Art Deco was a design movement that appeared in the 1920s and 30s. It was one of the most influential decorative styles of the twentieth century. Initially, it was a luxury style, favoring exquisite craftsmanship and expensive materials, such as ivory, silver, crystal, and jade, characterized by smooth lines, geometric shapes, and rich colors. After the Depression, and with the mass productions of items, cheaper materials like chrome and plastics were often used to create a design style that was functional but also expressed wealth and sophistication.
In 1925, the French government put on an enormous world’s fair in Paris, to showcase the new style moderne of architecture, interior decoration, furniture, glass, jewelry and other decorative arts. With 15,000 exhibitors from twenty different countries, it attracted approximately sixteen million visitors. Named the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (‘International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts’), it became known under the abbreviated name ‘Art Deco’.
Lighting in Art Deco style first appeared in Paris in the 1920s. Wealthy Parisians decorated their homes in the spirit of great elegance, so luxury items were in high demand. They hired ensembliers and artistes decorateurs, interior designers, to redecorate their homes in the style of Art Deco. During this time, stylish lighting was very important in Paris, so there were special exhibitions set up to display innovations in Art Deco lighting. In the 1930s, the exhibition “Salons de la Lumiere” was held five times, even a “Société pour le Perfectionement de l’Éclairage” (Society for the Perfection of Lighting) existed.
As electrical lighting became a more important part of interior decoration, new professions developed – that of lighting designers and lighting engineers. One of them was Edgar Brandt, famous for his detailed and decorative wrought iron work. He formed a partnership with Daum Frères and designed many lighting masterpieces. In this period, more emphasis was placed on the quality and luminosity of the light, rather than the decoration. Certainly, there were still highly decorated light items but the textures of sandblasted, white glass, and enamel produced different light effects.
Another master glassmaker was Rene Lalique, famous for his simple but elegant glass lamps and huge complex chandeliers. Jean Perzel was one of the most creative lighting designers of the Art Deco period. He developed a unique form of glass that was able to spread light evenly. Other popular lighting designers in Paris were Albert Simonet, Albert Cheuret, Maison Desny, Damon, and Eugene.
Art Deco lamps were a mixture of early Bauhaus modernism, ancient Egyptian, African, and Aztec designs. They were beautifully decorated and featured geometric motifs, as well as birds, animals, waterfalls, and intricate starbursts. There were also lamps made of silver or bronze, representing triumphant female figures often holding a ball, probably inspired by the 1928 Olympic Games, when women participated for the first time in the athletics and gymnastics. Art Deco lamps continue to be popular and blend in well with most interior decorating.
With Modernism and the machine age, Art Deco lamps were forced to change their design. So, they were made of chrome, steel, and other bright metals and had white glass. Part of them was even decorated with the new material, Bakelite. The lamps were tall, usually with a square nickel or chrome plated column, with a geometric shape at the top and Torcheres directing the light upwards.
In the USA, the modernist style of lighting appeared around 1926. Among the most successful lighting designers were Donald Deskey, who designed the interior of the Radio City Hall in the Rockefeller Center, and Von Nessen, famous for his original, bright, and stylish lamps.
But as Modernism progressed, it brought more functional styles that were generally accepted and the Second World War marked the ending of the luxurious Art Deco period. However, a lot of decorative lamps still exist today, and people collect Art Deco lighting. Genuine Art Deco pieces can be found at auctions, flea markets, and garage sales and there are also many modern lamps designed as faithful replicas of Art Deco design.