Art Deco, like its forerunner Art Nouveau, was an eclectic style and drew on many sources. Designers sought to infuse jaded traditions with new life and to create a modern style based on a revitalised decorative language. To do so, they borrowed from historic European styles, as well as from contemporary avant garde art, the rich colours and exotic themes of the Ballets Russes, and the urban imagery of the machine age.
Art Nouveau, the fin de siècle style that preceded Art Deco, fell out of fashion in the years before World War I (1914–18). In the increasingly conservative political climate, critics saw it as ‘decadent’ and over-elaborate. It failed to meet the demand for a modern national style.
In France, veterans of Art Nouveau like Maurice Dufrene and Paul Follot recognized the need to modernise tradition and adapt their designs to machine production. In Austria, the designers of the Wiener Werkstätte retained their handcraft practices. However, they gradually abandoned the taut geometry of the turn-of-the century Secession style for a greater decorative freedom based on national sources.
Elements of Art Nouveau's visual language were adapted in the stylised naturalistic decoration characteristic of the Atelier Martine. The more linear, geometric variant of Art Nouveau, exemplified by the work of Josef Hoffmann and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, directly fed Art Deco designers' search for 'modern' forms and decorative motifs.
Folk art, an important source for Art Nouveau, also influenced Art Deco. Its appeal was twofold. In a period of nationalism it represented an authentic indigenous source, while its simplified, stylised, often geometric patterns were easily modernised.
The Avant Garde
The new visual language, colour and iconography of early 20th-century avant-garde art had a profound impact on Art Deco. Movements such as Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, De Stijl, Suprematism and Constructivism – frequently bundled together under the label of ‘Cubism’ – transformed all the decorative arts. Art Deco designers were quick to use their geometric, abstract and fragmented vocabulary to evoke the dynamism of modern urban culture.
At the same time, many avant-garde artists applied their ideas to design. In France, Sonia Delaunay experimented with bright colour and geometric forms in designs for graphics, fashion and textiles. In Czechoslovakia, artists, architects and designers applied the ideas of Cubism to buildings and objects of everyday use. In Russia, artists like Nikolai Suetin and Kasimir Malevich created Suprematist ceramics and textiles.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Art Deco: 1910-1939', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 27 March - 20 July 2003.