Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.
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.
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 customers with everything from large furniture pieces to light fixtures and cocktail sets.
Some furniture used rich hardwoods 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.
Here is an example of a cabinet by Jacques-Emile Rhulmann, who lived from 1879 to 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, or 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.
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.
Appearing here in this image is an example of high contrast in color and style, with this interior of a first class smoking room from an ocean liner in 1928.
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.
Some Art Deco furniture became almost minimalist in its reduction of style to a few elements. Designers like Eileen Gray from Ireland made furniture with lacquered surfaces and tubular steel. In fact, Gray was the first Westerner to learn how to do Japanese lacquering. But Gray later pared down her style to a more geometric minimalist appearance. In this image of her adjustable table, glass and tubular steel form the entire structure.
In the 1930s, more mass-produced furniture became available that echoed Art Deco style. Style shifted to become even more streamlined, especially in America. Art Deco declined in popularity by the 1940s, but experienced renewed popularity in the 1960s. If you look around, you can still see elements of it today.
Okay, let's take a moment to review. Art Deco was a design style popular in the 1920s and 1930s. It found its way into fine and decorative arts and in furniture. It featured modern materials like glass, chrome, and plastic. On some pieces, lacquering, which is the process of coating a surface with many layers of resin, created hard shiny surfaces. Veneers, or thin layers of expensive exotic woods, were also used for decoration, as were inlays, designs made by setting pieces of substances like ivory, brass, or mother-of-pearl flush within a large surface.
Some wood furniture, like that of Jacques-Emile Rhulmann, a prominent early French Art Deco furniture designer, highlighted natural wood grains and inlay decorations for a light, balanced effect. Other furniture was upholstered with leather or shagreen, tanned shark or ray skin, and emphasized bold color contrasts. Designers like Eileen Gray began by making lacquered furniture but later pared down their style to very geometric streamlined forms.
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