By Scott Daniels
“Art Deco” may be the most misused identifier in the English speaking world. One sees objects and buildings from the entire sweep of the 20th century labeled “Art Deco” as a generic term meaning “fancy” (or so it seems).
Art Deco is often confused with the Art Nouveau period, not in style but in carelessly applied naming, though the two are genetically as different as a locomotive and a lotus flower. To add confusion, the overlapping Arts & Crafts movement, with its subsets of design styles and schools of thought, comes into play.
An Art Deco Lamp
A lamp in the Art Nouveau style
An Arts & Crafts table lamp
A quick Google image search for “Art Deco” turns up a whole lot of things that ain’t.
To help keep these very different styles straight, here is a brief primer.
The Art Deco period is closely associated with the jazz age, and with the explosion of creativity, industrial innovation, and sweeping change of that time. The 1920s easily eclipse the psychedelic 1960s in terms of sheer dynamic and complete change in nearly every facet of life. Fashions, social norms, music, dance, entertainment, language, literature, politics, food, manufacturing, crime, drug and alcohol use, transportation, the rise of the middle class, leisure time— absolutely everything changed in the time between the end of the First World War and the beginning of The Great Depression. The period indelibly stamped its ethos on the remainder of the century and into our own.
The Art Deco period began post WWI in the art and design houses of France, on the heels of the passé Art Nouveau style.
If the 1920s were a time of breathless reinvention, the 1930s were a time for paying the piper, as the Great Depression drove its destructive tentacles deep into every part of life for a generation of people around the globe. From abject poverty to the more polite “reduced circumstances,” the 1930s, in spite of widespread hardship, continued and refined the Art Deco period. Remarkably, as fewer people had the ability to purchase anything new, industrial designers responded by creating some of the most beautiful everyday objects ever seen, from cocktail shakers to automobiles.
When identifying Art Deco, think of words like soaring, modern, radiating, stylized sunrises, a bursting of shiny newness. Think industrial, chrome plating and gleaming surfaces, and remember a few key touchstones which are prime examples of the Art Deco style:
The Chrysler Building, New York, NY.
Completed in 1930, it was the world’s tallest building until being overtaken by the Empire State Building, another example of Art Deco design, less than a year later. It was built for the Chrysler Corporation, and served as headquarters for the car maker until the 1950s, though the building was owned by Walter Chrysler personally, rather than by his company.
Fritz Lang— Metropolis, 1927
Released near the end of the silent film era, Metropolis is a classic for many reasons, but for our discussion, the feel of the film and its design elements call out Art Deco influences, even though the story itself is set somewhere in “the future.”
The 1936-37 Cord 810/812 Phaeton
An example of the kind of show stopping industrial design produced during the Great Depression, the lines of the classic Cord Phaeton help us to understand the Art Deco esthetic in its waning years, even as the sweeping fender lines hint at the streamlined movement to come.
A few household objects in the Art Deco style
Oneida Silverplate "Barbara" Pattern, 1930s.
An Australian electric water kettle, by Hecia, 1920s.
A flask, Prohibition Era, Art Deco style in full bloom
A Limoges tea set, France, 1925
Art Nouveau (”new art”) is far more languid, floral and often encompasses the nude female form in stylized representation alongside flowers and stemmed plants. It lent itself to art, architecture and public statuary and monuments. Begun around 1890, Art Nouveau was all but finished by the outbreak of World War One.
To add a bit to the confusion, Art Nouveau grew as an adjunct to the Arts & Crafts movement, especially among pupils of the latter style’s earliest proponent, William Morris, in England. Especially in textiles and art, there are definitely elements borrowed between the two. However, Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts are quite distinct from Art Deco in time, application, esthetic, and forms.
A cemetery memorial in the Art Nouveau style.
A distinctly Art Nouveau print.
Arts & Crafts
If Art Deco is about soaring, industrial, modern, and public. The Arts & Crafts movement is about bringing the outdoors into a comfortable, simple home. Arts & Crafts, or Craftsman, design is the oldest and most long lived of the three esthetics outlined here. It began in the late 1800s in England as a rebellion against the elaborate, uncomfortable interiors associated with the Victorian Era. Art Deco is industrial. Arts & Crafts is the antithesis of Art Deco.
Focusing on simple craftsmanship, borrowing from medieval influences, and heavily exhibiting folk forms, Arts & Crafts design is largely associated with private homes and interiors. There is no chrome here, but instead we find warm woods with highlighted grain, decorated with hammered, rubbed bronze. It reached masterful expression in the Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright, the furniture of Gustav Stickley, and the interiors of Greene & Greene, three very different interpretations.
By the end of the 1920s, Craftsman style had given way, along with Art Deco and Art Nouveau, to the streamlined designs of the 1940s and later, to mid-century modern and the atomic era.
A Greene & Greene School Arts & Crafts Stair, California
A Stickley Style Morris Chair, Arts & Crafts
Frank Lloyd Wright interpretation of Arts & Crafts
Frequently seen elements in Arts & Crafts textiles
Arts & Crafts style has enjoyed a major revival in the 21st century, with the plentiful western Crafstman homes and reproduced Stickley furniture (along with the originals), maintaining high interest and value.
Be sure to know which you're looking at. Is it Art Deco, Art Nouveau, or an iteration of Arts & Crafts?