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Chic vs. Sleek
Art Deco vs. Art Moderne

by Bob Brooke


Art Deco—those two words bring to mind sleek forms and chic design. Many believe the style began in America. But actually its origins go much further back to France on the other side of the Atlantic. Arte Moderne, on the other hand, was decidedly an American invention. Although taking its design concepts from Art Deco, it was a completely different style. Unfortunately, this is the style most Americans confuse with Art Deco.

Art Deco
The Art Deco style made its debut at the 1925 World's Fair in Paris—the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes or the International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts—but the name Art Deco wasn’t used until 1966. A group of French architects and interior designers, who banded together to form the Societe des Artistes Decorateurs, developed the style to incorporate elements of style from diverse artworks and current fashion trends. Influence from Cubism and Surrealism, Egyptian and African folk art are evident in the lines and embellishments, and Asian influences contribute symbolism, grace and detail.

The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris was a vast state-sponsored fair that dazzled more than 16 million visitors during its seven-month run. The works exhibited—everything from architecture and interior design to jewelry and perfumes—were principally intended to promote and proclaim French supremacy in the production of luxury goods. The primary requirement for inclusion of the more than 20 countries invited to participate was that all works had to be thoroughly modern—no copying of historical styles of the past would be permitted. However, many of the objects exhibited were rooted in the traditions of the past.

Art Deco was already an internationally mature style by 1925—one that had flourished in the years following World War I and peaked at the time of the fair. The enormous commercial success of Art Deco ensured that designers and manufacturers throughout Europe continued to promote this style until well into the 1930s. .

Art Deco reflected the general optimism and carefree mood that swept Europe and the United States following World War I. Hope and prosperity are represented in sunburst designs, chevrons and references to the good life in the elegant figures depicted in casual, sensual poses, often dancing or sipping cocktails. The modern influences heralded a bright and shining future outlook that found its way to architecture, jewelry, automobile design and even extended to ordinary things such as refrigerators and trash cans.

Art Deco is a decorative style that is essentially an extension of the French Art Nouveau and English Aesthetic styles, but also includes elements of Arts and Crafts form. Art Deco is a decorative style that is essentially an extension of the French Art Nouveau and English Aesthetic styles, but also includes elements of Arts and Crafts form.

The style emphasizes surface embellishment, drawing heavily on the colors and styles of some of the early modern art movements, from Impressionism through Cubism. Like many of the modern art styles, it was inspired by Chinese and Japanese art.

Sometimes ornamentation was straightforwardly applied to the surface of an object, like a decorative skin; other times, potentially utilitarian designs—bowls, plates, vases, even furniture—were in and of themselves purely ornamental, not intended for practical use but rather conceived for their decorative value alone, exploiting the singular beauty of form or material. Painting and sculpture—again, conceived mainly as decoration rather than as serious works of fine art—were an important aspect of Art Deco, as well. Among the most popular and recurring motifs are the human figure, animals, flowers, and plants; abstract geometric decoration was also prevalent. .

Exoticism also played a role in Art Deco. During the 1920s and 1930s, the French government encouraged designers to take advantage of resources—like raw materials and a skilled workforce—that could be imported from the nation's colonies in Asia and Africa. The resulting growth of interest in the arts of colonial countries in Asia and Africa led French designers to explore new materials (sharkskin, ivory, and exotic woods), techniques (lacquering, ceramic glazes), and forms that evoke faraway places and cultures.

Though it spread to other countries, Art Deco was a distinctively French response to the postwar demand for luxurious objects and fine craftsmanship. French designers utilized lavish materials and such rich, traditional decorative techniques as inlay and veneer on streamlined geometric forms.

Art Moderne
Sometimes classified as a later phase of Art Deco, Art Moderne is often confused with its predecessor. Art Moderne is a horizontal design, emphasizing movement and sleekness; Art Deco emphasizes verticality and stylized, geometric ornamentation.

If Art Deco had its roots in France, Art Moderne is decidedly American, dating from the early 1930s and lasting until the 1940s. It was bigger, bolder, and brassier—just like America at the time. Think of Art Moderne as Art Deco on steroids. Art Deco placed an emphasis on shape and absence of superfluity, but Moderne was streamlined.

Moderne designers subscribed to an ideal of the machine-made.

Like the Austrian-born Paul Frankl, many Moderne designers, including K.E.M Weber and Josef Urban, were immigrants from Europe. Other major Moderne names include Paul Fuller, Donald Deskey, Norman Bel Geddes, and Russel Wright.

Art Deco and Art Moderne overlap, both stylistically and chronologically, Frankl's first Skyscraper furniture, for example, dates from the late 1920s. Of the two, Art Deco is the more familiar term.

But in the end, it's more a question of style than dates. Think of Art Deco as chic, Moderne as sleek. Or Art Deco as organic, Moderne as mechanic, the former reveling in restrained craftsmanship, the latter a celebration of geometric shape, as precise as only a machine can make it.

Streamline Moderne, or Art Moderne, is a late type of Art Deco design that emerged in the 1930s. While rich colors, bold geometry, and decadent detail work characterized Art Deco, evoking glamour, luxury, and order with symmetrical designs in exuberant shapes, Art Moderne is essentially a machine aesthetic focused on mass production, functional efficiency, and a more abstract aesthetic coming from the Bauhaus in Germany.

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