Are we gossiping about the Parisian 1920s words on the street? Are we humming a jazz tune? Are we talking about an entire new vision of modernity? When we talk about Art Deco, we are having a conversation about a style inhabited by the will to design a new lifestyle based on innovation and modernity. We are talking about one tenet that remained undisputed for decades: form must follow function.
It is commonly accepted that Art Deco designates the period of time between the two world wars. It is also agreed that it is quintessentially French and that the name comes from the 1925 Exposition international des arts décoratifs et industriels. The staging of this 1925 Exposition devoted to modern design in the decorative and applied arts created an unprecedent international draw and is considered as the hight point of the Art Deco production. But the roots of the style must also be sought in the abstraction and geometry proned by avant-garde painting movements such as Cubism, Russian Constructivism, and Futurism. The other–sometimes conflicting–influences came from African Art, Japanese lacquer techniques, Viennese Secession, Egyptology, Ballet Russes, etc.
A First Generation
When one talks about Art Deco they might want to talk about the ensemblier Armand Albert Rateau (1882–1938). From ceiling to floor, every detail created by the decorator was inhabited by a distinctly personal vocabulary. Elegant bronze furniture inspired by the Orient and antiquity cohabited with pheasants, butterflies, bird, gazelles, and acanthus. Amongst his most important commissions were the residences of philanthropists and collectors Blumenthal in New York, Paris, and Grasse, as well as French fashion designer Jeanne Lanvin’s apartment in Paris, where Rateau decorated the bathroom and bedroom in Lanvin’s blue silk adorned by his usual animal realm.
Rateau is part of what one could call ‘the first generation’ of Art Deco ensembliers. Their interpretation of the style manifested itself through purity of form, refinement but also exuberance, color, and playfulness. The finest representative of this group is undoubtedly Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann (1879-1933), who designed elegant furniture known for its simplicity and exquisite veneers in exotic woods. This generation also comprises the beautiful work of designers such as André Groult, Paul Iribe, Louis Suë and André Mare, Jules Leleu, Jean-Michel Frank, Jean Dunand, and Eileen Gray.
Modernist Design and Industrial Techniques
When he talks about Art Deco, the gallerist Alain Marcelpoil talks about a more intellectual interpretation of the style based on concepts of functionalism and economy that would come to be known as modernism. To the luxurious displays imagined by the first generation, the modernists opposed a vision of modernity where everyone could access excellent design and the use of industrial techniques was the way to achieve this goal. The main exponents in France are generally thought to be Pierre Chareau, René Herbst, Robert-Mallet-Stevens, Charlotte Perriand, and Le Corbusier.
Settled on the rue de Seine, Marcepoil kindly agreed to share his vision of Art Deco. Born in a family of 18th-century art dealers, he started his own path with Art Deco furniture in 1980. Being from the city of Lyon he approached the art movement through a fellow Lyonnais–André Sornay (1902-2000). The name might have been lesser known at the time, but the work of the designer was beautiful and ticked all the boxes of modernist geniality. Sornay was the instigator of outstanding techniques to transform modest materials into beautiful works of design. He is most famous for his invention of the assembling technique known as cloutage in which veneered panels were put together using small nails (clous). Inspired by the technique used to put together airplane wings, the alignment of these nails became both an element of decoration and a trademark. This patent led to the manufacture of limited series of furniture that remained financially accessible.
With this original take on Art Deco, Marcelpoil moved to Paris to open his first gallery in 2006. Among the gallery inventory, one might notice a magnetic pine wood console. The wood surface is worked in several stages imagined by the designer; first a metal brush to create relief, then stained in black and finally sanded on the surface. This created contrasts and dimensions that can rival with the expensive Macassar veneers. Sornay was so successful in his own region of Lyon that he scarcely worked for Parisian clients. However, he did participate in the famous 1925 Exposition and later on was awarded the bronze medal for his personal study at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Techniques dans la vie Moderne in 1937.
“L’Art Déco, c’est un esprit,” (Art Deco is a spirit) says Marcelpoil when asked how one can live with Art Deco today, highlighting the fact that a research for such a pure form of beauty can only be timeless. When discussing the current market, he notes that despite the attempt of these modernist designers to create a democratic art movement, the collectors were still an elite of intellectuals. Indeed, the materials and the amount of prototypes were expensive and always remained a luxury. In addition, many productions were part of commissioned ensembles where the entire house was designed to be a work of art. Therefore, today when you talk about Art Deco, you are talking about a very scarce market where works are rare, delicate, and priced accordingly.
A Revived Market
The market for Art Deco was revived in the 1960s through a series of events. First, a series of exhibitions such as 1925 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (1966) were organized, in which were exhibited important donations such as the collection of the patron Jacques Doucet and Jeanne Lanvin’s entire apartment. Also, a few charismatic dealers had the idea to re-explore this taste such as Félix Marcilhac, Cheska Vallois and later in the 1970s Barry Friedman for the American audience. Since then, Art Deco has seduced as a secondary market brilliant minds with eminent private collections or more public personalities such as Andy Warhol or Karl Lagerfeld. The most well-known was probably Yves Saint Laurent, whose Dragon Armchair by Eileen Grey sold in 2009 for more than €21 million, becoming the highest price for a work of design.
Art Deco certainly defies any rigid definition and the debate on its extent will continue. There would still be much to talk about but perhaps the best discussions, just like when writer Raymond Carver talks about love in his 1981 publication, are made with a collection of stories.