Deco - a style?

Tim Benton, explains art deco, which, he says, lurks below the surface of all the arts in the 1920s and 1930s, like original sin. "It emerged wherever, in poverty or wealth, people decided they wanted to have fun."

By: Professor Tim Benton (Art History Department)

  • Duration 10 mins
  • Updated Friday 2nd June 2006
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Design
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I have just spent three years working on an exhibition and catalogue called Art Deco. People discuss Art Deco, argue about it, found Societies to preserve it, plagiarise it, buy and sell it. It's a category, a topic, a commodity. But what is it? Can it be defined as a style? This is a more difficult puzzle.

Instead of trying to define Art Deco, we might simply try to observe and understand it (it being simply what people call Art Deco). After all, you don't on the whole waste much time trying to define what's fashionable.

Fashion is what the fashionable (beautiful) people wear. What's interesting about fashion is what these people are trying to communicate: desire, difference, glamour. So, instead of asking "How can we define Art Deco?" we could ask "What is significant about what Art Deco refers to?" or even "What is Art Deco for?", "What does it do?".

Art deco bus shelters in Brighton [Image: Catchesthelight under CC-BY-NC-ND licence] Creative commons image CatchesTheLight via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Art deco bus shelters in Brighton [Image: Catchesthelight under CC-BY-NC-ND licence]

It is impossible to study the big issues of the 1920s: economic boom and depression, globalisation of markets, spread of mass consumption, development of rapid communications and transport, new materials, the spread of electrification and industrialisation, mass leisure and sporting activities, social upheaval, democracy and the challenge of totalitarianism without dealing in Art Deco images.

These great subjects come clothed in Art Deco, they provide the iconography of Art Deco, much of its patronage and some of its significance.

Where Modernism refers to the modern world obliquely, metaphorically, Art Deco refers to it directly and literally: cars, aeroplanes and zeppelins, skyscrapers and ocean liners, cogs of machines and piles of coins; these motifs crop up again and again in Art Deco.

At a more abstract decorative level, lightning flashes which stand for power generation, or radio transmission, undulating lines suggesting marine transportation, speed lines indicating fast trains or automobiles, jagged, jumping lines hinting at jazz and the Charleston; these are the decorative stock in trade of Art Deco.

And Art Deco designers were never bashful about commerce. Gold or silver were the favourite colours of Art Deco designers and expensive materials their trademark.

Art deco lamp Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission

Art Deco was about shopping and promotion, it was honestly and sincerely about spectacle and illusion. This is not to impugn its qualities of craftsmanship or originality. Much of the best graphic work of the 20th Century has been promotional; the craftsmanship of much Art Deco furniture or jewellery has barely been surpassed. As H.W. Corbett said of one of Raymond Hood's first buildings in New York:

"If commercialism is the guiding spirit of the age, the building which advertises itself is in harmony with that spirit ".  There is no reason why the term 'commercialism' would ever be considered as opposed to art. Perhaps a new kind of commercialism in its new and higher relation to human welfare".
[Corbett, H. W., The American Radiator building, New York City, Architectural Record, 55, 5, May 1924, p. 476]

In the Rockefeller Center in New York, there is a mosaic by Barry Faulkner entitled Intelligence awakening Mankind (1933) showing 'Promotion' among the other great modern virtues 'Philosophy', 'Sport' and 'Hygiene', flying out from the metropolitan centre of knowledge to enlighten the common man and woman.

Art Deco can arouse passions, especially among Modernists. Derisively referred to as the 'Moderne' (with a French accent) by Anglo-Saxon architects and critics in the 1930s, Art Deco was conceived of by them as morally wrong. So it is possible to see Art Deco as the 'Other' of Modernism. Male vs. female, cerebral vs. sensuous, repressed vs. expressive, many of these contrasts match the way Art Deco was distinguished from Modernism in the eyes of contemporaries.

Modernism - in art, architecture and design - has occupied the high ground of cultural debate for much of the century. Now, it is no accident that the cycles of Modernism's growth, decline, demonisation and revival interlock precisely with an inverse set of cycles with respect to Art Deco. When Art Deco was at its first peak, at the 1925 exhibition in Paris, Modernism struggled to get a toehold. As Modernism triumphed in Europe, after 1927-8, Art Deco generally declined there. Then, as a new kind of 'moderne' - or 'modernistic' - architecture and design triumphed in the 1930s, especially in the United States and outside Europe, Modernism was in most countries on the back foot. Then, the Post War victory of Modernism saw Art Deco vilified and marginalised, until the 1960s, when the Post Modernists and the dealers rediscovered it, during the backlash against Modernism.

Green Art Deco radio Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission

Art Deco can plausibly be seen as the 'Other' form of Modernism, fatally measured by the same values, but perceived in opposite ways. David Gebhard expressed this thought most succinctly:

"During the decades of the 1940s through the 1960s no aspect of architecture was held more in disdain than that of the Art Deco of the 1920s and 1930s. Art Deco, the popularised modern of those decades, was either ignored by our major architects and writers, or it was dismissed as an unfortunate, obviously misguided effort: the sooner forgotten the better.

Those who exposed (sic) high art modernism during the thirty years from 1940 to 1970 condemned the Art Deco for preserving too many traditional architectural values, for being too concerned with the decorative arts and popular symbolism, and for being too compromising in its acceptance of the imagery of high art modern architecture of the twenties and thirties. All of these accusations against the Art Deco were true - the difference today is that we are inclined to feel that all of these qualities which were looked on so disdainfully were, in fact, assets, not defects."
Gebhard, D., Tulsa Art Deco, Tulsa, 1980, p.17

Probably, Modernism would never have acquired its steely mixture of rationalism and puritanism without Art Deco as its sensuous 'other'. French structuralists and semiologists, like Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard, sought to see behind the rationalism of modern architecture and design to find the hidden desires and appetites within. In his 1968 essay The System of Objects, Baudrillard rejected the notion that consumption was driven by need. According to him, an artificial 'system of needs', based on desire rather than want, had been constructed by capitalist production to feed consumption. This 'system of needs' was both constructed and fed by advertising and promotion. Citing Dr. Diehter (whose The Strategy of Desire had been published in 1960), Baudrillard held that advertisers were confronted with 'the problem of making the American man feel moral as he flirts and consumes'. The desires of the American woman, of course, could be addressed more directly. At the risk of abusing Baudrillard's argument only slightly, while Modern design allowed consumers to satisfy desires by pretending to meet practical needs ('fitness for purpose'), Art Deco addressed the desires head on. Art Deco could be defined, therefore, as a system of signs connoting desire and derived from a system of consumption divorced from need. Its homelands are the worlds of fashion, cinema, home decoration, advertising, promotion and propaganda - fields calling for an amplified message addressing unconscious desire.

What characterises Art Deco, therefore, is not its formal stylistic properties but its deformation of existing formal languages (Modernist, Classical, Regionalist) to bring out the underlying current of desire. Art Deco lurks below the surface of all the arts in the 1920s and 1930s, like original sin. It emerged wherever, in poverty or wealth, people decided they wanted to have fun, perhaps needed to have fun.