Art Deco: The era that lingers in spirit

Christine Myrvang

A new style had its breakthrough 90 years ago at the Paris World Fair. Art deco represented the aesthetic of the machine age, urbanism and consumer society.

COMMENTARY: Christine Myrvang on consumer society

Autumn is the season of flea markets, and a big hit among the style-conscious middle class are objects with the modernistic expression from the interwar period; art deco.
The style had its breakthrough at the Paris World Fair Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925. The shorter form of the name, “art deco”, was not used until the 1960s.

Ceramic designer Nora Gulbrandsen and advertising designer Harald Damsleth were some of the foremost Norwegian representatives of the new style direction.

Commercial culture
Art deco had numerous inspirations, but the commercial culture in the French capital was an important driver. The advertising staff at the Parisian department stores had designed window displays, billboards, catalogues and ads that were bold enough to break conventions in order to attract attention.

The fashion houses were simultaneously moving in simpler directions, with an off-the-rack clothing industry that could offer cheaper copies to a wider market.

The new direction was also influenced by the cubism movement within painting. A geometric visual expression, with cubes, spheres and cones, was a radical break from previous styles.

Read also: How Flappers Rebelled Through Feminism And Consumerism

Past and futurism
Art deco was the modern style, but also contained retrospective elements. It was a synthesis of the past and futurism, of ancient history and technological utopias.

The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 created tremendous interest in ancient Egyptian culture, which influenced fashion, advertising and design in the 1920s. Trimmings, lines and zigzag patterns from such temple discoveries added an exotic-historic dimension to the new style.

Elements of the past and the exotic were mixed with a fascination for technique, industry and invention. Aesthetically, this was expressed in all things streamlined; the symbol of tempo and dynamics, of progress itself.

The Italian futurism represented a revolutionary and aggressive version of this technology optimism.

Beautiful machines
In advertising, billboard art and other graphic art deco products, it was common to see motifs such as express trains, steamers, motor boats, airplanes and cars. The means of transportation represented a world in movement, in flux.

Art deco embraced the machine. Factory mass production was also key in the functionalism style, which also emerged at this time. At the Paris World Fair, the innovative architect Le Corbusier had a pavilion “for the spirit of the times”, featuring furniture and furnishings in a functionalist style.

The technique, mechanics and aesthetics were intended to achieve a higher purpose. The simple and unadorned was a tribute to efficient engineering feats, a revolt against the past’s overly decorative, fake and tacked-on flourishes.

The more user-friendly functionalism was particularly linked to the hot political topics of the era, such as social housing construction, while art deco was more about the decorative.

Sweet consumerism
Art deco and functionalism were parallel phenomena that both expressed the modern style. There was an egalitarian and moral element to the styles, but the end result was still in the direction of elitism. This was mainly aimed at the middle class with spending power, who embraced the effortless urban life in the cities. The advertising industry was telling the masses that problems could be solved through consumption. If you buy just one more product, you will surely become popular and happy.

Norwegian art industry, represented through day-to-day commodities such as porcelain, stoneware and faience, did reach a broader audience. However, being modern entailed embracing a materialistic and constantly evolving consumer culture that only a select few were able to fully participate in.

Industrial design
The modern should be changeable, styles would be adjusted, things would be sold anew in a different aesthetic expression. Redesigning products became an industry unto itself. Design for industry became industrialised design. This was particularly prominent in the US, after the crash in 1929.

A number of major consumer product manufacturers established dedicated art and design departments in the 1920s. This became systemised even further in the 1930s in an effort to eliminate under-consumption and consumer resistance. The streamlined form of art deco became the ultimate expression for such a union of aesthetics, technique and sales.

Use and discard
Ideally, the economy would become a frictionless perpetual machine of production and consumption. By facilitating efficient “waste”, an industry struck by crisis would pull itself up by its bootstraps.

In such a mass consumption-driven economy, Mrs. Consumer was to consume at the same pace as science, technology and design were able to renew the products.

With her “creative wasting”, she would be the timely, innovative and progressive force in  modern industrial capitalism, according to the reasoning of the era. The products would have a built-in obsoleteness, a deliberate short lifespan, to stimulate greater demand.

This was the core of the “use and discard” mind-set in the post-war consumer society, and also became a key cause of the escalating environmental problems.

Art deco cannot be blamed for the climate crisis, but it does symbolise the transition to the wasteful and enthusiastic consumer culture in the West, which triggered the problem.

The article is published as guest commentary in Dagbladet on 26 September 2015 under the vignette "Historic".

Published 7. October 2015

You can also see all news here.