Art Deco Objects in Detail
A Group of Axis Deer, John Skeaping
The motif of the 'biches' or deer was extremely popular in all forms of Art Deco design. In profile it presented a strong outline that could be easily adapted for machine production.
John Skeaping was one of a number of progressive sculptors who, during the 1920s, revolutionised sculpture in Britain through their interest in non-Western art, and their commitment to direct carving in wood or stone.This resulted in the simplification of forms, and in many cases their work became increasingly abstract. Skeaping, however, was primarily interested in animal sculpture - particularly of deer and horses - and he turned to animal subjects regularly throughout his life.
Skeaping did not have much contact with industrial production, but this particular group of deer is one of fourteen figures that he designed for Josiah Wedgwood and Sons around 1927. At the time, he was in his mid-twenties, was married to fellow-sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and stood at the forefront of new developments in the medium. It was therefore a relatively bold commission for Wedgwood to have made. Nevertheless, the series of figures that he designed proved to be highly successful, as they had broad appeal, and were inexpensive to produce.
They were, in fact, perfectly suited to mass-production, because rather than having to be assembled from separate sections, their relatively simple forms allowed them to be made in one piece, using a technique called slip-casting.This process involves taking plaster moulds from the original models that Skeaping would have made.
For mass-production, this would be done in a three-step process, first making a plaster mould using the original work, then in turn using this to produce what is known as a block mould, which is essentially a plaster version of the original model. This block mould would then be used to make a number of working plaster moulds from which the final earthenware figures would be cast. Each of these working moulds would be filled with a watery suspension of clay, known as slip.
Because of the absorbency of the plaster, water is drawn out from the clay, so that after a period of time, a cake of clay of uniform thickness forms inside the mould. Any excess slip can then be poured out
After a further period of drying, the mould, which will have been made in more than one section, can be safely removed. The figure would then be fired in what is known as the 'biscuit' firing, before being dipped in glaze and fired once more.
In the end, Wedgwood selected ten of Skeaping's figures to go into production. These included several figures of deer, but not in fact this particular group, which must have been made as a prototype.
Sequin jacket with Egyptian motifs
The archaeological discovery that gripped the public imagination most profoundly was that of the tomb of the boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun.
In November 1922, Howard Carter uncovered his undisturbed tomb in the Valley of Kings in Egypt. It was to prove one of the most important discoveries in archaeological history.
The riches extracted over the following months far outstripped expectations. Funerary goods included spectacular jewellery, chariots, furniture, alabaster vessels and the fantastic gold mummy mask. The objects sparked enormous popular interest in all things Egyptian.
Egyptian imagery such as lotus flowers, scarabs, hieroglyphics, pylons and pyramids were particularly popular motifs and appeared in many forms of decorative arts, as can be seen in this exquisite evening jacket
Tile, Sigmund Politzer
Africa was one of the richest sources of exotic imagery. The Deco designers borrowed bold abstract and geometric patterns and the subdued black and brown colour range typical of Central African art.
Derived from the patterns seen on African textiles, shields and sculptures, zig zags, hatch marks, circles and triangles became part of the repertoire of Art Deco motifs. Many Art Deco designers developed an iconography that used the African figure as a motif often set in lush jungle, as exemplified in this wall tile.
Dressing table, Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann
The techniques used to make this table continue traditional cabinet-making techniques of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However here Ruhlmann replaces the two rear legs with a classical vase shape which raises from a domed base. He also modernised the marquetry inlay decoration by combining ebony with ivory to create a striking contrast.
Ruhlmann himself was not a cabinet-maker. He was a designer and a decorator. Until 1923 when he opened his own workshop, he would commission carefully chosen cabinet-makers to make his furniture. He was after perfect execution of his own original designs and challenged his cabinet-makers to innovate and to find new solutions. Here, the carcase of the table is made of solid oak. Oak is the best carcase wood because of its hardness and stability. It was used in luxurious pieces of furniture by French 18th century cabinet-makers.
The three drawers are made of solid mahogany. Mahogany is also sometimes used as a carcase wood because it is a very stable, hard wood which does not move much with changes in humidity. It was also chosen for its deep red colour and its very smooth surface. It is an ideal wood for decorative elements like drawers meant to be touched and seen.
The columns are in solid purpleheart. These two woods are of a very intense colour, the purpleheart being dark red-purple and the andaman Padouk being dark-red.Their original colours were much more intense than what we can see today, as wood discolours and tends to darken with sunlight. Their texture is also different. By using these two slightly different woods Ruhlmann achieved a very refined visual effect.
Ruhlmann is always sensitive to contrasts of materials and colours.Until about 1925 he heightened the effects of his veneers by inlaying the surface of its furniture with strings of dots, rectangles or thin lines of ivory. This technique allows him to emphasise certain lines and insure a very refined finish.
The most remarkable feature of this dressing table is the black and white marquetry of ivory and ebony of the top. The work was done by outside ivory carvers who worked on commission from cartoons. This illusionistic and contrasted ivory pebbling was used by Ruhlmann in many instances. Here, it gives the illusion of a fine piece of fabric draped over the table, where brush and
other objects would seat.
It is also interesting to note that the back of the table is finished as if it was intended to be seen in the round and not put against a wall. The ivory strings of dots and rectangles continue at the back, the back of the mirror is veneered, and the vase is treated three-dimensionally as in front.
Inspiration from the East
Screen, Eileen Gray
The increasing fascination of Deco designers with sensuality, luxury and rich surface finish led to a craze for lacquer. A traditional Asian technique, it became one of the most favoured of modern materials. The versatility of lacquer meant that it could be applied to wood, metal, leather and textiles and used for a variety of different objects, but it was perhaps used to greatest effect in the stunning furniture and screens created by both European designers and Japanese masters of the medium.
The arts of Japan and China 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 were especially captivated by the sumptuous surfaces of lacquer. This fascination led to the creation of some very striking Art Deco objects such as this screen designed by Irish-born artist Eileen Gray.
Lacquer is the sap of a tree native to East Asia. After various refining processes to remove excess water and impurities lacquer is essentially a colourless, viscous liquid which hardens when exposed to oxygen under hot and humid conditions. Working with lacquer takes time and skill. It is applied in very thin layers to a base, often of wood. Each layer must be left to harden for a couple of days and then ground and polished smooth before the next layer is applied. Twenty or more layers are needed to obtain the desired results.
The lacquer can be coloured and precious metals and other materials can be used to create decorative effects.
Patterning can also be achieved through incising or carving into the lacquer surface. Lacquer was employed as an artistic medium in both China and Japan, but it was Japanese lacquerwork that particularly drew the attention of Art Deco artists such as Eileen Gray.They were attracted not only by the craft of its production, but by the richness, depth and sensuality of its surfaces. This European interest in lacquer was nothing new. Japanese lacquer had been prized ever since trade between East and West had been established in the sixteenth century.
Various attempts had been made to emulate the technique using pigmented varnishes, a method known as 'Japanning', but it was not until the twentieth century that artists living in Paris finally learnt the secrets of lacquer production. Their teacher was the Japanese craftsman Sugawara Seizō, who had settled in the city after coming to France for the International Exhibition of 1900.
Eileen Gray met Suguwara after moving to Paris in 1906 and the two artists embarked on a collaboration that was to last for forty years. Under Sugawara's tutelage Gray gained proficiency in lacquer and began to produce pieces of furniture as well as small items such as bowls and plates. The hot and humid conditions needed to produce lacquer were first achieved by Gray in her bathroom, but in 1910 she set up a special workshop for herself and Sugawara.
Despite her growing mastery of the technique Gray discovered that the lacquer gave her a skin complaint, a common problem experienced when handling the material. She therefore concentrated purely on the design of pieces, leaving the actual lacquering to Sugawara and his assistants.
This screen was designed in 1928 and, with its large, undecorated areas of pure lustre, reveals Gray's fascination with the fundamental properties and qualities of lacquer. Gray also liked to experiment with colour, texture, and reflection, here combining silver leaf with the innovative use of sand and gravel.
Lacquer was a vital element of the Art Deco style, part of the widespread taste for the exotic and the luxurious.
Through its inventive use designers such as Gray and Sugawara absorbed and transformed a centuries-old East Asian artistic medium into the essence of modernity.
Geometry and Abstraction
Evening gown, Jeanne Lanvin
Jeanne Lanvin's 1930s evening dresses, reflected the characteristic clean lines of the Deco style and were the epitome of refined and sophisticated elegance. She frequently combined simple, long and fluid forms with severe geometry.
This figure-hugging, bias cut evening gown is adorned with a structured collar, covered with narrow parallel rows of stitching. The geometric stitching not only re-inforces the fabric to allow the collar to keep its shape, but also serves a decorative purpose.
The use of reflective satin in fashion of the 1930s, often in pale colours, is also characteristic of a wider interest in Art Deco in the manipulation of light and surface sheen.
Bias cut technique
At the end of the 1920s, Vionnet's technique of cutting dresses across the grain of the fabric had been adopted by most couturiers, it would become the trademark of 1930s fashion. Bias cut offered very innovative possibilities. Dresses fitted better and fell around the body in figure hugging way. When cut across the grain, fabrics appeared softer, thinner and could be slightly stretched. It was the ideal technique to mould the feminine contours without hindering the body, a feature extremely important to women who had known the comfortable flat and square dresses of the previous decade.
Fabrics such as crepes, chiffons, lamés, rayon, silk velvets and satins were used to create bias cut garments. Because it has been cut in the bias, the satin used for this Lanvin dress is at the same time extremely fluid while maintaining its natural weight. This combination creates sharply defined yet graceful flounces, recalling classical columns, an important source of inspiration in 1930s fashion.
Satin became the emblematic fabric of 1930s Art Deco evening dresses. Used in 1920s black and white cinema, for its capacity to reflect light and its highly dramatic character, it was soon adopted by Hollywood actresses, as a symbol of luxury and sexuality, satin also had very strong graphic characteristics: it could suggest lacquer and streamlined metal forms, all of which were part of the 1930s Art Deco style.
Because of its very evocative character, satin was mostly used in monochrome colours. White or pastel satins of the 1920s and early 1930s soon gave way to stronger, more acidic colours. Lanvin had developed her sense of colour with Nabi painters such as Vuillard and Odilon Redon. She created the Lanvin blue, but also used black, coral, pale pink, cerise, almond green and a striking purple, as in this dress. By using one single very strong colour in this dress, she achieved the simple, yet sculptural look of the 'classical' fashion of the period.Cape
In the 1920s, women wore exotic evening coats, mantles or shawls to cover their bare shoulders and arms. Fashion designers created boleros, and short capes to emphasise the length and fluid shapes of the evening gowns of the 1930s. The short cape created by Lanvin to accompany this dress shows a very avant-garde design for the period. Its architectural shape, the off-the-neck gigantic collar and the use of huge buttons herald, almost 20 years before its time, a style developed by Balenciaga in the mid 1950s.The cape is made of silk velvet which has been ruched to achieve the effect of Astrakhan fur. The dense and intricate optical effects of the velvet enhances the purity of the dress' satin. This cape is a very good example of Lanvin's consummate knowledge of fabrics and of her characteristic love of textures.
Patriot radio model 400, Norman Bel Geddes; Bullet streamliner model 115, Fada
New plastics - such as Bakelite and Catalin - became the favoured materials of the 1930s, replacing exotic woods, ivory and sharkskin. Inexpensive and adaptable, they could be made to emulate the decorative and sensuous surfaces typical of Deco in the 1920s but were suited to batch or mass production. When technological improvements enabled the production of bright colours, plastics also became a cheap, durable and attractive alternative to other materials. Designers turned to plastic for many types of consumer product, tableware, jewellery and radios.
The Bullet and Patriot are typical examples of domestic radios designed and mass-produced in America during the 1930s. They still seem very glamorous and modern in their appearance, and as such represent the progressive and utopian spirit of American industrial design as it developed in between the two World Wars.
Early radios were encased in wooden cabinets based on traditional furniture forms. But with the development of more sophisticated plastics and techniques for moulding, radio cases took on new and distinctive shapes during the 1920s and 30s.
The Bullet and the Patriot models are both made from Catalin. Catalin was developed around 1927 which is when the patent for Bakelite ran out. One of the disadvantages of Bakelite had been that 'fillers' such as wood pulp or cotton flock had to be used to reinforce it. To reduce the visibility of these fillers in the final product Bakelite was made in a restricted colour range of black and dark browns.Catalin on the other hand did not require a 'filler' and could therefore be cast in a whole range of solid, mottled, translucent or transparent colours.
In its liquid state Catalin resembled a thick syrup. Before the plastic was baked in the oven to harden it, you could add different colouring agents to the liquid, swirl it around and this would produce a luxurious marbled effect. You can see marbling on the luminescent green and toffee coloured case of the Fada Bullet. This is typical of the way plastics were exploited to imitate more expensive materials such as tortoishell, alabaster and ivory.
The decorative appearance of radios could also be enhanced through trim, so tuning knobs, dial parts and handles were often cast separately in a contrasting colour. The Patriot shows this brilliantly with its dial and speaker grills picked out in white and red, and the tuning knobs a different shade of blue. This design was produced in varying combinations paying homage to the American flag.
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.