ART DECO is a truly international term, common parlance in any language you care to mention and with an entry in every dictionary. Key in 'Art Deco' on your web browser and you will come up with 495,000 options. But ask six different people what they understand by the term and you will get six very different answers. Art Deco is popular but ill defined. Earlier this year in a three month period a record 350,000 people visited the Art Deco show at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It has been hailed as their most popular show ever. Even if one doesn't really know what the term signifies it is generally thought to refer to something jazzy, streamlined, modern and sort of sexy.
As this exhibition at the Millinery Works demonstrates it is a lot of fun and embraces many different attitudes to design and decoration, all of them in some way related to the aesthetics of modern living during the 1920s and 1930s. This period between the two World Wars witnessed emancipation on all fronts, in fashion, in society, in architecture, in art and in the decorative arts. Hemlines went up and down like fever charts; society loosened up with cocktails; art, architecture, design and the decorative arts veered between unadulterated luxury, radical chic and radical reform. Nobody could quite decide what modern was.
Paris witnessed an extraordinary outburst of creativity in the arts and was the undisputed fashion, art and design capital of the world. Art Deco is just a borrowed French abbreviation of 'Arts Décoratifs', the French for 'Decorative Arts'. The 1925 'Exposition des Arts Industriels et Modernes' was a celebration, chiefly of modern French 'Art Deco'. Other nations were invited to have their own pavilions, showing what was new in the decorative arts in their countries, but French taste dominated. The French exhibition authorities had decreed that the exhibition be 'confined to articles of modern inspiration and real originality'. In France there were two markedly different approaches to modern interiors, both of which tend to be lumped together and described generically as Art Deco. But the approaches, as seen separately in two pavilions at the Paris exhibition, were very different from one another.
The first, 'Le Pavillon d'un Collectionneur' had a display of modern luxury by contemporary craftsmen, designers and painters designed by the art industry for collectors who delighted in the aesthetics of extravagance. An artist like Jacques Emile Ruhlmann, the famous furniture designer, used the finest of materials, exotic woods, ivory, sharkskin and bronze, expense no object. A personal display of modern luxury was seen by some as a passport to high society, at this period still principally an aristocratic milieu in Europe. Luxury modern furniture, objects, couture and jewels were used almost like membership passes to the top ranks of society. Some of the firms represented in that pavilion (and included in this exhibition) were Lalique, Sevres, Daum and Leleu. Lalique in particular emphasised the importance of combining art and industry in the interests of raising design standards. His designs for perfume bottles, lamps, vases and even car mascots, were as fashionable as fashion itself and fashion was both fun and fundamental in the 1920s.
The other pavilion 'Le Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau', was devoted to the aesthetics of streamlining, modern methods of production, modern thinking and social reform. Here the emphasis was on simplicity with a marked absence of decoration for its own sake. Though already more than hinted at as the shape of things to come in the 1920s, the impact of its style was felt much more in the following decade. Lines became straighter and more angular as the influence of Modernism took its hold during the 1930s. Typical modernist designs included in this exhibition such as the Primavera vase (exhibit 77), the Jean Luce enamelled vase (exhibit 102) or the Desny box (exhibit number 22) were more in tune with the geometry and abstraction of cubism. There was a more intellectual, more austere approach to design that took into account modern politics and philosophy, reflecting the mood if not always the financial constraints of the Wall Street Crash. There was a more restrained approach to consumerism. Le Corbusier referred to home as 'a machine for living'.
The Paris look was infectious and had its effect on design everywhere, though with modifications more suited to national tastes. The whole of Europe (which at that time included Eastern Europe), The United States and also parts of the Far East looked to Paris for inspiration. Art Deco flourished in New York (think of the Chrysler Building and the Rockefeller Centre), in Bombay, with its jazzy cinemas and apartment buildings and wherever Indian Maharajahs showed off their Cartier jewels (for example the Art Deco Palace of Indore), as well as in Prague with its extraordinary cubist architecture and design.
In Britain tastes changed more slowly. As a nation we have been less ready to accept modernism and the avant garde until very recently. Art Deco is much more popular now than it ever was in its day. At the time all attempts at modern interiors were greeted with suspicion. The idea of revolutionising the home by employing the services of an interior decorator did not catch on until much later in this country and so there was little in the way of a concerted effort to jazz up design.
There were however a number of furniture, glass and ceramics companies who made a great effort to be modern, sometimes with great success as we see from many of the exhibits currently on show at The Millinery Works. A few department stores like Harrods, Waring & Gillow, Heals and Maples went in for modernity. The new Selfridge Store on Oxford Street which opened its doors in 1928 remains as an icon of Art Deco in Britain. A group of modern British architects also created a need for more modern interiors and Crittal's curved metal window frames marked many a modernist building.
Firms such as Poole and Wedgwood were producing distinctly modern designs. Clarice Cliff, with her somewhat cosy modern approach to landscape and flowers became one of the most successful and popular designers of her time. In comparison with what was happening in France, British attitudes to design still lagged some way behind, more in tune with the arts and crafts movement at the turn of the century than with modernism. But designers such as Eric Ravilious and Keith Murray (exhibits 85-92) at Wedgwood, Serge Chermayeff who designed furniture for Waring and Gillow and the designers at the firm of Pel, which manufactured chromium-plated metal furniture, were evidence that modern decorative arts were alive and well in this country.
During the Second World War attitudes to design were forced to change. Art Deco and 'The Bright Young Things' of the pre-war era became a distant memory. But by the late 1960s the Art Deco revival was well under way. In 1965 John Jesse, the doyen of London Art Deco dealers, opened his first shop on Kensington Church Street. Martin Battersby's book 'The Decorative Twenties' appeared in 1969 and is still (together with its 1971 companion volume 'The Decorative Thirties') an excellent read. In 1971 the Minneapolis Institute of Arts staged an exhibition of Art Deco with fifteen hundred objects, ranging from sculpture to scent sprays, from furniture to fashion-plates. Harvey Feinstein, Roy Lichtenstein, Janet Street-Porter, Barbara Streisand and Andy Warhol were already collectors and lenders to the exhibition. Since then many more have joined this illustrious group and the Art Deco craze shows no signs at all of abating.
© Dan Klein, September 2003.
author of Art Deco, Octopus
and joint author of Decorative Art 1880 to 1980, Phaidon
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