Art Deco's global influences

Art Deco designers drew on many sources in their bid to create a modern style. In the 1920s they looked globally, to the arts of Africa, Asia and Mesoamerica. Meanwhile, archaeological discoveries of the early 1920s fuelled an appetite for historical romanticism and the imagery of ancient cultures.

Egypt held a particular alure for artists and designers. The discovery of the tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun, by Howard Carter in November 1922, sparked enormous popular interest. Generic Egyptian imagery such as scarabs, hieroglyphics and pyramids, proliferated everywhere, from clothing to cinema façades. Our hand-beaded lame evening jacket, made in Paris in 1923, is a prime example of Egyptian-inspired styling.

Jacket, unknown maker, 1923, France. Museum no. T.91-1999. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exotic touched every aspect of contemporary life. Motifs such as lotus flowers, tropical birds, animals, dancing girls and native figures became commonplace, as seen in Raoul Dufy's richly exotic textile designs. 'La Danse', a furnishing fabric of woodblock printed cretonne, features figures dancing among tropical palms, vividly evoking the exoticism of the South Sea Islands.

After the horrors of the First World War (1914–18) designers also looked to the lyrical imagery and themes of the Classical world. Subjects such as the 'Flight of Europa' or 'Pallas Athena' appeared on textiles, wallpapers and ceramic vessels.

Europa and the Bull, furnishing fabric, designed by Frank Dobson, printed by Mary Dobson, 1938, England. Museum no. CIRC.104-1939. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In fashion, Jean Patou's sleeveless floor-length evening gown, in tulle and pink sequins, embodied the search for Classical simplicity and purity. Its loosely draped bodice and plunging neckline glorify the female body – a central concept in Classical dress.

Evening dress, Jean Patou, 1932 – 34, France. Museum no. T.336&A-1974. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of Art Deco's richest sources of exotic imagery was Africa. The abstract geometry of African textiles, shields and sculptures was easily adapted for the modern eye. African figures became a familiar decorative motif, as seen in our sand-blasted black glass panel, featuring a stylised, silhouetted African woman in profile. Modern manufacturing techniques, such as those pioneered by Pilkington Glass, the maker of this piece, made the design accessible to a broad range of people.

Panel, designed by Sigmund Pollitzer, made by Pilkington Ltd, 1933, England. Museum no. C.230-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1925 the African-American dancer Josephine Baker became a sensation in Paris. Her erotic dances and risqué costumes, including a skirt made of bananas, made her a design icon in her own right and she appeared in many objects of the period, such as Fritz Lampl's standing glass figure in lamp-worked glass.

Josephine Baker, figure, Fritz Lampl, about 1925, England. Museum no. C.22-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exotic wasn't only celebrated in imagery, but influenced choice of material too. Tropical woods were frequently selected for their sensuous effects, as demonstrated in Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann's lotus dressing table, which incorporates purpleheart, amaranth and andaman padauk woods, as well as luxurious ebony and ivory marquetry.

Dressing table, Emile Jacques Ruhlmann, 1919 – 1923, France. Museum no. W.14:1 to 6-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As the 1930s progressed, exoticism gave way to a growing passion for the spare geometry of the Avant Garde. There is no doubt, however, that it played a fundamental role in shaping the Art Deco aesthetic, helping to build its distinct visual rhetoric.