Art Deco -guides and misunderstandings
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21 July 2006
Contrary to popular belief, the term Art Deco is a relatively new term. The period now called Art Deco is agreed upon by most experts to have started in 1925 with an international fair in Paris called "L'Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industrials Modernes," and ended in 1940 with the advent of WWII. At the time, there was no term for the new styles, and indeed artists frequently mixed some of the new style with some of the older styles in one piece. For example, I've seen a human figure done in a newer stylized form on a more Baroque base. One could call these pieces "transitional" if you're into labeling. Up until the mid-70's there was still no name for this new style. However, in the mid-70's there was a major retrospective exhibit of quality pieces that were very typical for that period. For the exhibit, the term "Art Deco" was coined from the name of the original Paris fair "Arts Decoratifs." There is no one style or form that defines "Art Deco." After WWI, the "Great War," there was a stylistic reaction to the excesses of both Victorian and Art Nouveau styles. Two of the most popular concepts of early Art Deco were either asymetrical geometrics, or stylized figures. Plants, animals, and human representations were frequently either made more geometric with straight lines rather than the natural curved ones, or exaggerated. Human figures were frequently thin and elongated or in somewhat bizarre poses, often reflecting the new dance styles, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, human scuptures were frequently made that simply represented current life, as opposed to historical figures. Sculptures of women dressed in clothing typical of the period placed in everyday poses were very common. Furniture was made with cleaner lines and an emphasis was made on the exposed materials used. Exotic woods with dramatic grains were used, often different woods or grains used in the same piece. One of the characteristics that exemplified early Art Deco was hand-made excellent quality pieces. This was nothing new but distinguishes early Art Deco from a dramatic shift that happened mid-way through the period. Commercial production was moving into the machine age, and designers decided to start creating modern articles that could be mass produced, and many things now started being made from more easily obtained materials that were "modern," such as chrome and steel, providing an modern look and a material that could be worked by machine rather than by hand. The emphasis on quality hand-made items changed to an emphasis on affordable, machine made items. Even quality sculptures made of bronze were also turned out in a cheap "pot" metal or spelter. There are several misconceptions about what Art Deco is and isn't. Some people believe that anything made between 1925 and 1940 is automatically Art Deco. This isn't true. As is true today, in that period there were still many different styles being used. One would not call a chair made in 1935 in the style of Louis XVI "Art Deco." To truly be called Art Deco, an item (or building) should in some way exhibit what could be called the "modern" style. Another very common misconception is that anything of a "modern" design made before 1990 can be called Art Deco. Again, this isn't true. The 40's had their own modern style which is not Art Deco. The same is true of the 50's (frequently called "Moderne" pronounced mow-dare-n), and each decade after had it's own new, modern style. Absolutely an item can be made even today reproducing an Art Deco style, but they should be called Art Deco style, not Art Deco. Having said all this, however, while the period of Art Deco is "officially" recognized as 1925 to 1940 (if one is going to admit that there even IS such a thing as "Art Deco"), one also must realize that artists and designers started using modern designs before 1925 and the machine age which typifies late Art Deco continued later than 1940. A good example of this is the designer Charles Eames, and indeed many items that are typical of the 40's and 50's machine age are said to be from the Eames Era. While Charles Eames started designing prior to WWII, it's debatable as to whether his work is truly "Art Deco." Again, it could be called "transitional." Many of his designs for furniture would not be recognized as being typical of the Art Deco period.
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