The term Art Deco, coined in the 1960s, refers to a style that spanned the boom of the roaring 1920s and the bust of the Depression-ridden 1930s. Art Deco represented many things for many people. It was the style of the flapper girl and the factory, the luxury ocean liner and the skyscraper, the fantasy world of Hollywood and the real world of the Harlem Renaissance. Art Deco affected all forms of design, from the fine and decorative arts to fashion, film, photography, transport and product design. It was modern and it was everywhere.
It drew on tradition and yet simultaneously celebrated the mechanised, modern world. Often deeply nationalistic, it quickly spread around the world, dominating the skylines of cities from New York to Shanghai. It embraced both handcraft and machine production, exclusive works of high art and new products in affordable materials.
Art Deco reflected the plurality of the contemporary world. Unlike its functionalist sibling, Modernism, it responded to the human need for pleasure and escape.
In celebrating the ephemeral, Art Deco succeeded in creating a mass style of permanence. Infinitely adaptable, it gave free reign to the imagination and celebrated the fantasies, fears and desires of people all over the world.
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 the pictorial inventions of contemporary Avant Garde art, the rich colours and exotic themes of the Ballets Russes, and the urban imagery of the machine age. They also drew on more 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 Meso-America.
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.