Art Deco – one of the most enduring design styles

Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann. By Sailko, CC BY 3.0

The Art Deco movement is one of the most popular styles of design, architecture and visual arts, and one of the first truly international movements in the history of design.

It began in 1910 as a reaction of French manufacturers to the simple and clean-lined German Biedermeier style they witnessed when the president of the Paris salon d’Automne, Frantz Jourdan, invited German designers to present from Munich.

Grand Rex movie theatre in Paris (1932).

In 1912 at the Salon d’Automne, the French presented their own style that was highly influenced by movements such as Fauvism, its abundance of bright and flashy colors, and its sharp angles inspired by Cubism.

Furniture in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra – CC BY 2.0

The most influential French designers present were Louis Süe and André Mare, whose furniture designs included expensive and exotic materials, prints, and colorful fabrics.

Their Atelier Française was one of the most famous and prolific French furniture design brands after the World War I.

But it was after the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs Industriels Modernes in 1925 that Le Corbusier wrote a series of articles about the exhibition and shortened the name into Art Deco.

Art Deco combined neoclassicism and Art Nouveau but reflected modern technology and the general belief in progress that came at the end of the WWI. The austerity after the war influenced the initial craving for luxury and opulence.

Desk of Administrator by Michel Roux Spitz, 1930, Photo credit SiefkinDR

The Roaring 20s and enthusiasm of the so-called machine age were demonstrated in the forms of avant-garde movements such as Constructivism and Futurism that also left traces of the extravagant aesthetics of Art Deco.

In contrast, the structures and sharp geometrical shapes were also taken from the ancient architecture of Egypt, Aztec, Babylon, and Greek and Roman Classicism.

Art Deco combined all these principles, creating a style that was purely decorative without any deep philosophical basis.

The famous Decorative Arts Exposition in 1925 gathered all important furniture and interior designers.

One of the most outstanding designers was Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, who was known for his highly sophisticated furniture, using expensive and very rare materials like Brazilian rosewood or ebony.

Some of the most praised, elegant, and timeless pieces of furniture were made by him.

Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Photo credit Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Ruhlmann based his work on models from the 18th century but reshaped and simplified them to conceal the interiors. But above all, they were extremely expensive and made in small numbers.

Aside from him, the other master who brought more novelties was Jules Leleu. He is famous for introducing lacquered furniture in the 20s and in the 30s and using metal and panels of smoked glass.

Salon of Paul Reynaud in Paris (1934).

Other interesting designers include Pierre Lagrain who was famous for African influence; Justin Goodman Frank with his minimalist style; Armand-Albert Rateau, lately being regarded as one of the best interior designers of the 20s; Eileen Gray, a rare female designer; and Americans Paul Frankl and Donald Dosky.

Making furniture in this period was divided into two different schools of thought.

The precise crafting of unique, bespoke pieces for the rich, and on the other hand, those who tried to achieve mass production, by using cheaper materials.

And targeted the middle class as their customers. Art Deco furniture was the epitome of luxury and sleek style.

Furniture by Eileen Gray, Photo credit SiefkinDR

For the first time, marquetry and exotic items like zebra or shark skins were introduced.

The interior design was lavish and grand and featured large and rigid cabinets, gleaming furniture, mirrored surfaces, and oversized beds in the manner of ancient Egyptian or Aztec furniture.

Lacquered and polished pieces with high sheen or inland fabulous wood, ebony veneer tables for dining, sparkling glass chandeliers, and large chrome lamps were all in fashion.

hood ornament “Victoire” by René Lalique (1928). Morio CC BY-SA 3.0

Typical features also included prominent lines and geometric shapes, bright and garish colors such as tangerine orange or cherry red, buttery leathers, and many other luxury embellishments that made an opulent style.

At the peak of the Depression, the luxury of this furniture seemed more and more inappropriate, only to become completely unfitting after World War II. Art Deco became very unpopular.

However, it survived to see a revival in the 60s and again in the 80s with an increasing interest in graphic design. Today, Art Deco pieces are among the most sought after furniture of the 20th century. Examples abound at auctions, antique stores, or furniture retailers.

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In addition, Art Deco ideas about interior design, ornamentation, and decoration of furniture have deeply influenced the development of subsequent styles.