Art Deco’s Streamlined Designs Envisioned a Glamorous Future

Art Deco grew out of a yearning, aggressive desire to be rid of the past and embrace the future in all its man-made, machine-driven glory. The aesthetic movement rose and fell in the period between the two World Wars and played an outsize role in shaping the West’s modern imagination, particularly within France and the United States. (New York, Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco—to name just a few American cities—all boast prominent Art Deco architecture.) A Gatsbyish hedonism descended on prosperous post-war America; new technologies made cars, radios, and refrigerators accessible to the average person; and consumer tastes for ornament and luxury skyrocketed. As a result, design evolved to reflect and enhance this heady sense of advancement. The sleek, streamlined designs of Art Deco—also called “style moderne”—emphasized speed, power, and progress, contrasting with its lighter, airier predecessor, Art Nouveau, the dominant fin-de-siècle style. Art Nouveau took inspiration from the natural world: twisting vines, flower petals, and undulating waves characterized sensuous paintings by Alphonse Mucha, as well as fantastic architectural designs by Antoni Gaudí. While Art Nouveau celebrated organic shapes, Art Deco lionized clean lines and geometric patterns. Art Deco grew out of a desire in France to reestablish the country as a top-tier producer of decorative arts. The establishment of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs around the turn of the century raised the respect for objets d’art. The definition of art began to expand beyond painting and sculpture and into domains like glasswork and jewelry, with creators of the latter coming to be considered artists, rather than artisans. The movement also evolved in step with avant-garde art movements and other aspects of culture. Cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque reduced three-dimensional objects to flat, geometric forms; the Dutch architecture and design faction De Stijl, exemplified by Piet Mondrian and Gerrit Rietveld, touted a simplified aesthetic. The popularity of exotic, oriental motifs—spurred on by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 and epitomized by ballets like Scheherazade—also played a role. Theater and dance, particularly the Ballet Russes, influenced figures across disciplines. Artists such as Sonia Delaunay and Léon Bakst, for instance, designed costumes and sets for the ballet, and the elaborate productions likewise featured in paintings and sculptures. Indeed, the intermingling of art, design, performance, and fashion played a large role in shaping the evolution of Art Deco. The style reached its apex in 1925, when the French government sponsored the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The design fair’s only real requirement was that all work had to be “thoroughly modern.” Widely visited, the expo established the movement on the world stage and prompted the official title of “Art Deco” (a shortened version of “Arts Décoratifs”). In the 1930s, the glamorous style began to wane, becoming more austere as the Great Depression shifted popular taste toward less extravagant, ostentatious forms.