Monday, September 12, 2011

Accounting for Taste

QUESTION: From what period does this chair originate? The legs look quite modern. Is it a modern interpretation of an antique design?

ANSWER: This chair is a fine example of French Art Deco. As one of six of a set of dining chairs, it would have been placed under an equally simple, but elegant dining table.

Art Deco emerged in Paris just before World War I as a luxurious design style. But it wasn’t until after the war in the 1920s that Modernism appeared throughout Europe. Until the art world coined the name Art Deco later on in the 1960s, designers referred to the style as Arte Moderne which is French for Modern Art.

Art Nouveau furniture became a commercial failure. The intricate inlays and carvings made it too expensive for all except the very rich.  Concerned by competitive advances in design and manufacturing made in Germany and Austria in the early 20th century, French designers realized they could rejuvenate a their French furniture industry by producing luxurious pieces that a greater number of people could afford.

The founding in 1900 of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs (the Society of Artist-Decorators), a professional designers' association, marked the appearance of new standards for French design and production. Each year the association held exhibitions in which their members exhibited their work. In 1912, the French Government decided to sponsor an international exhibition of decorative arts to promote French design. However, they had to postpone the exhibition, originally scheduled for 1915, until after World War I.

Set at the Trocadero in Paris, near the Eiffel Tower, La Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts), held finally in 1925, was a massive trade fair that dazzled more than 16 million visitors during its seven-month run. On exhibit was everything from architecture and interior design to jewelry and perfumes, all intended to promote French luxury items. With such a long name, visitors began referring to the exhibition, and subsequently the design movement, as Art Deco. On display were a wide range of decorative arts, created between the two world wars.

The French Government invited over 20 countries to participate. All works on display had to be modern, no copying of historical styles of the past would be permitted. The stylistic unity of exhibits at the fair indicated that Art Deco had already become an international style by 1925.The great commercial success of Art Deco ensured that designers and manufacturers throughout Europe would continue to produce furniture in this style until well into the 1930s.

In France, Art Deco combined the traditional quality and luxury of French furniture with the good taste of Classicism and the exoticism of far-off lands. Many designers used sumptuous, expensive materials like exotic hardwoods, ivory, and lacquer combined with geometric forms and luxurious fabrics to provide plush comfort. Motifs like Chinese fretwork, African textile patterns, and Central American ziggurats provided designers with the exotic designs to play with to create a fresh, modern look. They depicted natural motifs as graceful and highly stylized. The use of animal skins, horn, and ivory accents from French colonies in Africa gave pieces exotic appeal.

French Art Deco furniture featured elegant lines and often had ornamentation applied to its surface. It could be utilitarian or purely ornamental, conceived only for its decorative value. It was the look that was important to many French designers, not the use or comfort of the piece. Even today, some pieces look as if their designers intended them to remain on display in a store window and not be used at all. At times it seemed as though the designers and their patrons were trying to escape the dismal reality of daily life at that time.

In 1937, the French government sponsored another trade fair, La Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (The International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life). Less ambitious than the 1925 exhibition, this fair focused more on France's place in the modern world rather than on its production of luxury goods, thus marking the end of the French Art Deco Era.

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