| Art Deco: 1910 - 1939 |
By Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton and Ghislaine Wood
(The buy button will take you to the standard print edition of this book at Amazon.com. From there you will be able to see if the book is also available in large print or audio.)
1 The Style and the Age
Charlotte Benton and Tim Benton
Art Deco is the name given to the 'modern', but not Modernist, twentieth-century style that came to worldwide prominence in the inter-war years and left its mark on nearly every visual medium, from fine art, architecture and interior design, to fashion and textiles, film and photography.
The period was one of dramatic technological change, social upheaval and political and economic crises, of bewildering contrasts and apocalyptic visions. From the 'Roaring Twenties' to the Depression, the inexorable spread of capitalism was mirrored by that of Fascist and Communist totalitarian regimes, while remorseless globalization was accompanied by isolationist nationalism. At the same time, the spread of mass-produced consumer goods, accompanied by the perfection of promotional methods to generate demand, prioritized visual appeal in the seduction of the would-be consumer. From the nouveau riche 'flapper' decorating her Parisian apartment to the struggling farmer in the American Midwest leafing through mail order catalogues for new equipment, hope lay in novelty. Never was fantasy so functionally necessary for survival, whether to industry or the individual.
Part of the fascination of the style lies precisely in its confrontation of new values with old, and in the hint of fragility and tragedy that often lurks behind its glitter themes evocatively portrayed in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby (1925). And, as revolutions in transportation and communication opened up the world, not only to the wealthy traveller but also to the reader of popular magazines or the cinema-goer in Bombay or Budapest, Manhattan or Morecambe, Shanghai or Singapore, the forms of this dream coalesced in Art Deco.
John and Ruth Vassos trenchantly identified both the dream's fundamental frivolity and the ruthless commercial interests that fed it:
Feed the eye, stimulate the imagination, tickle the appetite of the mob with pictures of pretty girls. With pictures of legs ... Weeklies, monthlies, dailies; newspapers, news reels; from the pulpit, from the press, from the editorial pages, from the radio; don't leave a surface untouched ... impress the client - million dollar budgets, human interest, sales pressure, psychology of the consumer, consumer demand. An edifice reaching to the skies, and built on BUNK.
At the same time, their own publications and designs like those of other Deco designers contributed to the fragile 'edifice' whose foundations were laid by the powerful confluence of commerce and desire (plate 1.2). It was symptomatic of this context that Art Deco taste was communicated as much by transitory effects in the 'wave of brilliant colour' of the new shop window displays, or in fashion and advertising as by more durable means. The phenomenon was well expressed by the American critic Edwin Avery Park writing in 1927, 'The new spirit in design is creeping in about the edges. It fastens first upon objects of a transitory and frivolous nature.'
Given that contemporaries themselves associated 'the new spirit in design' with the fleeting, the frivolous and the nakedly commercial, it is perhaps not surprising that some later commentators have doubted whether Art Deco was a style at all: 'The critical re-evaluation of which Art Deco today is the object cannot deny that it consists more of a taste than a style, and this is also responsible for the slippery way it resists theoretical categorization.' On the other hand, Art Deco's first chronicler, Bevis Hillier, confidently asserted, 'With justice ... we can describe it as the last of the total styles.' Yet despite and perhaps even; because of this lack of consensus a vast literature has grown up around the far from transitory legacy of this 'new spirit'. Furthermore, the term 'Art Deco' not only has currency among specialists and enthusiasts but, unusually for a style label, it has resonance for a large lay public. Many people correctly associate the label with the inter-war years and can name examples of Deco designers such as Ren? Lalique or Clarice Cliff.
Not only does the style label exist and have meaning(s), but also it has been attached, cumulatively, to a large and heterogeneous body of artefacts whose sole common denominator seems to lie in their contradictory characteristics. They include works inspired by' but not copied from, historic western high styles or vernacular traditions, and those inspired by 'exotic'' non-western traditions; works inspired by cultures of the far distant past and those inspired by contemporary avant-garde art (plate 1.3); works that are meticulously handcrafted, made of rare and luxurious materials, intended for an elite, and mass-produced designs, made in new, low-cost materials, aimed at the popular market (plates 1.4 and 1.5); works that embrace naturalistic, geometric or abstract surface decoration, and those that have no surface decoration but whose forms are themselves decorative (plates 1.6 and 1.7). And so on. Not for nothing did Martin Greif observe, 'I suspect that the term "Art Deco" should really be "Art Decos" (accent on the plural) and that the term embraces at least ten to fifteen mutually exclusive "styles", each of which (if we take the trouble to observe them carefully) can be separated from the others.' And little wonder that some have drawn the conclusion that Art Deco has neither stylistic nor methodological coherence. As Greif put it: 'We have allowed the term to embrace virtually everything that was produced between the two world wars, from the finest French furniture of Pierre Legrain to the tubes of Tangee lipstick purchased at the local five and dime ... surely there's a world of difference.'
For others, however, Art Deco's very eclecticism has been part of its compelling charm and attraction: 'Art deco was not ... really a "style" in the traditional sense, but a curiously wonderful mixture of several contemporary styles with traditional and popular undercurrents. It is art deco's unusual position somewhere between the high styles of the avantgarde and a fully-fledged conservative attitude that makes it fascinating.' And some have seen the 'curiously wonderful mixture' embraced by the term Art Deco' as an invigorating challenge:
...the term has caught on. It has a certain 'snap' and an energy that is compelling. A ... critical issue is not to define [it] so closely that we close the door on our own interest, but to recognise that we are really interested in studying all forms from the interwar years high art and popular ... 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.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein offers a useful analogy for unravelling Art Deco in his concept of a 'family of resemblances' to explain the word 'games'. Wittgenstein understood the meaning of words as 'a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing'. He pointed out that the word 'game' covers a range of usages that include contradictions (some games have rules, some don't, some involve winning and losing, some don't) and that the very range of these meanings makes the word richer and more useful. Similarly, we might argue that the words 'Art Deco' are richer and more interesting for embracing apparently irreconcilable works, such as an exquisite, handcrafted cabinet by Jacques-Emile Ruhimann and an industrially moulded Bakelite radio (see plate 10.3). Visitors to the first major international manifestation of Art Deco, the Exposition intemationale des arts décoratifs et industnels modernes held in Paris in 1925 (hereafter referred to as the Paris 1925 Exhibition), would have understood precisely what Wittgenstein was getting at. To present-day eyes, the polarities and dissonances that have troubled many later commentators were readily visible in the exhibition displays (see plates 6.15, 12.5, 15.14 and 16.9). Yet contemporaries were struck by their similarities and sense of unity: All the works of art collected here show a family resemblance which cannot fail to be noticed by even the least prepared [visitors].'
Using such perceptions as clues, we can try to identify some of the features that link the apparently antithetical works ascribed to Art Deco. They often refer to historic styles, whether western or nonwestern, but are not literally dependent on them, though they are often respectful of them. They are often influenced by avant-garde art and design yet, unlike these, they make no claim to being disinterested and are, in fact, thoroughly contingent and engaged with the commercial world. But whether inspired by traditional or by avant-garde sources, they have a tendency to simplified form and an absence of three-dimensional, applied ornament. They are 'decorative' even when they do not employ ornament; and they frequently stress 'surface' zvalues or effects. They are often novel or innovative but not radical or revolutionary. They frequently employ new technologies, even when their forms and methods also reference tradition. They often refer, overtly or symbolically, to 'modern' themes, such as youth, liberated sexuality and aspects of contemporary mechanical culture, through a recurrent visual repertoire of frozen fountains, sunbursts and zigzags, and references to electrification, mechanization and transportation. Although it is clear that a strict formalist template is inadequate to interpret the phenomenon, Art Deco artefacts can be seen to employ common elements in their visual language, as well as common themes.
Like most styles, Art Deco was named long after its demise. Although the architect Le Corbusier employed the headline '1925 Expo: Arts Déco' for a series of articles on the decorative arts published in 1925 in his journal L'Esprit nouveau, his use of the diminutive for 'decorative arts' was intended to mock their practice, not to identify a style. The first use of the phrase 'Art Déco' as a style label occurred in France in 1966, in an exhibition titled Les ann?es '25': Art Déco/Bauhaus/Stiql/Espnt Nouveau and its accompanying catalogue. Here the term was used to distinguish French decorative arts of the 1910s and 1920s from those contemporary strands of Modernist design represented by the Bauhaus' De Stijl and the group around L'Esprit nouveau. Reviews of the exhibition gave the phrase some currency outside France, but it was not until two years later that the words Art Deco' were explicitly used to identify a style' when Bevis Hillier published his book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s. Hillier gave cogent reasons for selecting the label and defined Art Deco as:
an assertively modern style, developing in the 1920s and reaching its high point in the 1930s ... a classical style in that, like neo-classicism but unlike Rococo or Art Nouveau, it ran to symmetry rather than asymmetry, and to the rectilinear rather than the curvilinear; it responded to the demands of the machine and of new materials ... [and] the requirements of mass production.
Three years later, he refined this definition, identifying two main strands:
the feminine, somewhat conservative style of 1925, chic, elegant, depending on exquisite craftsmanship and harking back to the eighteenth century; and the masculine reaction of the thirties, with its machineage symbolism and use of new materials like chrome and plastics in place of the old beaux-arts materials such as ebony and ivory...
Between them, the 1966 exhibition and Hillier's texts established the key if contradictory characteristics, as well as the chronological parameters (c.1910-39), of Art Deco.
Early authors followed Hillier in identifying the style with a trend in the French decorative arts that was expressed most clearly at the Paris 1925 Exhibition. Some of these, including Martin Battersby, insisted that the term Art Deco properly applied only to the historicizing variant of this trend or 'modernized traditional', as we have called it elsewhere in this book which was largely eclipsed after 1925 by the spread of the non-historicist variant - or 'decorative Modernism'' as we have sometimes called it here. But, whereas the identification of Art Deco with French luxury production of the l910s and 1920s has been sustained by several French writers, most later authors, especially Americans, acknowledge the significance of this work to the evolution of the style, but follow Hillier in attaching the term to a much wider range of productions. Typically, they include both luxury and popular goods, from the whole inter-war period, and from countries other than France. These critics see the style as following a trajectory from 'rich Parisian beginnings pure, highstyle Art Déco to ... jazy, Streamline Moderne American offshoots'.
Architecture is often central to this more inclusive view of Art Deco, which was given a boost by the conservation movement that emerged in America in the 1970s and focused on the rehabilitation of popular buildings of the 1920s and 1930s. Cinemas, theatres, skyscrapers and many public works buildings of this era, which had been all but ignored in the three decades following the Second World War, were now seen to embody core American values. The numerous Art Deco societies that sprang up in major American cities at this time became powerhouses for the promotion of the style in the United States. And, as popular publications and exhibitions raised public awareness of Art Deco, the label came to be applied to an increasingly vast cultural terrain' both in America and elsewhere. It was used to designate anything with a 'period' feel that looked 'modern', to appeal to a nostalgia for the frivolity and stylishness of the era, and to be associated with the lifestyle values of fashionable figures of the period, such as Josephine Baker, Cecil Beaton and Noël Coward.
Before going further, we must ask how and why 'Art Deco' as a style label came to be invented in the mid- to late 1960s. Hillier was writing soon after an interest in the decorative arts of the inter-war period had begun to gain currency among private collectors, dealers, museum curators, graphic designers and television and film directors. By this time, the Art Nouveau revival had consumed itself and was, anyway, vieux jeu to the increasingly style conscious youth of the day. Fashion pundits began to predict that the next trend would be based on the Twenties and Thirties, and new galleries sprang up, or existing ones were converted, to cater to, and stimulate, the new taste. Soon museum curators began to dust down long neglected groups of objects acquired during the 1920s and 1930s or chase after new acquisitions to reflect the developing interest. At the same time, surviving patrons and Deco designers were rediscovered and fêted; and leading auction houses began to realize vast prices for quality pieces from the estates of such collectors and designers. By the early 1970s the Art Deco phenomenon had well and truly taken off. And, in 1971, when a 'gargantuan' exhibition, The World of Art Deco with over 4,000 objects was shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, its catalogue was designed in a neo-Deco style. Mirroring the commercial origins of the style, the study of Art Deco had become inextricably bound up with its merchandizing. For some, this rapid commodification of Art Deco was thoroughly distasteful and marked it out definitively as a child of its time.
In Europe and America the late 1960s was a period of rapid social and cultural change, with growing scepticism of establishment values, the emergence of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement, the cult of youth conspicuously represented by the success of pop groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the rise of the 'counter-culture'. Neo-Deco graphic design captured the mood. In these and subsequent years many of the intellectual orthodoxies of the post-war period would be challenged. In architecture and design, and in their respective histories, criticisms of Modernism began to be voiced, targeting its perceived formalist aridity and progressive loss of social idealism. These criticisms, together with the emergence of what would come to be designated 'Post-modernism', helped nourish an appreciation of Art Deco's formal richness, variety and inventiveness, as well as its popular associations. Some of the most ardent supporters of the re-evaluation of Art Deco in America were the architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, who were early champions of the conservation of Art Deco buildings in New York and Miami Beach (plate 1.8). David Gebhard has nicely captured the complementary relationship between Modernist and Art Deco taste:
During the decades of the 1940s through the 1960s no aspect of architecture was held more in disdain than that of the Art Deco of the 1920s and 1930s. Ant Deco, the popularised modern of those decades, was either ignored by our major architects and writers, or it was dismissed as an unfortunate, obviously misguided effort: the sooner forgotten the better. Those who exposed [sic] high art modernism during the thirty years from 1940 to 1970 condemned the Art Deco [sic] for preserving too many traditional architectural values, for being too concerned with the decorative arts and popular symbolism, and for being too compromising in its acceptance of the imagery of high art modern architecture of the twenties and thirties. All of these accusations against the Art Deco were true the difference today is that we are inclined to feel that all of these qualities which were looked on so disdainfully were, in fact' assets, not defects.
In Britain and elsewhere, the New Left, now critical of Modernism, contributed a theoretical underpinning to the new celebration of popular culture, notably through its re-presentation of texts on mass culture from the inter-war years by members of the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Nourished by such trends, design history emerged as a discrete discipline in the 1970s, questioning the dominant Modernist accounts of inter-war design, rejecting Modernism's narrow 'canon' and substituting approaches that, in legitimating the study of popular artefacts, offered support in principle to the academic study of Deco. And in America, the spread of American studies and material culture studies provided a solid base for the study of popular visual culture.
Despite the development of an auspicious framework for the serious study of Art Deco in its popular incarnation, surprisingly few scholars gave extended attention to the style in their own publications. One who did was Gedhard, whose study of the Californian Moderne defined distinct tendencies within Art Deco and located these in a meaningful and consistent critical terminology derived from the period. Gebhard designated as 'Moderne' those works that represented an important strand in American inter-war architecture and displayed elements of Modernism but would be rejected by 'serious' Modernist architects (or architectural historians). He also used the term 'Streamline Moderne' to differentiate modern commercial and entertainment buildings from those of 'avant-garde' (or 'dyed-in-the-wool') Modernists. He distinguished both from the 'Zigzag Moderne' of the 1920s, which was influenced by the Paris 1925 Exhibition, and from the 'WPA Moderne' of American public buildings of the New Deal era. Although Gedhard himself was reluctant to use the term Art Deco, other authors began to employ a similar terminology to characterize distinct tendencies within the style. In the inter-war years, the terms 'Moderne' and 'modernistic' had often been used disparagingly, to denote 'false' modernity, or 'imitation' Modernism. Now, however, they came to be used in a positive sense, particularly by American authors, to identify popular inter-war expressions of modernity in architecture and design, of the type that stands somewhere between Modernism and the various expressions of classicism current in the period.
Knowledge and judgment must play a part in establishing the boundaries of what is and is not Deco, as well as in attributing works to particular categories of Deco. Such judgments depend on deciding what role intention plays, and whether the sources or precedents referenced in the design have been sufficiently transformed by new materials, new formal ideas and new techniques of production to achieve a synthesis of a type to justify the label Art Deco. In the case of architecture, 'WPA Moderne', 'stripped classical' or 'modernized classical' Art Deco buildings typically incorporate Deco ornamental features and decorative details but also frankly express their modern steel or concrete structure in large expanses of plain wall surfaces and large windows. But the issue of intention is complex. Art Deco as we have characterized it so far, including 'decorative Modernism', can be distinguished from Modernism by the latter's stated aims, which were utopian and emancipatory.43 And yet works that have been generally accepted as Modernist are frequently included in books on Art Deco, or employed in other media to connote Art Deco attributes. As an example, Highpoint One, a Modernist apartment block in Highgate, London, was designed in 1935-6 by the Georgian-born architect Berthold Lubetkin. Its vestibule with glazed bricks, cream-painted surfaces and terrazo planters has featured in many soft focus filmic recreations of Thirties England, in which it is read as a stylish Art Deco interior (plate 1.10). Yet although the vestibule's visual attributes match the stereotype of Deco, the architect's intentions were very different; it was designed as a 'social condenser', intended to instill a sense of collective (as opposed to individual) identity in the apartments' inhabitants. Other Modernist designs have also lent themselves to similar interpretations. The well known chaise-lounge by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand (1928), with its chromed tubular steel frame, its sensuous, anthropomorphic curves and its luxurious cowhide covering, can be seen as Art Deco, though it was intended by its creators as a rationalist design capable of mass production (plate 1.9).
In part, these contradictory readings result from the way works were seen at the time. But they also result from present-day debates over the necessity and value of considering questions of intention and conditions of production in interpreting works of art and design. In one view, knowledge of the original conditions of production and intention is irrelevant to understanding, which can interpret the work of the past as it chooses. The opposite view holds, however, that richness, complexity and depth of understanding are lost unless the voice of the author and an awareness of time, place and cultural resonance are incorporated within the processes of reinterpretation that necessarily take place as succeeding generations consume the productions of the past.
Where, then, do this book and its related exhibition stand and what is their particular contribution? They assume that Art Deco is properly applied, as a style label, to a 'family' of works from the l910s and the inter-war years whose purpose was decorative. The approach, therefore, is inclusive as to form, medium and place, presenting a rich and varied mix of fine and decorative arts, architecture, sculpture, fashion, film, photography and industrial design from all over the world. The genie long ago escaped from the bottle and it no longer makes sense to deny the use of the term Art Deco to works that have been identified as such in countless magazines, books and exhibitions. The formal and typological diversity of the style is considered a positive quality, rather than an indication of its ideologically inconsistent nature, and one that presents an intriguing challenge. In this perspective, Hillier's belief that it is 'wise to use one name Art Deco', and his view of the underlying 'continuity and essential unity' of the style, has seemed preferable to Greif's plural 'Art Decos', or Gebhard's various categories of 'Moderne', however locally useful these distinctions might be.
Often seen as a reaction against Art Nouveau and the Secession style, Art Deco is considered here as, in many respects, their successor. The formal legacy of the earlier style, principally transmitted by the cubic forms and flat, geometricized or abstract ornament employed by Viennese and other designers in the early 1900s (see plate 10.2), is readily visible in Art Deco, but so, too, is the fascination with stylized naturalistic decoration. The interest in the 'exotic' to be found in Art Nouveau is also a significant constituent of Art Deco. Furthermore, correspondences between Art Nouveau and Art Deco can be glimpsed in less tangible qualities. The 'varied visions' characteristic of the earlier style are defining features of Art Deco; and, like Art Nouveau, Art Deco has proved a 'multi-facetted, complex phenomenon that defied then and now any attempt to reduce it to singular meanings and moments'.
Like Art Nouveau, Art Deco as well as its contemporary and rival, Modernism was a response to, and nurtured by, the new technologies, social change and initiatives towards cultural modernization of its age. Like Art Nouveau, too, Art Deco fused ideas of the 'universal' with the 'local', though it significantly extended the boundaries of the former with its borrowings from the far distant past and from far-flung cultures. In contrast to Art Nouveau, Art Deco was not permeated by a belief in the redemptive value of art; nevertheless it was, to a large extent, premised on the notion that modern artistic ideas could be used to palliate even 'streamline' the interface between the consumer and the workings of the market-place. It was a pragmatic style rather than a utopian one in the sense in which the work of the designers of the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau and Modernism was utopian. And yet, in a period in which notions of 'the collective' came increasingly to be associated with totalitarian regimes, Art Deco's address to the 'individualism' of desire however illusory we can see this to have been, in an age when mass production and the techniques of manipulating consumer desire were significantly extended could be seen to stand for democratic values.
The first section of this book addresses the strikingly various sources on which Art Deco drew, ranging from the artefacts of ancient and distant cultures such as those of Egypt and Africa via the historic high styles and vernacular traditions of nineteenth-century Europe, to contemporary European avant-garde art. This bewildering variety of sources, and the apparent insouciance with which many Art Deco designers raided them for purely novel effects, has tended to confirm perceptions of the style as lacking coherence. And yet, as these essays collectively demonstrate, there was a consistent underlying impulse to these activities. Like their Modernist colleagues, Art Deco designers were acutely conscious of those features of the early twentieth-century world that qualitatively and quantitatively distinguished it from earlier periods. And they became increasingly aware that the conventions of western post-Renaissance visual culture could not be infinitely 'modernized' and meaningfully reconciled with the new products and typologies of an increasingly mechanized and mass culture. In looking to 'exotic' and ancient cultures, or the 'new vision' of contemporary avant-garde art, Art Deco designers were able to find forms and motifs with which to renew their decorative vocabulary. As importantly, however, they were able to find the means of liberating themselves, of thinking 'outside the box', in order to respond to the new design problems with which they were daily confronted. Furthermore, these ancient and otherwise distant sources proved to have associations that perfectly meshed with the popular tastes of the period for youthful energy, glamour, luxury and the hint of danger. Contemporary perceptions of astonishing congruencies between the ancient and the modern worlds, as of East and West, go some way to explaining the otherwise puzzling phenomenon of the huge popular interest that attended some of the discoveries of the arcane worlds of archaeology and anthropology of the era.
As a coda to this first section, the distinctive 'language' or'languages' of Art Deco are explored in essays that, respectively, focus on the recurrent iconographical and decorative repertoire of the style and on one of its most distinctive 'dialects', that of 'the exotic'. Both essays show how the distinctive themes, images and associations of early European Art Deco, developed mainly in the context of elite consumption, had resonance for a much wider spectrum of contemporary society and in very different contexts. They also show that although Art Deco took on new, local, inflections as it spread, and was sometimes radically transformed, many of its central themes and motifs transcended geographical and cultural boundaries and ethnic differences.
The second section focuses on France. The rise of the style is seen as a response to challenges increasingly frequent from the mid-nineteenth century onwards to French authority in matters of style, taste and quality of production, as a result of which France's once world-beating luxury industries had lost their competitive edge. The key strategies that the French adopted to counter this state of affairs, culminating in the Paris 1925 Exhibition, are identified. These included efforts to 'construct' a 'modern' style through the reworking of national traditions; the provision of better infrastructural support; and a selective emphasis on the promotion of those categories of production notably fashion and film that could be associated with both 'Frenchness' and 'modernity'. Also underlined here is the significance of new techniques of merchandizing, represented to great effect in the 1925 Exhibition by the jewel-like vitrines of luxury goods boutiques and by the pavilions of the leading French department stores.
The third section explores Art Deco in many of the European countries that participated in the 1925 Exhibition, as well as in different genres. The essays on countries show that similar processes of modernization occurred Europe-wide, though at varying speeds and inflected by nationally or regionally distinct debates, practices and tastes. The modernization of historic high styles often those with specifically national and bourgeois associations was also a common feature (plate 1.11). Contemporary social themes found their way alike into Italian ceramic design, the figurative decoration of Scandinavian glassware and the mannered stylizations of porcelain figurines for German and Austrian manufacturers. The 'exotic', too, was a recurrent theme' whether in designs for metalwork, furniture or silk batik wall hangings in the Netherlands, or in Austrian textiles (see plates 7.4 and 15.15). And the influence of avant-garde art, seen from an early date in Czechoslovak ceramics and furnishings and in Italian textiles (see plates 16.3 and 19.1), also appeared in German ceramic and metalwork designs and in Scandinavian work (see plates 15.4 and 17.8). In most of these countries, too, the modernization of the stylized, abstract (or abstracted) motifs of 'popular' vernacular traditions also contributed significantly to early Deco, particularly in Central Europe and Scandinavia (see plates 16.7,16.9 and 17.11). Britain, however, appears to stand slightly apart from the countries of continental Europe. Here the Arts and Crafts ethic retained a strong influence and when the modernistic strand of Deco began to influence commercial production in the late 1920s and early 1930s it met with fierce criticism. To present-day eyes, however, the type of mass-produced ceramics that then attracted criticism now appear as thoroughly authentic expressions of the style. Furthermore, in the hands of architects and designers such as Raymond McGrath, Oliver Bernard, Oliver Hill, Edward McKnight Kauffer and Syrie Maugham, or in the cinema designs of the Odeon chain, Art Deco in Britain found undeniably stylish and convincing expression in both up-market and more popular contexts.
The essays on genres address Art Deco in architecture, fashion, jewellery, photography, graphics, bookbinding and book jackets. From these it is clear that the characteristics of Art Deco may be configured differently and given different emphases in different genres, and also that the style may be constituted as much by an attitude, a look, an approach, or a context as by definable formal features. And yet, there are many common characteristics. An interest in the use of colour for striking decorative effect can be found in the bold detailing of New York skyscrapers as well as in the bright colours or dramatic monochromes used by Parisian couturieres or high-class jewellers. Exotic themes and motifs are often found as in the Egyptian references that appeared not only in fashion but also in graphics, architecture and bookbindings. The influence of avant-garde art can also be seen in architectural decoration, in the backdrops and raking angles employed by photographers, in the motifs used to decorate fine bindings, in poster designs, and in the 'collage' techniques employed by couturiers.
In several genres, luxury materials expressive of the surface glitter and hedonistic tastes of the age were used in fine bookbindings, for example, or in jewellery that employed rare and brilliant oriental stones in dramatic new settings. New materials, expressive of new technologies, were increasingly used for both practical purposes and their inherent decorative qualities in Art Deco buildings. Other kinds of new or 'alternative' materials were used to achieve bold new effects of colour or scale in jewellery. And the fascination of the age with the qualities of materials is also seen in new photographic processes, such as solarization, and in the portrayal of the metallic glitter or shiny smoothness of contemporary couture fabrics in fashion photography (see plates 23.16 and 25.10).
There was also the fascination of that other rapidly developing new 'material' artificial light that was present everywhere. It is to be seen not only in photographs on the theme of electricity, or in the dramatic raking light effects used in fashion and advertising photography, but also in the widespread use of artificial lighting for the purposes of publicity and display, and in architecture (plate 1.12).
From around 1925, there was an increasing tendency for the style so far largely associated with luxury production and the individual client to be adapted to mass production and a popular market. And Art Deco was rapidly adopted by genres (such as advertising graphics and film) and typologies (such as the cinema) that were themselves identified with a mass audience. By the mid-1920s, too, a hint of streamlining had appeared in European Deco. It could be seen not only in the abstracted, shiny forms of the 'new mannequin' but also in the clothes associated with the garçonne look and in the new types of jewellery that developed in response to these new, contoured fashions in dress and hairstyling (see plate 24.9). Streamlined forms also began to be represented in other genres, such as photography; and, by the early 1930s, streamlined forms rather than decorative detail increasingly defined the architectural expression of Art Deco (see plate 22.5).
Many of the essays on genres indicate that, from the mid-1920s, Art Deco was an increasingly worldwide phenomenon. They touch on the mechanisms by which the style was transmitted and identify some of the transformations it underwent in the process. The essays in the fourth section survey more systematically Art Deco's spread to countries, regions and continents far distant from its place(s) of origin. They are introduced by essays on those key elements of contemporary culture transport and Hollywood film that were powerfully suggestive of the telescoping of geographical distance and cultural difference. Their own design was influenced by Art Deco; they stood for the twin poles of Art Deco's association with both elite and mass culture; and they themselves became a powerful means of the transmission of the style.
In devoting substantial space to Art Deco in America, we have followed the conventional view that it was here that Art Deco made the widest popular impact and saw its most significant transformation. There are other reasons for this emphasis, however. During the inter-war years, America came to represent 'the prototype of modernity' for peoples over the world. It also came to be seen, both by many of those countries still under the sway of European imperial powers yet beginning to nurture ambitions for independence and by those already liberated from colonialism, as the exemplar of a former European colony that had begun to develop a distinctive independent culture while also emerging as a world power. Many of these countries and regions now looked to America as well as Europe for symbols of modernity with which to express their own cultural and economic aspirations, finding them as much in the iconic imagery of Manhattan as in Paris couture (plate 1.13).
The means by which the style was transmitted were several. The Paris 1925 Exhibition was widely reported by official delegations and the foreign press both popular and specialist; in addition, albums of high quality photographs and pochoir prints, some devoted to the exhibition, others focusing on particular métiers, were circulated widely. Travelling exhibitions of French decorative arts were sent abroad. Many foreign artists, architects and designers became familiar with the new tendencies at first hand, through visiting the exhibition or through studies or travel in Europe. Wealthy clients whether from America, India or Japan could (and did) buy or commission work direct from Paris. And department stores, as well as new boutiques and specialist galleries, were quick to promote the style. Several French designers were hired as consultants, by foreign concerns, particularly in America. Although they were not always successful in translating their ideas to new contexts, they pointed the way for local designers to adapt the style. Emigration was another important factor. Successive waves of European designers settled in America and contributed to the development of Art Deco, while in Australia, India, Latin America and China migrant architects, artists and designers American as well as European played a significant role in its spread. And everywhere the style was also transmitted through the medium of Hollywood film.
In the first instance, the spread of Art Deco was often associated with European or Europeanized elites. This was the case in Latin America; in India where the style was associated both with princely patrons and with an outward-looking urban business elite; in Shanghai, where it was associated with the activities of the Anglo-American business community; and in South Africa, where it came to represent the developing industrial interests of the white elite. In Japan it came to be associated with a particularly Japanese view of modernity. And yet, especially through the cinema (as represented by the combination of cinema buildings, films, promotional posters and fanzines), Art Deco also increasingly reached popular audiences and penetrated beyond major urban centres. It was seen as a means to 'modernize main street' in small towns all over Depression America; its forms and decoration were to be found in buildings for the poor (as well as the rich) in Latin America; and its familiar motifs such as the stylized sunburst penetrated to remote villages in India.
There were several predisposing factors for Art Deco's global spread. One of the strongest was its association of 'modernity' with cosmopolitanism and high fashion, as well as with commerce and new technologies. Another was its emphasis on the decorative, especially in countries or regions with strong decorative traditions. In these contexts it often proved more 'user friendly' than its austere, anti-decorative cousin Modernism. Its individualist rather than collectivist emphasis, as well as its associations with commerce and communications, made it attractive not only in America but also in Japan, where modernization was closely associated with a new sense of individualism. The style's for eclecticism and lack of prescriptive theory also allowed it to accommodate a wide range of local regional traditions and practices without losing its essential character. So, while Art Deco's distinctive repertoire of frozen fountains, stylized floral and animal decoration, zigzag motifs and sunbursts, found its way all over the world, these motifs could easily be substituted or supplemented and 'naturalized' by similarly stylized abstract and naturalistic motifs with local or regional meanings, ancient and modern.
In America, the vocabulary of Deco was at first 'naturalized' through references to the imagery and culture of the modern metropolis in the use of skyscraper forms and motifs, and in angular decoration suggestive of the syncopated rhythms of jazz. In Australia and New Zealand, native flora and fauna and Aboriginal and Maori motifs made an appearance. In Latin America, the abstract, geometric forms of European Deco, sometimes themselves inspired by the culture of the region, were exchanged for similar motifs with local resonance, drawn from indigenous native culture. In India, Art Deco was used both to modernize local or regional decorative conventions and, in its streamlined form, to express a sense of international modernity (plate 1.14). And in Japan an awareness of the powerful influence of the orient on recent European styles eased Art Deco's translation into an authentically modern 'national' style (plate 1.15). In America, a second phase of naturalization occurred in the Depression years, with the widespread application of streamlining, not only to means of transportation, where it had at least notionally a scientific rationale, but also to architecture and the design of a wide range of consumer goods (plate 1.16). In the context of styling, streamlining allowed designers to reinvent the decorative without recourse to ornament.
As Art Deco spread, it became associated with many of the genres and typologies already familiar from its European incarnation notably graphics, fashion and textiles, new types of consumer goods and the architecture of commerce and pleasure. But the distinct modernizing agendas of different countries and regions gave it new types of meanings. In several countries it came to be associated with 'official' culture. In Europe with the exception of France this had rarely been the case.
Art Deco is a complex style, but as this book shows, it is by no means resistant to conventional methods of categorization and interpretation, despite the difficulties posed by its formal eclecticism and the variety of genres it encompassed. The problems of overlap between Art Deco and Modernism and Art Deco and other contemporary styles are not altogether resolved here. But they were not resolved by contemporaries either, as is strikingly demonstrated in the interiors commissioned by the Maharaja of Indore for his palace, Manik Bagh, where 'decorative Modernist' designs sat cheek by jowl with what we may now have to learn to call 'Modernist decorative' designs. What we hope to have done, however, is to provide a study that takes Art Deco seriously across the spectrum of its lifespan and stylistic forms, and offers some signposts to ways of understanding both the variety and the unity of this complex phenomenon. In claiming this as a serious enterprise, however, it should be emphasized that - almost uniquely among art historical styles - some of Art Deco's most persistent meanings are to be found in fantasy and fun.
Excerpted from Art Deco: 1910 - 1939, by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton and Ghislaine Wood . Copyright (c) 2003 by The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top