French Art Deco: An Overview
What is Art Deco? For some it is a bob-haired flapper in a short fringed dress, bedecked in jewels by Cartier; for others it is the powerful, syncopated forms of New York skyscrapers or the streamlined façades of Miami and Bombay; still others think of the stylish swank of 1930s Hollywood movies or the glamour of the great ocean liners. The early twentieth-century impulse to create ‘modern’ design — objects and environments suited to life in a fast-paced industrialized world — was broad-ranging and international and led to the development of countless expressions, all of which today fall under the rubric of Art Deco. But because this impulse touched everything from luxury goods to machinery, just how meaningful a term is it?
Art Deco is commonly referred to as a ‘style,’ a designation that suggests specific shared characteristics. The diversity of expression, however, precludes conceptual unity. More accurate, perhaps, would be ‘movement’ or ‘idiom,’ both of which connote a general philosophy or point of view. To understand Art Deco as a style, one must instead look to a more focused and coherent expression. And nowhere did Art Deco emerge more coherently than in France.
The style moderne, as it became known in France during its development in the 1910s and 1920s, reached its zenith at the great Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which was held in Paris in the summer of 1925. It is testament to the shared vision of the designers whose works were exhibited that the fair’s name — albeit in abbreviated form — has since come both to define French design of the period and to be used as an umbrella label for the vast range of design and architecture created globally between the First and Second World Wars. Accordingly, France may be considered the symbolic — if not the actual — birthplace of the larger Art Deco movement.
The narrative of French Art Deco was firmly established by the time of the 1925 Paris Exposition, formed in large part by the designers, museum professionals, and academics who had helped shape the style itself. In books and newspaper and magazine articles, they defined Art Deco’s characteristics and explained its philosophy, noting that it was distinct from manifestations of the movement in other countries by its embrace of its national past as the intellectual point of departure for creating something new. While designers elsewhere often rejected earlier aesthetics, materials, and manufacturing techniques, French designers sought innovation by embracing history. Specifically, the roots of French Art Deco are to be found in the ancien régime — the political and social system of France before the Revolution of 1789 — and its time-honored traditions of apprenticeship and guild training. During the eighteenth century, France established itself in the forefront of the luxury trades, producing furniture, porcelain, glass, metalwork, and textiles (not to mention clothing, perfume, wines, and cuisine) of unsurpassed refinement and elegance. Indeed, Paris became what could be considered the style capital of the Western world.
Excerpt from “French Art Deco.” Copyright © 2014 and reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.