Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ooolala...Art Deco French Style

QUESTION: I have a pair of upholstered arm chairs that originally belonged to my great grandmother and were passed to my grandmother and then to me. They have an unusual shape. Can you tell me anything about them?

ANSWER: Your chairs seem to be classic French Art Deco, dating from the late teens to mid 1920s of the last century.

The term Art Deco, actually coined in 1966, refers to a design style that originated around World War I and ran through World War II. It’s epitomized by the works shown at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts), held in Paris in 1925. Indeed, the name of this vast exhibition would later be abbreviated to Art Deco, giving a catch-all and rather imprecise label to an enormous range of decorative arts and architecture.

Most people associate Art Deco with the mechanized, metalicized objects that appeared in the U.S. in the 1930s. Like haute couteur fashion, this high style was more popular with the wealthy and avant garde than with the average person, mostly because this group had more education and its tastes ran to fine art and design.

Developed by a group of French architects and interior designers who banded together to form the Societe des Artistes Decorateurs, the Art Deco style incorporated elements of style from diverse artworks and current fashion trends. Influence from Cubism and Surrealism, Egyptian and African folk art are evident in the lines and embellishments, and Asian influences contributed symbolism, grace and detail.

Disillusioned by the commercial failure of Art Nouveau and concerned by competitive advances in design and manufacturing made by Austria and Germany in the early years of the 20th century, French designers recognized that they could rejuvenate a failing industry by reestablishing their traditional role as international leaders in the luxury trades, a position they once held during the 18th century. The founding in 1900 of the Société marked the first official encouragement of new standards for French design and production through annual exhibitions of its members’ works.

In 1912, the French government voted to sponsor an international exhibition of decorative arts to promote French pre-eminence in the design field. The exhibition, originally scheduled for 1915, had to be postponed because of World War I and didn’t take place until 1925. If the exhibition had taken place as scheduled, the sophisticated style of Art Deco probably wouldn’t have evolved.

The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris was a vast state-sponsored fair that dazzled more than 16 million visitors during its seven-month run. The works exhibited—everything from architecture and interior design to jewelry and perfumes—were intended to promote and proclaim French supremacy in the production of luxury goods. The primary requirement for inclusion was that all works had to be thoroughly modern, no copying of historical styles of the past would be permitted.

But creating from scratch isn’t something that occurs in the arts. All art—painting, sculpture, writing, music, theater—evolves from what’s been done before in some way. So many of the objects exhibited had their roots in the traditions of the past. The stylistic unity of exhibits indicates that Art Deco was already an internationally mature style by 1925—it was just getting started before World War I but had peaked by the time of the fair. The enormous commercial success of Art Deco ensured that designers and manufacturers throughout Europe continued to promote this style until well into the 1930s.

In France, Art Deco combined the quality and luxury of the French furniture tradition with the good taste of Classicism and the exoticism of distant, pre-industrial lands and cultures. Many designers used sumptuous, expensive materials like exotic hardwoods, lacquer, ivory and shagreen in order to update traditional forms like armchairs, dressing tables and screens. Motifs like Meso-American ziggurats, Chinese fretwork, and African textile patterns offered a new visual vocabulary for designers to play with in order to create fresh, modern work.

Early Art Deco furniture introduced sleek, rounded corners, and futuristic styling. Seating often curved slightly inward, suggesting intimacy and sensuousness. Geometric designs and patterns often provided a counterpoint to the soft rounded lines of classic Art Deco furniture. Designers often incorporated fan motifs using layered triangles, and circular designs were common.

The concept behind French Art Deco furniture was one of luxury and comfort using rich wood and textural elements. Finishes were shiny or glossy. Wood was heavily lacquered or enameled and polished to a high sheen.

Fabric choices enhanced the feeling of luxury and opulence in Art Deco furniture. Designers used bold geometric, animal or exaggerated floral prints in soft, sumptuous materials to contrast and compliment the sleek styling.

French Art Deco reflected the general optimism and carefree mood that swept Europe following World War I. Sunbursts and chevrons represented hope and prosperity. They also employed vivid colors in paint and upholstery. Both furniture and textiles tended to use decorative designs that exhibited a strong painterly quality reminiscent of Impressionist, and post-Impressionist, Fauve, and Cubist techniques.

Sometimes ornamentation was straightforwardly applied to the surface of an object, like a decorative skin. At other times, potentially utilitarian designs—bowls, plates, vases, even furniture—were in and of themselves purely ornamental, not intended for practical use but rather conceived for their decorative value alone, exploiting the singular beauty of form or material.

After the 1925 Paris Exposition, American designers began working in the Art Deco style in the U.S. For American audiences, however, there was less of an emphasis on luxury and exclusivity and more interest in mass-production, accessibility and the machine age. The modern influences heralded a bright and shining future outlook that found its way to architecture, jewelry, automobile design and even extended to ordinary things such as refrigerators and even trash cans.

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