Art Deco 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, drawing on distant and ancient cultures. The arts of Africa and East Asia provided rich sources of forms and materials. Archaeological discoveries fuelled a romantic fascination with early Egypt and Mesoamerica.
Egypt held a particular fascination for artists and designers. The discovery of the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, by Howard Carter in November 1922, sparked enormous popular interest in all things Egyptian. The wealth of funerary goods extracted from the tomb included chariots, furniture, mummy cases, spectacular gold jewellery and the extraordinary gold mask of the pharaoh.
Generic Egyptian images and motifs, such as lotus flowers, scarabs, hieroglyphics, pylons and pyramids, rapidly became popular. They covered everything, fine bookbindings to biscuit boxes, variety cases to cinema façades.
In fashion design 'Egyptomania' was ubiquitous and sometimes bizarre. The 'Mummy Wrap', a form of fashionable dress that was all the rage in the 1920s, evoked the layered bindings of ancient mummies.
The classical world
After the horrors of World War I (1914–18) many designers sought out the themes and lyrical imagery of the classical worlds of ancient Greece and Rome. Subjects such as the Flight of Europa or Pallas Athena became popular, while the huntress and dancing maenad appeared in designs for everything from textiles and wallpapers to moulded glass and ceramic vessels.
The figure was central to the practice of many Art Deco designers. The sculptors Carl Milles and Paul Manshi pexperimented with the classical nude, both free-standing and as a motif in relief decoration. Others explored the simple, stylized forms of the archaic sculptural traditions.
Art Deco designers drew on the art of the Maya and Aztecs to create new architectural and decorative forms. To North and South Americans, in particular, this art seemed to represent indigenous traditions, free of European influences. It offered bold and unadulterated sources for a repertoire of motifs suited to modern tastes and needs.
Ancient ziggurats found an echo in the stepping and setbacks of the great skyscrapers of New York and other American cities. Decorative motifs borrowed from Aztec and Mayan sources adorned cinemas, hotels and private houses, as well as jewellery and ceramics.
East AsiaChina and Japan were important ingredients in the eclectic mix that informed the style and spirit of Art Deco. Much of the glamour and exoticism of the new style was expressed through the traditional materials and techniques of East Asian art. Designers particularly admired the polished surface and brilliant colour of Chinese jade and the rich, sensual effects of Japanese lacquer.
The stylised natural forms and geometric motifs of East Asian art were also a feature of much Art Deco design. Japanese art held a strong appeal, but it was the art of China that had the greatest influence. Art Deco designers were drawn to the powerful and mysterious motifs on ancient bronzes, the elegant shapes of early ceramics and the simple lines of hardwood furniture.
Africa provided one of the richest sources of exotic imagery for Art Deco designers. The bold, abstract and geometric zigzags, hatch marks, circles and triangles of African textiles, shields and sculptures became part of the repertoire of Art Deco.
Many designers used the African figure as a decorative motif, while others explored the African sculptural tradition of masks. In France, Jean Lambert-Rucki and Pierre Legrain produced African-inspired sculpture, furniture and decorative wares. In America, the black artist Sargent Johnson and others saw African art as the source of a new decorative style expressive of the vitality of modern urban black life and culture.
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.