a movement in its own right until the sixties and some art historians even today argue whether Art Deco movement existed as such and if it should be identified as a distinct style. Luxurious and splendid in their appearance, Art Deco paintings and designs marked the period of newly found optimism after the war and great depression. Although it drew its inspiration from the past art movements, one of the main features of Art Deco style was its orientation towards the future and celebration of modern ideas of progress.
On numerous occasions, Art Deco was also called the “Cubism Tamed”, referring to Art Deco elements which were borrowed from the Cubist movement. Art Deco characteristics primarily included the fascination with geometry, abstract and more fragmented forms. However, this is not the only movement Art Deco artists used as their main source of inspiration. This new style was founded on the avant-garde tradition, including Fauvism, Futurism, the visual language of Constructivism and Suprematism. Art Deco was historical in its relation to the important movements which preceded its birth, but it was also focused on contemporaneity and looking towards the future. Except the abstract inspiration, Art Deco artists also searched for the exotic cultural elements they could incorporate into their artworks, and it is not surprising that there is a rich selection of cultural motifs, from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to Asia, Mesoamerica and Africa most of all. The choice of the motifs was also inspired by the local Art Deco variants, as this movement was the first global decorative style.
The use of geometric forms and symmetrical compositions, as well as the combination between fine arts and crafts, is what brought Art Deco closer to the aesthetic of the Bauhaus design school. However, these two movements were standing on the opposite sides of the modernist spectrum with Art Deco movement focused on luxury items and extravagant ornamentation opposing Bauhaus purist and simple geometric forms and orientation towards utility and efficiency of modern living. Art Deco is also often compared to Art Nouveau as its forerunner. But in spite of both movements being strongly influenced by the fine art tradition and lavishing ornaments, there are many differences between these two influential styles from the beginning of the past century. The most obvious one is definitely the treatment of shapes and lines. Art Deco, as a design movement inspired by industrialization and technical progress, incorporated bold geometrical patterns in symmetrical arrangements, vibrant, contrasting colors and it employed a variety of modern materials from aluminum to stainless glass and steel to plastic. On the other side, Art Nouveau primarily focused on the natural environment and designers and artists working in this style were trying to harmonize modern items with more natural-like forms. Consequently, they used wooden materials frequently and the shaping of metal and glass was curvier, inspired by designs featuring organic forms like flowers, vines, leafs, insect wings or feathers.
As a style that combined arts and craftsmanship, Art Deco found its use mostly in the fields of architecture, interior, textile, furniture and fashion design. To a lesser extent, it can be found in visual arts, usually painting, sculpture and graphic design. Famous artists inspired by Art Deco aesthetics are painters Tamara de Lempicka and Jean Dupas, sculptors Paul Manship and Joseph Csaky and illustrators Erté and Paul Poiret among others. Art Deco mostly relied on collaborations of artists working in different mediums from architects and painters to sculptures and designers and in the Interwar periods it was the most commonly used architectural style, most notably in the United States. Art Deco was first introduced to Americans in 1922, during the Chicago Tribune Headquarters design competition and it became one of the most popular architectural styles in the United States during the first half of the century. Some of the most recognizable buildings in the US like the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center are representable of Art Deco style and patterns in architecture. Described as modernistic, Art Deco style was often confused with Art Moderne.
Although it has lost its popularity after the World War II, Art Deco was revitalized during the sixties and the rise of the consumerist culture. Due to its global visual language and its nature that responds well to the requirements of the mass production, the heritage of this decorative style is still present today, mostly in the field of fashion, product and industrial design. Art Deco paintings and items are also becoming increasingly popular in the art market and this newly found appreciation for the movement lead to the establishment of many Art Deco foundations which continue to work on the restoration and preservation of architectural monuments built at the Art Deco golden ages.
Featured images: Tamara De Lempicka - Self Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1929, detail; Tamara De Lempicka - Portrait of the Marquis d'Afflito, 1925. All images used for illustrative purposes
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