Art Deco Furniture: History & Style

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, we'll be exploring the history and styles of Art Deco furniture. We'll look at the history of Art Deco itself and how it celebrated the modern world in a style that filtered into art, fashion and furniture design.

What is Art Deco?

Art Deco, an art and design style popular in the 1920s and 1930s, began in Paris as a result of a large decorative arts exhibition in 1925. It quickly spread all over the world where it found use in fine art, architecture, fashion design and decorative arts.

An image of the exhibition that took place in Paris in 1925
The 1925 exhibition in Paris

Art Deco celebrated modern life and emphasized luxury and sophistication. Art Deco works featured new materials like chrome, Bakelite (a type of plastic), chrome and plate glass, as well as costly materials like ivory, mahogany and dark lacquered surfaces. Lacquering was a process that coated materials like wood with many layers of resins to create hard shiny surfaces.

When you look at an Art Deco building or object, you see common elements like geometric shapes, often in the form of zigzags or chevrons (upside down V forms). Art Deco emphasized vertical lines and smooth streamlined surfaces and often used bold colors and high contrasts. Art Deco's development in the 1920s coincided with the rise of machines like airplanes, automobiles, and trains, and elements of these modern industrial things can also be seen filtered into decorative arts. The creation of furniture to fit into new interior spaces figured prominently in Art Deco. Let's look at some examples.

Art Deco Furniture

Furniture created during Art Deco's early years tended to be an expensive luxury. In the 1920s, the major Paris department stores established decorating departments to provide consumers with everything from large furniture pieces to light fixtures and cocktail sets.

Wood Art Deco Furniture

Some furniture used rich hard woods like ebony or macassar, and also featured veneers, or very thin layers of wood used as a surface covering, of exotic woods like zebrawood and mahogany.

Cabinet made by J. E. Rhulmann, 1920s. This cabinet is a beautiful example of Rhulmann and his subtle use of wood grains and inlays to create a sophisticated and elegant design
cabinet by J E Rhulmann

Above is an an example of a cabinet by Jacques-Emile Rhulmann (1879-1933), a prominent early French Art Deco furniture designer. Rhulmann used exotic wood to great effect, allowing natural wood grains to emphasize the light linear quality of his designs. His pieces sometimes incorporate subtle curves and don't look bulky or heavy. Even his decorations, as in this example of an ivory inlay of a horse and woman, are sleek and geometric but elegant. Inlays, designs made by setting pieces of substances like ivory, brass or mother-of-pearl flush within a large surface, were a common element of Art Deco furniture.

High Contrast and Luxury Surfaces

Other Art Deco furniture incorporated modern materials like aluminum and chrome. Chairs, dressers and cabinets featured smooth, highly polished surfaces that reflected light, emphasizing their newness and modernity. Bold colors like black and red were popular. If the furniture was upholstered, it often used leather, shagreen (which is tanned shark or ray skin), or exotic furs.

Interior of a first class smoking room from an ocean liner, 1928. The bold contrast between black and white, the leather upholstry, and strong geometric push of all decorative elements make this a textbook Art Deco interior
Art Deco interior with high contrast colors

Above is an example of high contrast in color and style. The couch and chairs in this smoking room feature leather upholstery and bold black and white designs. The shapes are geometric but much heavier than Rhulmann's furniture.

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