Art Deco as Product Design

Defining Art Deco as Consumerism

The Artist and Product Design

In the spring of 1925, the city of Paris hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries), which was a trade fair. The emphasis was on merchandise was carriers of design and art with the goal of demonstrating the post-war dominance of French artistry and French taste. Aside from being a national gesture of using art as part of a conflict arrière, the Exposition fitted neatly into the financial boom of the 1920s when money flowed as freely as wine. The Great War had been a period of deprivation and sacrifice, and, by the mid-twenties, a social shift had taken place. This change in culture accompanied the artistic modifications of the avant-garde to a more platable and more purchasable tamed Cubism and the release of women and the rise of new attitudes and new life styles. Mass media, advertising, and film, spread new styles and new ideas and, in the process, created a new person: the consumer, the buyer, the individual who desired something new and attractive. Made for the modern consumer, part of a now large middle class, the Paris Fair of 1925 was an enlarged and sprawling department store.

Ticket to the Exposition

What made Art Deco “Moderne” was quite simple, it banished the curved lines of nature and ushered in the lines made with mechanical drawing instruments, meaning the circle or a curve was allowed as long it was clearly machine made. Like the radical modern, Art Deco looked back to the past but in a different way. Le Corbusier meticulously traced his architectural theories and, consequently, his architecture, to the rationalism of the classical age of Louis XIV. The trajectory of the modern was a straight progressive line, based on the logic of a teleological purification. Art Deco was more rooted in the eighteenth-century sense of the decorative among the aristocrats, who prized high elegance and accepted the motifs of other cultures filtered through a French sensibility. In addition to the telescoping of the past and present, the old and the new, Art Deco also became the style in which new technological advances, from cars to radios, expressed their novel modernity. Writing for ArchDaily, Luke Fiederer said,

During its six month run, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs attracted roughly sixteen million visitors, creating massive international demand for the style to which it ultimately lent its name. In accordance with the organizer’s aims, the Exposition also established France as the arbiter of taste and fashion in the interwar era; Paris itself was put on display as the world’s most fashionable city. But the ramifications of the Exposition Internationale would spread far beyond Paris. Though several similar world’s fairs would follow in subsequent years (including two more in Paris in 1931 and 1937), none would have such a resounding impact as the one which took place in 1925. Time would eventually move past the frenzy of Art Deco that followed the 1925 Exposition, giving way to Modernism in the wake of the Second World War – but no single event would ever have such a profound effect on global design sensibilities ever again.

Because of its dominance in consumer goods, ranging from ash trays to fashion to rugs to liquor cabinets, Art Deco became the style of choice for the interwar generation, the Jazz Age, Les années folles, the decade of the Flapper, the decadence of the Lost Generation. The embeddedness of Art Deco in a consumer culture is significant because the “modern” of radical architecture and furnishings was embedded in a social theory of utopian socialism with the goal—not only of providing pleasure but also of providing pre-fabricated affordable housing furnished with affordable mass produced furniture and household objects. Therefore, there was a clear distinction between classes: pure theory based modern styles was an attempt on the part of the intellectuals to aid the working classes, but Art Deco was for the well-to-do, the sophisticated members of high society who could afford superfluous luxury goods and could afford to buy beauty for beauty’s sake.

Crowds at the Exposition

In fact, Grace Glueck of The New York Times scorned the style: “…Art Deco — a conservative but catchy fusion of earlier neo-classical styles like Louis XVI and Empire laced with Cubism, Futurism and late Art Nouveau — was all the rage. Sumptuous materials were its hallmark..” The art critic was making a larger point that the Fair woke up, not just America, but the rest of the world to the lucrative significance of design. More importantly, it could be added that art and design had become a modern mode of manifesting an international presence. The Americans, feeling that the nation had nothing of note to offer to the Parisians, turned down the invitation to participate, but observers were present, taking mental notes, as it were, and by the end of the decade, an American version of Art Deco would manifest itself in the skyscrapers now rising from the bedrock of Manhattan Island.

After the Great War, by the 1920s it was clear that much of the pre-war avant-garde, the bright colors of Fauvism, the sharp edges of Cubism, the fascination for speed from Futurism and the strong designs of Orphism, the exoticism of the Ballets Russes, and the fanciful dresses of Paul Poiret had been absorbed into the visual culture and had been disgorged as applied art. While the theme of the 1925 Fair was supposedly a form of industrial design, the actual standard for admission was simply “new inspiration and real originality,” encouraging artisan objects rather than manufactured objects. Stressing spectacle and focusing on glamour, the Exposition re-centered France as the capital of luxury goods and was what we today would term “feel good,” a sensation greatly valued after a terrible War. The Germans, invited belatedly, did not make an appearance but history shows that the Bauhaus machine-inspired industrial designs would consign the luxury style of Art Deco to historical dust. Art Deco was fated to suffer the fate of “style,” its day would pass; but the Bauhaus designers offered more than a style–they offered a lifestyle, one that would define the “modern.”

But the future was not known in 1925, and, despite its generational loss in the war, France asserted itself as the national leader among nations in modern style and cutting edge design. Absent dissenting voices from Germany or America, France reigned supreme. Designer Maurice Dufrène created the Rue des Boutiques along the Pont Alexandre III, providing a strip mall for consumer goods. The publicity for the event announced, “The new art has created a new artist.” This new artist is described as an “ensemblier” who, as the writer stated, “Is not a technician but a designer who has studied all the arts and all the crafts going into the composition of the interior.” Many of these new artists were connected to the major department stores in Paris, each of which was represented by their own Pavilions, underlining the Fair’s unabashed commercialism. This analysis comes from Simon Dell who wrote an important essay on “The Consumer and the Making of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes , 1907–1925” in 1999. The essay highlights the significance of the many pavilions built by the French to showcase their wares, allowing the objects to be displayed in domestic or department store type settings, exhibited to their best advantage, with the intention of arousing the desire to purchase in the hearts of the consumer. Dell pointed out that the Fair exhibited a significant shift from simply making or producing artifacts to what he termed “the presentation of consumption.”

Louis Cartier and Maurice Couët. Clock (white jade, onyx, diamonds, coral, mother of pearl, gold)

The genius of the designer as one who produced an assemblage or a total work of art meant that the well-heeled consumer had to move into an Art Deco home, furnished with new Art Deco furnishings from floor to ceiling and was required to wear coordinating fashions. The word for the Exposition was “ensemble.” The visitor should be consumed with desire for the new, not just one desire but a series of cascading and interlocking desires that led the viewer, soon to the be consumer, from one created “need” to another. This combination of retail and art was potent. The designs by the artists-craftspeople were so beautiful and exquisitely made they were simply irresistible. There was a psychological aspect to the elegant pavilions, their seductive way of presenting objects clearly proffered to the affluent–the mode of installation and display made people imagine themselves through design. Donning an Art Deco dress or sitting down at an Art Deco desk or purchasing an Art Deco lamp became part of a self-fashioning of a persona: the consumer was expressing him or herself through the acquisition of objects of desire. It is important to think of the Exposition as an exercise in mass social education. The middle class was being knitted into the fabric of the upper class and its tastes in order to create a knowledgeable buyer and consequently a reliable customer. The goal of this consumer was not just to purchase a luxury item or indeed to express him or herself through consumption, rather the end point of the project was to demonstrate what Pierre Bourdieu termed “distinction,” the ability to distinguish oneself from those who were not “in the know.” As Bourdieu stated,

Consumption is, in this case, a stage in a process of communication, that is, an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or ex­plicit mastery of a cipher or code. In a sense, one can say that the capacity to see (voir) is a function of the knowledge (savoir), or concepts, that is, the words, that are available to name visible things, and which are, as it were, programmes for perception. A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded. The conscious or unconscious implemen­tation of explicit or implicit schemes of perception and appreciation which constitutes pictorial or musical culture is the hidden condition for recognizing the styles characteristic of a period, a school or an author, and, more generally, for the familiarity with the internal logic of works that aesthetic enjoyment presupposes. A beholder who lacks the specific code feels lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms, colours and lines, with­ out rhyme or reason.

In his important book, Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste in 1979, Bourdieu stressed the “aristocracy of culture” as signified by a grasp of “culture” that could be “symbolized.” This symbolic culture was manifested as a displayed knowledge of how to comport oneself, how to act, how to speak, how to move through the world with what he called “habitus.” For Bourdieu, this “habitus” is part of the class structure or the social system which divides classes, not so much by economic differences but by an understanding of social codes or the ability to read crucial signals. If, as Bourdieu, pointed out, one lacks the ability to recognize the “codes,” one revealed through ignorance that one did not belong. This innate class knowledge, once granted on to those born into a certain social sphere, was now for sale at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.

Horrified by the appearance of the new style, eventually called Art Deco, Le Corbusier preached, “Trash is always abundantly decorated; the luxury object is well made, neat and clean, pure and healthy, and its bareness reveals the quality of its manufacture.” Not only was the architect echoing Loos, he was also channeling William Morris who decried the false ornamentation of manufactured products for the middle-class home. Over fifty years later, Le Corbusier observed that the cheap consumer goods were festooned with elaborations while the truly elegant objects were clean simple designs that need nothing more than their pure form. The “Decorative is disguise,” he proclaimed. In keeping with Loos, Le Corbusier also assumed that design, like art, would evolve from a state of impurity—that is decoration—to a state of purity—that is the objet-type or the rational object. In representing the theories of the modern, Le Corbusier was alone—Germany refused to participate, complaining of the late arrival of an invitation, and America, the recognized home of the industrial and the mechanical, declined, stating a lack of development in the decorative arts. Only the Russian Pavilion could match the edginess of Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau as an example of functionalism and constructivism. But in terms of proselytizing in the French language, the Swiss architect became the main bulwark against creeping impurity. Art Deco, which took modern shapes and forms and repurposed them as a new décor, was, in his view “the final spasm of a predictable death.”

Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau

In some ways, his prediction was correct for the unadorned work of architecture or stripped down object became identified as “modern,” while Art Deco had to wait decades before being recognized as a style in its own right, not a “fallen” version of modernism. A style of luxury, targeting connoisseurs prone to avant-garde aspirations, Art Deco or Art Moderne, was simply erased after the history of the interwar era was written after World War II. In its own time, however, Art Deco ushered in a new age of commercialism and commodities, announcing a new style that swept away Art Nouveau which demanded a new wave of redecorating to conform with the age of the automobile. Like its more serious and theoretical cousin, modernism, Art Deco insisted that art must be of its own time, but, unlike the modern style of the Bauhaus and Gropius and Mies van der Rohr or the Purism of Le Corbusier, Art Deco evoked an ethnic and historic mix of references.

Post card of the Eiffel Tower at Night

If Le Corbusier had visited the Fair at night, he would have been treated to the sight of the Eiffel Tower, normally unadorned, decked out like a Christmas tree with some 200,000 light bulbs if six different colors that were coordinated to create different light shows, including the logo of the sponsor, Citroën. The prominent position of the automobile company looming over Paris might explain why Citroën was not interested in sponsoring Le Corbusier’s Pavillion. The plan to hold an exhibition based on the machine predated the Great War when French critic Roger Marx said in 1909 that such an event would “bring to an end the scorn to which the machine has been subjected, and end the longstanding antagonism between architects and engineers..” The real story of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was the famous pavilions, the stylish containers of objects of desire, bound inside of Art Deco styled buildings that were–alas–temporary, where the consumer could be overwhelmed by a desire to possess. The next post will discuss these elegant pavilions.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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