What is Art Deco?

Exuberant eclectism fuses world cultures and arts

Art Deco Bedroom c. 1931

Chances are if you were decorating your home in the 1920s or 30s and you wanted a modern look, the style would be what we now call Art Deco. Art Deco represents a dramatic fusion of diverse styles, great technological change, and internationalism that resulted in something completely new. As such, it almost can't be considered a "style". It is too diverse, too contradictory. This is the root of its ongoing appeal. Art Deco is an intriquing expression of artistic vitality during two tumultuous decades.

World War I fundamentally unraveled the way people looked at life. Industrial development and mass production, the explosive growth of cities as families that had lived rural lifestyles moved urbanward, the devastating effects of the 1918 flu epidemic lead the way to a brave, new world. The automobile and aeroplane heralded modernity, progress, internationalism, and development.

European artists, influenced first by Nouveau, then by craftsman, minimalist, and modern styles embraced this new worldview creating new artistic forms, of which many were as much political statements as art. Abstract art could not be embraced by the majority as art nouveau waned in popularity. Traditional styles in American interior design continued to be very strong, but on the cutting edge of modern design, practitioners saw the opportunity for something new.

This trend was influenced by many different cultures and art forms. American styles continued to rely on English and classical ornament, but the avant garde was looking elsewhere for inspiration. In 1922, King Tut's tomb was opened and a Pandora's Box of exciting new ornamental styles was greedily adopted for use in architecture, textiles, furniture, and prints. At the same time, the new forms incorporated threads from North American Indian, Aztec, African, and Asian cultures. Sunbursts, zigzags, large flat planes of contrasting color, bold curves, and strong geometry worked in tandem with creative application of colored gradients.

All of this creative anarchy was captured in 1925 at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Moderne which opened in 1925 in Paris. Stark modernism competed with the overly ornate, but it was the new and exciting interpretations that caught the imagination of a substantial segment of the public. Art Deco was born.

Art Deco Delineator Magazine Cover

Art Deco, by its nature, was not a static design form. From the 1920s through the 1930s, it continued to evolve from the highly stylized, graphical designs of the 20s to the streamlined forms that evolved as a result of the influence of industrial designers in the 1930s whose innovations were derived from motion and technology, particularly aerospace. Other influences included Hollywood. Anything that represented the world beyond the conventional, traditional, and the known was used with abandon.

Homer Laughlin Fiesta

Because it was new and exciting, Art Deco easily lent itself to many of the new materials that were being employed. Plastics like celluloid, catalin, bakelite, and lucite were used extensively in everything from napkin rings to radios. Aluminum, used for airplanes, was a fantastic new material that found its way into homes across the country, especially the kitchen. Even dinnerware was affected. Traditional patterns were replaced by styles that reflected a simplified, modern aesthetic. One of the most enduringly popular patterns is Homer Laughlin's bright colored Fiesta, which is still in production.

Furniture was rounded and streamlined with sensuous curves with little or no fussy ornamentation.

Earlier color was saturated and rich with primaries and sophisticated punches of black. By the later 30s this was considerably toned down with neutrals and pastels becoming more common.


To determine whether a piece is Art Deco, look for the following characteristics:

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