Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
"I hate deco!" screams one collector, pointing to some rickety dresser with puckered veneer and broken plastic pulls. "I love Deco!" bellows another, holding up a Frankart boudoir lamp featuring a sumptuous green nude. Few design categories generate so much passion. Much of the difficulty lies in defining the term. There are many conflicting but equally erroneous definitions. One describes anything designed between 1920 and 1960 as art deco. This greatly (and grossly) misrepresents the style, tarring it with the grotesque design and manufacturing aberrations of that era. Another equally wrong definition limits art deco to the work of a very narrow band of expensive european designers working during the early and mid 1920s. Yet another misconception portrays art deco as a rejection of the lavish florid sensuous designs of the Art Nouveau era. Art deco evolved out of art nouveau. By 1910, designers striving for a new look began to introduce design elements from the emerging industrial economy. The lavish curves and patterning of art nouveau began to give way to sharper, more simplified, linear and geometric shapes and to "modern" materials such as chrome, aluminum, plastic, and steel. But these elements only gradually came to dominate design. The bronzes of Chiparus or Priess are as lushly formed as any art nouveau figure. The geometric elements are found in the pose of the figure - the outstretched arms, the leaping legs, the javelin poised for flight; not in the form of the figure.
The existence of this new style was only gradually recognized. (The term was not even used until the 1960s!) The full recognition that art deco was a distinct style did not occur until 1925 when the "International Exposition des Arts Decoratifs" was held in Paris. It is often said that the style had died by the time the 1925 exhibition was held, but again, this is wrong. It was continuing to evolve, putting increasing emphasis on designs which could be produced at costs accessible to the modern working classes. The art deco design elements were still present but the production methods were being "democratized." The Chiparus bronze evolved into the Frankart Lamp.
Art deco style was slow to enter the United States. The creative energies that were producing Art Deco in Europe where creating Mission and Arts and Crafts designs in the United States. The 1925 exhibition, rather than being art deco's last hurrah, actually gave the style a strong impetus in the United States. That push made the 1930s our Art Deco Decade. By the late 1920s the design motifs were well established in America. Many of the Magazines of the 20s, seeking a "new look" underwent deco makeovers. Fortune, Mentor, Asia, and many lesser known periodicals transformed themselves, demonstrating the freshness of the style as the thirties were beginning. The 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair and the 1939 World's fairs in New York and San Francisco show Art Deco design in full flower. The federal buildings constructed during the 1930s under the WPA show strong Art Deco elements in the bas relief carvings with which they were decorated. The Chrysler building in New York City is a classic example of Art Deco architecture. The Perishere and Trilon of the 1939 Worlds Fair, Rockefeller Center, the images of Rockwell Kent, all bear witness to Art Deco's vigor in the United States.
So, as usual, popular custom is correct and the experts are confounded. While the experts look only on their Chiparus bronzes and their Lalique hood ornaments as Art Deco, the popular culture speaks of blue mirror coffee tables and tubular chrome legged formica topped kitchen tables as deco. We consider Harlequin and Fiesta and American Casual to be deco designs. We say "deco is beginning to come on" when we are talking about 50s furniture and ceramics.
Perhaps we should speak in decades. We can refer to "20s Deco," "30s Deco," and "50s Deco." (The 40s is a lost decade. Most of the designers of the 40s were designing airplanes, not toasters. Has anyone ever consider the classic deco design elements apparent in the B-29 bomber?) "20s Deco" encompasses the opulent European era. "30s Deco" centers in the United States and encompasses the furniture and furnishings of the depression years. Much of it is flimsy, mass produced junk, but remember that it was being made for a depression ravaged population that could not afford the additional few dollars that solid quality required. "50s Deco" features chrome furniture, abstract decoration, etc. It features an an excess in design which is often grotesquely irrelevant but occassionally very effective.
There are many fine objects in all of these three periods. In evaluating them, look for consistency of design elements, careful logical design and construction, good workmanship. If the stress of hinges and moving parts has caused cracks in the material chosen for its construction or heat has caused warping, dismiss the piece as a product of inferior design. And most important, commune with the object. If it speaks sweetly to you, then it must have an art deco voice.
© 1997-2002 Coxsackie Antique Center