Not until 1968 were all the adjectives of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes swept away in favor of two signifying words “art deco” coined by the historian Bevis Hiller in his book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s. The fact that neither the Exposition nor the impact of its numerous exhibitions was discussed to any length until 1968 indicates the uncertain relationship between the past, present and future that existed on the Fairgrounds in 1925. Hiller was correct that a style he called “Art Deco” emerged and this style certainly indicated “modern,” but, in 1925, being modern was fraught with tensions. Art Deco, like much of the visual culture in France between the wars, was part of the larger cultural desire to stop time and to retour à l’ordre.
The need to freeze any forward motion in the arts was coupled with an anxiety over the nation losing its dominance in the arts, especially the decorative arts, a concern that dated back to the pre-war era. The source of this worry was, of course, Germany, the perpetual enemy and rival to France. But by 1925, Germany was defeated, excluded, outlawed, and was not even invited to this Exposition until the last minute. The goal of the event was to assert the continued dominance of France in the decorative arts, which heretofore had been expressed only through fashion. In addition to establishing the authority of France in all things decorative, the characteristic of what precisely “French” stood for had been reduced to the classical or the timeless. Therefore, to be French in the art world, from fine arts to architecture, was to extend the historical styles into the twentieth century.
Art Deco, as a modern style, was an applied version of late post-war conservative version of pre-war Cubism, which found a natural home in decoration. To the extent that Art Deco was modern, it was that this style was linked to all manner of objects which were, in turn, part of a growing consumer culture, an aspect of modernism that the French had virtually invented. The problems emerged with the term “industrial” or the machine age, which was linked to industrialization. On one hand, the idea of industrial design had to be reckoned with—Germany and the new Soviet Union were making strides in this new and modern area–but, on the other hand, France was reluctant to industrialize and would continue to resist that form of modernization well into the Vichy period of the Second World War.
It is helpful to divide the discussion of this ground-breaking world’s fair into two section, decorative arts, which were well represented and industrial design which, for France, was rather low profile and mainly represented by the architect Le Corbusier. A quick comparison between the official pavilions built by French architects for France and Le Corbusier’s offering reveal a swing between extremes: historicized decoration in contrast to a stripped down white cube. The dialectic between the architectural styles mirrored a very dilemma: how to live in the new century.
To use the term “Art Deco” today is to introduce an anachronism, because to the extent that the style of this period had a name at all it was “Art Moderne,” a name used in the 1920s and 1930s. In contrast, the architecture by the small group of radical architects is always termed “modern” to distinguish its extreme modernity, which was based upon construction and structure, as a contrast to the surface decoration of the descendent of Cubism, called Art Moderne. To reinforce the difference, an Art Deco building—and there are only a few in Paris today—can be identified by certain applied decorations, usually simple geometric shapes, while the modern building comes, not from painting but from architecture, reduced to its most minimal elements: walls, floors, ceilings, openings—windows and doors–organized within an open cube. Inspired by the assembly line of a factory where standardized parts could be combined as modules, the “home” had been transformed from a hand-built structure that reflected the rituals of life inside to a machine-made structure made according to the demands of the mechanics themselves.
The architect Le Corbusier, a prolific writer, sometime painter, waded decisively into the contemporary debate over the rule of architecture in the early twentieth century. As a response to the Great War and the subsequent housing crisis, he developed a new kind of house, which he called the Dom-ino, low-cost and capable of being mass produced. In a time when France was intent upon honoring tradition, Le Corbusier was determined to redefine the domestic domicile. “A house,” he famously intoned, “is a machine for living.” This quotation does not mean a home filled with machines but an architectural design based upon the efficiency of machines which were automated, identical and composed of modular parts that had to be similar and interchangeable but with each element having a specialized function. The machine is purposeful and direct with all its wheels and gears moving in unison, working towards a single goal. Le Corbusier later clarified and softened his stance by asking, “Is no the goal of the house to make life easy and agreeable?”
In its plainness, its refusal to appeal to the viewer through surface blandishments, Le Corbusier’s offering to the Fair, the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, named after his magazine of the same name, was stubbornly unclad or naked. A small cubed structure, constructed paradoxically out of wood and then coated with white stucco for cleanliness and contemporaneity, the Pavilion stood as far outside the official boundaries of the exposition itself as possible but also near the Grand Palais. The officials grudgingly granted the Swiss architect among their midst the worst site on the Left Bank, but despite the independence of the architect’s offering to the public, the horrified officials of the Fair erected a twenty-foot high fence to shield the eyes of causal passersby from the offending sight of the modern. The French Minister of Fine Arts, however, removed the barrier.
If one were not offended by radical architecture and dared to enter the Pavilion, it would become clear that the project was not just a modern house, a “machine,” a machine à habiter, where one could live a contemporary existence, but was also a didactic exercise that explained the concepts and philosophy of Le Corbusier. The main room, a display of modern living, provided a view of the way in which the interior had been constructed on two levels. The second story was opened by a loft balcony punctuated by a carved sculpture on a pedestal cantilevered from the railing edge. For those who had no idea of how to furnish such a dwelling with its open and free plan, he selected appropriate furnishings and arranged the rooms into areas of activity with modular bookcases or storage units which broke up the open space of the room.
Building the machine for living was simple enough. Le Corbusier, inspired by monastery architecture, simply designed an open cell, which could be arranged and or partitioned according to the owner’s needs. These dividers cum furniture were as open and light weight as the plan libre itself. The Pavilion was a case study, presented to an audience aware of the need to update housing in Europe. Designed as a “base cell,” the home could be duplicated endlessly as modules or “Immeuble Villas.” The international jury awarded the Pavilion first prize but the French Academy, offended by the brazen challenge to tradition, vetoed the gesture, bringing instant fame and publicity to Le Corbusier. In 1929, Le Corbusier looked back on this building and wrote,
“The “Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau” at the Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 was a signal triumph over difficulties. No funds were available, no site was forthcoming, and the Organizing Committee of the Exhibition refused to allow the scheme I had drawn up to proceed. The program of that scheme was as follows, the rejection of decorative art as such, accompanied by an affirmation that the sphere of architecture embraces every detail of household furnishing, the street as well as the house, and a wider world still beyond both. My intention was to illustrate how, by virtue of the selective principle (standardization applied to mass-production), industry creates pure forms ; and to stress the intrinsic value of this pure form of art that is the result of it. Secondly to show the radical transformations and structural liberties reinforced concrete and steel allow us to envisage in urban housing – in other words that a dwelling tan be standardized to meet the needs of men whose lives are standardized. And thirdly to demonstrate that these comfortable and elegant units of habitation, these practical machines for living in, could be agglomerated in long, lofty blocks of villa-flats. The “Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau” was accordingly designed as a typical cell-unit in just such a block of multiple villa-flats. It consisted of a minimum dwelling with its own roof-terrace. Attached to this cell-unit was an annexe in the form of a rotunda containing detailed studies of town-planning schemes; two large dioramas, each a hundred square meters in area, one of which showed the 1922 “Plan for a Modern City of 3,000,000 Inhabitants”; and the other the “Voisin Plan” which proposed the creation of a new business centre in the heart of Paris. On the walls were methodically worked out plans for cruciform skyscrapers, housing colonies with staggered lay-outs, and a whole range of types new to architecture that were the fruit of a mind preoccupied with the problems of the future.
The Building Committee of the Exhibition made use of ifs powers to evince the most marked hostility to the execution of my scheme. It was only owing to the presence of M. de Monzie, then Minister of Fine Arts, who came to inaugurate the Exhibition, that the Committee agreed to remove the 18 ft. pallisade it had had erected in front of the pavilion to screen it from the public gaze. Notwithstanding that the international Jury of the Exhibition wished to bestow ifs highest award on this design of mine, ifs French vice-president – though a man of outstanding merit, who had himself been an avant-garde architect – opposed the proposal on the ground that “there was no architecture” in my pavilion !
In 1929 we realize, looking back, that the “Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau” was a turning point in the design of modern interiors and a milestone in the evolution of architecture. A new term has replaced the old word furniture, which stood for fossilizing traditions and limited utilization. That new term is equipment, which implies the logical classification of the various elements necessary to run a house that results from their practical analysis. Standardized fitted cupboards, built into the walls or suspended from them, are allocated to every point in the home where a daily function has to be performed – wardrobes for hanging suits and dresses; cupboards for underclothes, household linen, plate and glass; shelves for ornaments and shelves for books – have replaced all the innumerable varieties of superannuated furniture that where known by half-a-hundred different names. This new domestic equipment, which is no longer of wood but of metal, is made in the factories that used to manufacture office-furniture. To-day it represents the entire “furnishing” of a home, leaving a maximum of unencumbered space in every room, and only chairs and tables to fill it. The scientific study of chairs and tables has, in turn, led to entirely new conceptions of what their form should be : a form which is no longer decorative but purely functional. The evolution of modern manners has banished the old conventional ritual that used to dictate our sitting posture. Since we can sit in many different positions, the new shapes of chair which a tubular-steel or strip-metal framework make possible ought to provide for all of them. Wood, being a traditional material, limited the scope of the designer’s initiative.
To equip a house properly requires long deliberation. As a result of lectures, articles and private discussions a practical classification of what is needed has now been arrived at which heralds a new era in domestic organization.”