Hispano-Suiza H6 C (1938), © Pixabay
From Art Nouveau to Art Déco
After World War I, while modernist designers struggled to transform society with their utopian ideals, a “spin-off” of modernism took the consumer world by storm. In contrast to the matter-of-fact, unadorned Modernism, elements of avant-garde art such as Futurism, Expressionism, Cubism and Constructivism appeared for the first time as a mass phenomenon.
As Art Nouveau began to wane, French designers belonging to the Société des Artistes Décorateurs realized that the middle class wanted a less radical style as an alternative to abstract modernism. In 1912, the French government agreed to sponsor an international exhibition of decorative arts to encourage French dominance in the field of industrial design. The exhibition, originally planned for 1915, was postponed because of the First World War and did not take place until 1925. Between April and October 1925, the exhibition “Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” took place in Paris with the aim of comprehensively presenting the design art of the time, which attracted over 16 million visitors. The main requirement for participation was that all works should be thoroughly modern – picking up on historical styles was not allowed. That fair gave its style to what is now known as Art Deco.
Eastern Eastern Columbia Building (1930), Los Angeles
In America, the style became known as Modern, Modernistic, Jazz Modern, or Streamline Style, borrowing motifs from North American Indian, Aztec, and Egyptian art. Art Deco artists sought a style that combined simplicity and energy. Even at the worst of the economic depression, the style was associated with glamour, luxury and extravagance.
Elements such as parallel stripes, tapered aerodynamic shapes and the use of modern materials such as aluminum, plastic, black vitrolite glass, etc. made Art Deco the ideal expression of speed and progress.
Art Deco was one of the first mass-produced styles that found acceptance with almost everyone. It was the style of the automobile, the luxury liner and the skyscraper, the fantasy world of Hollywood and the real world of the Harlem Renaissance. Art Deco affected all forms of design, from fine and decorative arts to fashion, film, photography, transportation, and product design.
As a pure style with no ideological charge, Art Deco could be applied to any subject. His distinctive look was independent of national origin. And he was impartial too: both the Italian and German Nazis used him for their propaganda, as did the French communists, the Spanish left and the British socialists. His heroic and futuristic style was equally suited to electrical devices or despotic political regimes. Art Deco’s international dominance ended with the outbreak of World War II.