An Introduction to Art Deco

Kumud Sikand on the history of the Art Deco movement

“Art Deco’s ultimate aim was to end the old conflict between art and industry, the old snobbish distinction between artist and artisan, partly by making artists adept at crafts, but still more by adapting design to the requirements of mass production” – Bevis Hillier

Few people who have any knowledge of or interest in fashion or the decorative arts, are unaware of the term – ART DECO; a retrospective term coined by the English art historian Bevis Hillier in 1968, which prior to this was called Style Moderne. The movement denotes a sharper, classier, modernity reflected and defined through a variety of mediums – architecture, the decorative arts, graphics, jewelry, sculpture and fashion that existed from 1909 – 39.  It was not a singular style but a culmination of a number of design ideas and influences that came together and reached its zenith in the interwar period.

    Chrysler building, Manhattan, New York

But how was it and is it defined?

Most of us can probably identify an example of the style of the period.  Architectural icons such as the Chrysler building in New York, The New India Assurance Building in Mumbai, The Metro Cinema Hall in Kolkata, the De la Warr pavilion in Britain and the quintessential “flapper” dresses and cloche hats popular in America and Europe are all excellent examples of Art Deco style.  The roots of Art Deco however lie in the late nineteenth century movement of Art Nouveau, a decadent, stylized art form to which avant-garde groups of artists and designers reacted. The move towards cleaner, classical lines and less decorative craft designs was the preference. ”Art Deco is characterized by a linear, hard edge or angular composition, often with a vertical emphasis and highlighted with stylized decoration” (Blumenson 77). Style Moderne/Art Deco married luxury and function in a versatile design and its widespread applications proved its appeal was based on more than simple visual allure.  Other art movements like Cubism, Expressionism and Fauvism influenced the style. The Russian Ballet, ancient Egypt and American Indian art were also some of the other influences.

The pivotal moment for the style was the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925, a high profile event, to present the evolution of design. In many ways from this exposition emerged, the whole notion of a complete design ethos, not just for the elite as in previous generations but for most of the middle classes. Indeed as the epoch drew to its close at the outbreak of the Second World War, most people had access to Art Deco design whether it was in ready-to-wear fashion, rail or ocean travel or cinema design. Graphics and fine arts however were the two disciplines that not only seemed to encapsulate the Art Deco style but were also the medium for promoting its aesthetic. There is no finer expression of the language of Art Deco in fine art than the paintings of Tamara de Lempicka. Her work expressed many of the design qualities of the era, such as striking hard lines and bold color. She illustrates the new woman of the Art Deco era, independent, emancipated and confident. Worth, Patou and Poiret fashion designers of the time were instrumental in promoting the new look of the shorter length skirts and slim fitting clothes without the stiff corset or pre war bustier. The new freedom of travel by car, plane or ocean liner demanded clothes that would fit the modern lifestyle. The Russian artist and fashion designer Erte, whose delicate and fantastical illustrations for stage costumes and sets did much to promote the Art Deco look in fashion and recapture the intensity and passion of the Ballet Russes.


Portrait of Madame Boucard, 1931
Tamara de Lempicka
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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s (1864-1901), sensational poster depictions of cabaret at the Moulin Rouge in Paris was also the beginnings of the graphic art movement of this period. Linotype and Monotype typefaces corresponded with the emergence of the Art Deco style and graphic posters became the established new way for advertisement.

Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann’s veneered furniture was considered by many to be the highlight of the Exposition 1925. He used rare and decorative woods and veneers to create furniture with bold straight lines and high gloss finished.  A totally different design approach than had been seen before.  The leather goods company Gaston-Louis Vuitton, the silversmith and goldsmith Christofle and the glassmaker Renee Lalique were all exhibitors at the Exposition 1925 and distinctive contributors to the Art Deco style.

With the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression began to spread throughout the globe. Although it would be a few more years before the average family began to feel the effect of the economic downturn, the optimism of the 20’s was beginning to be replaced with somberness. By the mid 1930’s the world had been badly bruised by the Depression and Art Deco was being derided as gaudy and presenting a false image of luxury. With the threat of another world war looming, Art Deco was looked upon more vehemently, and with the outbreak of WWII in 1939, Art Deco was dead.

The 1960’s revival was short lived and the term Art Deco is now once again associated with the original, brilliantly vibrant style which spread from northern Europe to the rest of the world.

Kumud Sikand is an artist and an avid art collector. She received a bachelor’s degree from Moore College of Fine Art, Philadelphia and a diploma in art history from University of Hong Kong. Her works have been exhibited in Indonesia, Hong Kong and Philadelphia. She is a guest contributor on our blog.

View the Saffronart Art Deco Auction Catalogue here.

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