“It was a fascinating period of huge change…Everything was being thrown out and replaced. Art Deco encapsulates the exploring and embracing of the new...There was going to be no more poverty, no more ignorance, no more disease. Art Deco reflected that confidence, vigour and optimism by using symbols of progress, speed and power.”

Robert McGregor
Heritage Officer, The Art Deco Trust, Napier, New Zealand

Art Deco, a name that was coined only in retrospect, describes a diverse design impetus that emerged in Europe in the 1920s from an amalgam of styles and sources, and came to dominate eclectic creative fields around the world for a period that lasted roughly from the end of the First World War to the beginning of the Second. As Robert McGregor notes, this was an epoch of change and coping, of celebrating the end of one war and the economic and cultural prosperity of the 1920s, and then finding common ground and optimism at the onset of the Great Depression and another war the following decade.

Art Deco marked a clear separation from the past and a confidence in the future, embracing streamlined symmetry and sleek linearity that succeeded the fluid, natural forms of the Art Nouveau movement. Like Art Nouveau, Art Deco paid homage to beauty and ornament. However, it also represented sophistication and modernization, two of the ideals that animated cities like Paris in the ‘Roaring Twenties’. It was in Paris, in fact, that the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes was held in 1925, the exhibition of decorative and industrial art to which the genesis of Art Deco is usually traced, and after which it was later named.

The style was realised in all areas of decorative design, from architecture, automobiles and furniture to fashion and jewelry, and also had a clear influence on the visual and performing arts of the times including painting, graphic design, typography and music. Some of the most famous artists, architects and designers associated with the Art Deco style include Tamara de Lempicka, René Lalique, Jean Dupas, Claud Beelman, Raymond Hood, Eileen Gray, Erté and Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann.

Emphasizing surface decoration, Art Deco drew from movements like Cubism and Russian Constructivism, from the social and technological advances of the time, and even from the classical art and culture of Japan, China, Egypt and Central America. Through geometric patterns and symbols of flight, power and speed, Art Deco represented high technology and developments in communications and transport. Skyscraper and ziggurat forms, chevrons and sunbursts were also popular motifs, alluding to the dawn of a new modernism, as was the ‘new woman’, commemorating social emancipation. The adoption of sleek and unusual materials like silver, lacquer, chrome, Bakelite and shagreen complemented these themes and motifs.

Even though the most commonly cited and recognised surviving examples of the style are the Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, all located in New York, Art Deco made its presence felt on every continent, and its distinctive architecture and design can still be seen in cities from Miami and Mexico City to Mumbai and Manila. In New Zealand, for example, the entire town of Napier was rebuilt in the Art Deco style after it was laid waste by an earthquake in 1931, and Mumbai is second only to Miami in terms of the number of Art Deco buildings it boasts. Currently, Napier and several other Art Deco neighbourhoods around the world are recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Some of the greatest patrons of Art Deco architecture, interiors, jewellery and accessories were members of India’s royal families. From entire palaces constructed in the style, most notably in Morvi, Jodhpur and Indore, to highly customised jewelry, furniture and accessories purchased from European firms like Cartier, Boucheron and Louis Vuitton, India’s maharajas were captivated by the glamour and modernity that Art Deco represented.

Although it continued to flourish for some years after the Great Depression, in part due to Indian royal patronage, with the austerity of the Second World War, Art Deco began to lose some of its charm. The style came to be seen as extravagant and even vulgar, and support for it slowly declined. In the late 1960s, however, there was a resurgence of interest in Art Deco, with retrospective exhibitions and books published on the style, a wave of restoration of Art Deco objects and buildings, and new movements like Pop Art that borrowed from it. It was during this renaissance, in 1968, that Bevis Hillier first called the eclectic style of the period ‘Art Deco’.

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