art deco: only a sideshow

AFTER WORLD WAR I, an eclectic popular style appeared in France characterized by ornamental and decorative craft motifs, and Machine Age* materials, but waned after World War II. The modernism that dominated afterwards emphasized function over form, so art deco was considered pretentious, even kitsch, though its enduring popularity attests to human love for ornamentation. Yet it was another kind of response to the demands of mass production and new materials, rectilinear and optimistic about progress.

It owed something to art nouveau but had a more ordered design (see “Alphonse Mucha and art nouveau”). Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan-influenced architectural features, Sant’ Elia’s futuristic skyscrapers, cubist ideas and classical Greek revivalist images influenced its development. At the right, New York’s iconic Chrysler Building, constructed in 1928 to 1930, displays art deco symmetry at the apex of its influence.

*The first half of the twentieth century, basically, sometimes including the latter part of the nineteenth century, 1880 to 1945.
The typeface Bifur, designed by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre in the 1920s.

Wisdom, with Light and Sound by sculptor Lee Oscar Lawrie, above the entrance to the GE building, New York City, demonstrates confidence in the future, typical of art deco.

The two decades between the world wars was a period of ornate elegance, stylish extravagance, slick and shiny with lots of metallic accents, streamlined and neon-coloured by night, spectacular and overdone (think Cecil B DeMille movies).

Modernism denied all that but it’s still hard to ignore; to the printed page, at its best it contributed elegant use of white space, wide leading and letterspaced headlines, with often gorgeous illustrations.

In stark contrast to the extravagance of the time, the Great Depression spawned widespread poverty. The Works Progress Administration in the US put to work the many unemployed on public works projects. The WPA’s Arts Service Division produced illustrations and posters, and the Art Teaching Division set up over 100 art centres around the country serving some eight million people.

Understanding the Arts, circa 1936-1941 by Shari Weisberg, WPA artist.

A few famous WPA artists were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Grant Wood (see Wood’s American Gothic, 1930 below, one of the few images to reach the iconic status of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Edvard Munch’s The Scream).

Some of the best examples of poster design came from Adolphe Mouron Cassandre (designer of the Bifur typeface above) who is featured in another post.

Another great illustrator of the time was Tamara de Lempicka who captured the glamour of the time impeccably. Due to possible copyright infringement, I can only suggest following this link for an eyeful of her fabulous work.

After economic disaster and another world war, a fresh, more hopeful vision of the future was welcome.

Enter modernism stripped down and getting ready to rock and roll. Contrast the Fortune magazine covers below, at left from 1942 and at right from 1951.

~ Robert Grey