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Design for the Modern Age: What is Art Deco Furniture?

No other 20th-century design movement has enjoyed the widespread popularity and staying power of Art Deco. Defined by modernity matched with glamour and luxury, Art Deco design is completely unique in its appeal. Because it was a movement based on modern living, furniture became one of the main modes of expression for Art Deco designers, and countless reinterpretations of these items have popped up in the century since its introduction. Original Art Deco furnishings, with their emphasis on streamlined forms, superb craftsmanship and sophistication, never seem to go out of style. Read on to learn how to identify Art Deco furniture and its history.

 
French Art Deco card table and chairs, circa 1930
 
French Art Deco card table and chairs, circa 1930
 

History of Art Deco Furniture

Any discussion of Art Deco design must begin at the 1925 Paris World's Fair called Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes — the exhibition that famously gave name to the emerging Art Deco movement. There, Art Deco artists and designers embraced contemporary art movements and utilized new materials and construction methods made possible by recent advancements in manufacturing. The Machine Age was in full swing, and the exhibition was a true celebration of progressive styles, sleek lines and innovation. The exhibition attracted over six million attendees and captured the world's attention by introducing this exciting, fresh decorative approach.

 

The seeds of Art Deco design were planted earlier, however, and many design scholars roughly date the style between 1915-1940, with the 1939-40 New York World's Fair serving as somewhat of an endpoint. It thrived across Europe and the Americas throughout the 1930s, and it came to encompass everything from jewelry to architecture to graphic design to fine art, not to mention furniture and interior design. The style's timeline is difficult to pinpoint because of its evolutionary nature. This movement was, in a sense, an amalgam of many different styles and movements of the early 20th century, including Neoclassicism, Constructivism, Cubism, Modernism, Bauhaus, Art Nouveau and Futurism.

 

Art Deco emerged, in part, as a response to the growing influence of the cleaner, simpler designs coming out of Germany, namely the Biedermeier style. Its origins can also be thought of as a reaction to the preceding Art Nouveau movement that emerged at the turn of the 20th century and the rapid changes in manufacturing that followed. Art Nouveau artists took inspiration from the organic, with sinuous lines and soft palettes that mimic natural forms. The movement began to wane in the years before WWI due to the rise of industrialization, paving the way for a new style to emerge. Art Deco embraced these changes, using machine-age innovation to develop its stronger, more streamlined designs. Interestingly, these two distinct design movements are often conflated with one another, but with this historical understanding in place, the differences in Art Deco vs. Art Nouveau design are apparent.

 

If not for the First World War, Art Deco may have run its course before its official 1925 Paris debut. Many furniture pieces we would place visually within the height of Art Deco style by the likes of Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Paul Follot were actually designed well before 1925. To further promote its worldwide reputation as a leader in art and design, France had planned an international exhibition for 1915, but it was postponed after the outbreak of war in 1914. Thus, design innovation was stalled, and the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes occurred ten years later.

 
“Retombante” stool by Emile-Jacques Ruhlman, circa 1916-18, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
 
“Retombante” stool by Emile-Jacques Ruhlman, circa 1916-18, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
 

Indeed, for furniture in particular, the epicenter of Art Deco designs was France. This was partly due to new decorative arts societies established in that country around the turn of the century. These organizations, such as the Société des Artistes Décorateurs (founded in 1901), encouraged high standards of production and promoted the work of designers that would emerge as leaders of the Art Deco movement.

 

Art Deco Furniture Characteristics

We have already touched upon some of the fundamental aesthetic values of the Art Deco movement; it embraced clean lines, different geometric shapes, rich and bold colors and modern materials. While symmetry and repetition were critically important in Art Deco furnishings, so were elements like sensuous curves and effortless rounded edges. As it appeared in some of the most sophisticated and wealthiest homes and hotels of the era, Art Deco furniture, in particular, aimed for the heights of luxury and seductive beauty. Also, because the standards of production and design were so high for Art Deco furniture, the quality of the materials and the manipulation of those materials were reflected. Furniture can be crafted from a wide variety of materials — wood, metal, glass, fabric and even plastic. So, what is Art Deco furniture made of? The following are some of the key design principles and materials seen across Art Deco furniture.

 

Geometry

Think of the top of the Chrystler Building in New York or the bold symmetry of Art Deco jewelry. Geometric shapes and patterns are essential to our understanding of Art Deco design. The furniture of the period embraced this type of patterning as well, displaying elements such as stepped chair backs and inlay and wood marquetry designs. However, it is important to note that while geometry implies simplified forms, Art Deco design stacked layered these forms, creating complex and intricate arrangements. Sunbursts and chevrons were common motifs.

 

Exotic Woods

The feel of extravagance was essential to the finest Art Deco furnishings, and this meant the inclusion of the finest and rarest woods available. Costly woods like mahogany, zebrawood, amboyna, ebony and ash are seen frequently. Burl wood was also common. Additionally, these types of exotic wood were sometimes veneered with grains placed in contrasting positions, creating a geometric pattern and visual interest.
 
French Art Deco games table and chairs crafted of rosewood, mahogany and Madagascar ebony, circa 1925
 
French Art Deco games table and chairs crafted of rosewood, mahogany and Madagascar ebony, circa 1925
 

Laquer

Woods were often lacquered to a high shine, as seen in the above games table, which involved a laborious process with several coats of the substance. This gave the furniture a sleek, polished appearance that evoked a modern, sophisticated attitude.

 

High Shine

Speaking of high shine, reflective surfaces were a central element in many designs of the era. Lacquer was not the only material Art Deco designers turned to in order to achieve this look. It was the Machine Age, and industry was booming, including the manufacture of metals. Chrome was a highly popular choice as an accent material on wood furnishings. Mirrors and mirrored surfaces were central design elements as well. Learn more about the history of mirrors and their influence on interior design.

 
Art Deco ship's bar mirror, circa 1930
 
Art Deco ship's bar mirror, circa 1930
 

Leather

Because luxury was a priority, high-quality leathers are distinguishing elements of many Art Deco-era furniture pieces. These leathers were sometimes dyed in the rich jewel tones that were so popular in the jewelry of the day, or they were made in striking, stark white for high contrast.

 
Leather Art Deco armchair, circa 1930
 
Leather Art Deco armchair, circa 1930
 

Waterfall Edges

Clean lines did not always mean straight lines for Art Deco furniture design. Soft but deliberate curves were fashionable on items such as chair backs and arms, cabinets and vanities. This curved aesthetics often took the form of the so-called waterfall edge, consisting of rounded edges to horizontal surfaces, evoking the drop of a waterfall.

 

Bars

Although not a design element or material, one cannot have a conversation about Art Deco furniture without mentioning the standalone bar. In the golden age of the cocktail, bars were essential within upper-class society, and their designs reflected the joie de vivre of the Jazz Age.

 
Art Deco piano bar, circa 1920
 
Art Deco piano bar, circa 1920
 
Just as it was then, Art Deco furniture is still seen as elegant, functional and modern today, and it is still eagerly sought after by collectors and designers for its beauty and history. From your living room to your bedroom, there are many ways to heighten your home's interior design with a furniture piece from this era. To discover other Art Deco artifacts, rare art, or perhaps other furniture periods and more, browse M.S. Rau's website.
 
 
References:
 
Art Deco. Quantum Publishing, 2008.
Duncan, Alastair. Art Deco Furniture: The French Designers. Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Hencz, Adam. “A Complete Guide to Art Deco Furniture.” Artland Magazine.
Kingsley, Rebecca. Art Deco Furniture and Metalwork. Grange, 1998.

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