Art deco, the distinctive design style of the inter-war years, drew on various influences to create an international movement
of innovation and change.
After the carnage of World War One and the deadly flu epidemic that followed hard upon it, the world was ready for a fresh start. While the politicians put their faith in the League of Nations, ordinary people, especially the young, sought escape in a racy, fun-loving lifestyle and the worship of glamour. The USA came a strong cultural influence - jazz and dances such as the Charleston enjoyed
worldwide popularity and the world's movie screens were increasingly dominated by the products of Hollywood.
The relentless pursuit of gaiety, excitement and speed was reflected in the world of design in the fashionable style that was dubbed art deco, from the title of the exhibition in Paris in 1925 which launched it into the public consciousness, L'Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes.
The title summed up many of the basic features of the style; it was international, was concerned with the decorative rather than the fine arts, and embraced the modern world and the products of industry.
It was the contribution of French designers to the exhibition which caught the imagination of the world. The show featured the work of those who would come to be regarded as the leading lights of art deco - furniture by E-J Ruhlmann, Louis Sue and Andre Mare, glass by Rene Lalique and silver by Jean Puiforcat.
The French did not have it all their own way, though the English ceramic designer, Clarice Cliff, and the American architect, Donald Deskey, were already working in somewhat similar styles.
The success of the exhibition inspired prestige manufacturers, such as the French glassmakers, Baccarat and Daum Freres, and the British pottery firm, Doulton, to create new lines. By the 1930s, deco style was influencing interior design, architecture, ceramics, graphic art, posters, jewellery, glass, accessories, furniture, women's clothes and household objects. It was particularly popular for products of new technology such as radios, electric fires,
refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.
Art Deco was never about the fine arts, although it was influenced by the pre-war paintings of the Cubists and the Italian Futurists. It was essentially a reaction against the dominant pre-war design style, art nouveau, and featured geometric abstraction instead of
flowing naturalistic lines, and bold colors rather than gentle pastels.
THE CULT OF THE NEW
Deco designers favoured industrial materials as plastics, synthetic fabrics, plywood, chrome and tubular steel, over the natural materials and traditionalist methods of art nouveau, but the style embraced many other influences especially early on.
So-called primitive cultures were plundered for decorative motifs. The
sunburst was drawn from Aztec art, and African tribal masks were a major influence. The opening of Tutankhamen's tomb led to a fad for all things Ancient
Egyptian including stylized eagle's wings and papyrus leaves as well as pyramids and motifs based on the boy pharaoh's grave goods.
Other major influences included the look of industrial machinery and the cult of speed and movement that grew up around the motor car and aviation. In this, deco came close to the other major design movement of the inter-war years, modernism, but the latter was essentially less frivolous, concerned more with pure form than colour and decoration.
Art deco and modernism tended to blur together in the 1930s, when deco designers increasingly used hard, shiny materials like mirrors and glass. Streamlining became a byword of design.
American deco style was spread through Hollywood films and the glamorous lifestyles of the stars as they were depicted in magazines. In the USA, deco became a force in architecture. The interior and exterior of many skyscrapers paid broad homage to the style. Most new British buildings in the art deco style were cinemas, but there were some offices.
Throughout the deco period, there were two strands of design. The elite designers made expensive one-off pieces for a fashionable clientele, while popular manufacturers mass-marketed wares loosely based on the top designers' work.
While French sculptors, for example, made limited edition decorative figures in gilt bronze or chryselephantine (bronze and ivory), similar but cheaper ones were produced in their hundreds in spelter.
The popular deco style in Britain embraced furniture by Lloyd Loom, ceramics by Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper, cheap glassware in bright colours and styles, cocktail cabinets, wallpaper, tableware, posters and prints, textiles and upholstery. Much of this was dismissed as kitsch by the art establishment of the time, and the vogue for collecting it began only in the 1960s.