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Art Deco


Set of dishes with Tutenkhamen inspired designs and colours by Enoch Boulton

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what is art deco? a short historical introduction
art deco motifs and trends
motif and other design sources
fine and applied arts
architecture and interior design
end notes
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what is art deco? a short historical introduction

Art Deco is a popular international design movement that started in the early 1900s as a reaction, a rebellion, against the decorated swirls and ornament of Art Nouveau.

While Art Nouveau‘s swooping curved lines were pervasive and dominant, Art Deco used geometric shapes, as well as streamlined and minimal arcs. Another contrast between the two styles was that Art deco artists designed their works to be mass-produced, Art Nouveau works had been handmade and crafted, often using exotic and rare materials.

The design movement of Art Deco began as an amalgam of many different styles and movements of the early 20th century, including including Art Nouveau, Constructivism, Cubism, Modernism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and Futurism. Essentially, Art Deco was a modernisation process of many artistic styles and themes from the past: Far and Middle Eastern design, Greek and Roman themes, as well as those of ancient Egypt and Maya.

1930s table with speed lines. Image: modernism.com

This modernisation stylised machine patterns and shapes such as gears and wheels, and natural objects such as sunrays and flowers. A meta-style evolved that could be characterised as ‘Speed’ - streamlining was paramount, while parallel lines indicating speed were on buildings and every day objects, such as cars, locomotives, furniture and kitchen equipment.

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Poster for the 1925 Exposition des arts décoratifs et industrielsThe Art Deco movement derives from the title of the seminal Paris World Fair exhibition held between April and October 1925, the Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels. Here, over 16 million visitors were introduced to the concept of industrial and interior designers. The architect Le Corbusier designed the Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau.

Galeries Lafayette pavilion advertising flyer.

Maurice Dufrêne, head of interior design for the Galeries Lafayette and Primavera chain of department stores, who compiled the catalogue of interior design exhibits at the 1925 Expo, said: “The domain of 1900 art was fantasy, while that of 1925 is the domain of reason.”

However, during the exposition, two trends dominated: the first influenced by the language of Art Nouveau - the Sybaritic trend, and the second distinguishing itself by an innovative vocabulary borrowed from cubism and Russian constructivism - the revolutionary trend.

From its early days after World War One, Art Deco developed and grew so the 1925 exhibition showed a great coherence of design. Its commercial popularity enabled designers and manufacturers to promote the Art Deco style well into the 1930s.

In both Britain and the United States of America, the 1930s were the period when Art Deco matured, with many buildings and other artifacts made in Art Deco style.

Thus, towns newly developed during this period often incorporated much Art Deco architecture and styling, a smaller example being the French town of Morcenx, where all the central municipal buildings were but in 1937.

As a term, Art Deco was coined by by art historian Bevis Hillier. He later popularised the phrase in his book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s, published in 1968.

During the 1920s and 30s, this design style was generally known as the Style Moderne or Art Moderne, or sometimes Zigzag modern or Jazz modern. These latter terms reflect the geometric lines, novel until the 1920s, that became well established in the 1930s.

art deco motifs and trends


Based on mathematical, geometric shapes, many Art Deco designs and patterns were influenced by a variety of sources:

primitive: Africa, Ancient Egypt, and Aztec Mexico, exotic woods
modern: Machine Age, streamline technology, aviation, electric lighting, radio, ocean liners, skyscrapers
man-made materials, embodying the machine: particularly glass and stainless steel, as well as Bakelite. Designs were driven by the needs of machines and production-line manufacture, not just by artistic creativity

In contrast to Art Nouveau’s organic, flowing curves and asymmetries, Art Deco motifs were based on symmetry, repetition, geometric shapes, jazz-age zigzags, vertical lines as captured in stylised frozen fountains, speeding cars.

The designers incorporated various distinctive yet simple, geometric motifs, constrained with:

  • stepped and zigzag forms
  • sunbursts, often as a rising sun with broad rays
  • multi-striped decorative elements
  • vertical lines
  • much black decoration, combined with
  • vivid colours, especially orange and black
  • chrome-plated metals
  • neon and other modern lighting forms

other design sources

Art Deco assimilated and incorporated events such as the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter, who was sponsored by Lord Carnarvon.

fine and applied arts

Art deco was applied and incorporated into all aspects of the visual life, whether fine arts - paintings and sculpture, or the applied arts of architecture, furniture, machines, textiles and clothing, or household goods.

fine arts

Starry Night over the Rhône by Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Image: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Starry Night over the Rhône
by Vincent van Gogh, 1888.
Image: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Two artists who are closely associated with the transition of Art Nouveau to Art Deco were Vincent Van Gogh and Piet Mondrian. Note that Mondrian was very interested in jazz music, listening to much boogie-woogie and naming some of his later paintings after this music style.

Piet Mondrian - Composition No. 12 with Blue (1936 - 1942 )
Composition No. 12 with Blue (1936 - 1942 ) by Piet Mondrian

Boogie Woogie New York by Piet Mondrian, 1941
Boogie Woogie New York by Piet Mondrian, 1941

The transition from Art Nouveau to more modern painting was embodied in a great energy and spontaneity on one hand, and a calm, geometric stylisation on the other. These, perhaps, reflected the two trends described above and in other pages - the revolutionary and the sybaritic.

applied arts

Jazz Teapot by Clarice Cliff Flapper by Enoch Boulton
Jazz ginger jar by Eric Boulton. Image: V&A Museum

Art Deco was an all-encompassing style that was seen not just on a large-scale of buildings, but also in smaller, everyday objects.

Zigzag desk box. Image: unknown

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Sarreguemines, situated in the province of Lorraine near Germany, had been making ceramic objects of all sorts since the late 1700s. A famous factory, Endeve, made many decorative items of tableware, as well as these extraordinary clock sets for putting above your living or dining room fireplace. Endeve made about thrirty different designs, often in more than one colour way. The Majolica part of the name refers to the moulded surfaces and colorful lead glazes, originally a style that had been popular in Europe during the second half of the 19th century.

A Sarreguemines Majocia mantel clock set, 1925

Poster advertising voyages on the ocean liner Normandie

architecture and interior design

Art Deco style was, and is, included in all aspects of living, indoors and outdoors, on land and sea. Although the ocean liner Normandie is perhaps the best known sea-going icon of the interwar period, it was the Ile de France which was fitted out entirely with Art Deco interiors.

The Ninth Floor restaurant, Eaton’s, Montreal. Image: erudit.org
The Ninth Floor restaurant, Eaton’s, Montreal. Image: erudit.org

Lady Flora McCrea Eaton was the wife of a multimillionaire whose assets included a large department store in Montreal. When the building was expanded, Mrs Eaton based the design of the new ninth floor restaurant on the first class dining hall in her favourite liner, Ile de France. This magnificient example of Art Deco interior design still exists, though mothballed and slowly deteriorating. The room is 40 by 23 metres, its ceiling being 14-metre high. The Ninth Floor seated 650 diners.

The Ile de France was eventually sunk when being used as a floating prop in a 1960 disaster film.

First class dining room on the Ile de France ocean liner, from souvenier carnet 1927
First class dining room on the Ile de France ocean liner,
from souvenir carnet 1927

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Often, Art Deco architecture is typified by the great interwar buildings of New York, such as the Rockefeller Centre or Radio City Hall. Other, less known centres of Art Deco buildings are in the Antipodes - in Australia and New Zealand.

Napier, on New Zealand’s North Island, is a near coherent Art Deco town.

“Napier township was originally surveyed and laid out in the 1850s. Most of the town centre was destroyed on 3 February 1931 by a major earthquake (measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale) and the ensuing fires.”[1]

The quake resulted in 256 deaths.

This earthquake led to the rebuilding of Napier and its fine heritage of Art Deco building.

National Tobacco Company/Rothman's Building, Napier. Image:
National Tobacco Company/Rothman’s Building, Napier.

The building illustrated above was originally owned by the National Tobacco Company. When bought out by Rothman’s, the name on the facade changed to Rothman’s, but was returned to the original name after Rothman’s merger with British American Tobacco in 1999.


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The two main architectural trends are examined further in Art deco - sybaritic trend and Art deco - revolutionary trend. Art deco in France looks at the effect of this coherent style in France, particularly in the South West.

end notes

  1. Quoted from UNESCO Napier Art Deco historic precinct page. This district has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
    “Napier can be compared with a number of other Art Deco towns of the same era. Prominent examples include Miami Beach and Santa Barbara in the USA [Art Deco Napier, being a seaside resort, has some similarities with these US towns], Bandung, Indonesia (originally planned as the future capital of Java), and Asmara in Eritrea (built by the Italians as a model colonial city). None would surpass Napier in style and coherence.”

  2. 1923 porcelain suprematist porcelain plate by Kasimir Malevich. Image: ragoarts.com Russian constructivism was also known as deconstructivism and suprematism. Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) was one of its best known exponents.

  3. Le Corbusier is the pseudonym of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret. Le Corbusier was an adaptation of his maternal grandfather’s surname: Lecorbésier.

  4. Ekco Model AC-97 bakelite wireless receiver, 1936 Bakelite:
    The world’s very first, totally synthetic, thermosetting plastic, formed from equal parts of phenol and formaldehyde, with an alkaline catalyst, under heat and pressure to make polyoxybenzylmethyl-englycolanhydride. A thermosetting resin keeps its original shape once formed. Bakelite was patented in 1907 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian chemist living in the USA.

    Being heat, moisture and chemical resistant, as well as a good electrical insulator, Bakelite was much used industrially for electrical and telecommunications equipment. The addition of pigments opened the door to its use for toys, jewellery, kitchenware and other household items.

  5. A Sybarite was a native of Sybaris, in ancient Greece, whose inhabitants were notorious for their love of luxury and luxurious living.

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