Art Deco

In 1912 the government of France announced a plan for an international exhibition for 1915 that would highlight French decorative and applied arts and increase the export market for these goods. They placed emphasis on the new and modern styles developing in French applied arts. The onset of World War I delayed the exhibition, but the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes finally opened in 1925.

Study of the City of Detroit
(Adcraft Club of Detroit, 1929)

The public responded very positively to the sleek modern, opulent objects displayed there, this style moderne as it was called. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art made a number of purchases, and in 1926 an exhibition of 400 of these objects traveled to several major American cities. The styles seen in France fit in with the 20s Jazz spirit and the economic boom of the period and inspired similar modern decorative art movements internationally in both luxury and commercial products. It wasn't until the 1960s, however, that the term Art Deco was applied to this movement of the 20s and 30s.

The trademark of Art Deco style was a spirit of being "self consciously new." Designers focused on decorative elements that could give objects a sleek, elegant, modern commercial feel, with a conscious rejection of traditional forms. There was a love of the machine, and designers and architects attempted to streamline everything, mimicking the forms of the ocean liner, airplane and automobile. Ornaments called "speed lines" were popular as well and gave objects and graphic works a sense of motion and excitement. Other popular motifs in Art Deco design were the sun ray (seen on the top of the Chrysler Building), the fountain, the zigzag and stylized natural forms.

Fascism: A Challenge to Democracy
(Fleming H. Revell Company, 1928)

There were many influences behind Art Deco style. This included ancient and modern cultures like the Aztec civilization, ancient Egypt and contemporary Mexico. Art Deco also pulled from other contemporary and early modernist movements like Cubism, the Bauhaus school and Art Nouveau.

This style differed from the contemporary avant-garde modernism in its tendency to move away from more purist forms towards more opulent decorative styles. Also, artists aligned with modernist movements often uttered scathing critiques of Art Deco for being unabashedly commercial. Yet, there were some overlaps between "high art" and Art Deco, for instance, mutual interests in the machine and the city.

(Doubleday, Doran, & Company, 1934)

Bookbinding actually played a significant part in the Art Deco movement, particularly in France. France had a long tradition of fine binding that peaked in the 25 years before WWI. Fine art binders like Henri Marius Michel created elegant bindings whose decorations increasingly reflected the contents of the books, but often these bindings leaned towards lavish extravagance in material and style.

Starting in the late teens, the style of fine bindings dramatically changed, primarily through the influence of designer Pierre Legrain (see examples of Legrain's covers here.) Legrain, beginning with his work for the library of collector Jacques Doucet, created a highly geometric style that rejected most naturalistic or illustrative ornaments. His covers sometimes experimented with materials other than the traditional leather and he showed an interest in treating the entire cover as a unified whole, with the title material also playing a part in the overall design, thus creating a sleek, modern look.


Children of the River
(J. H. Sears and Company, 1928)


His covers took top honors in bookbinding at the 1925 Paris Exposition, prompting the observation by Hilaire Clément-Janin that Legrain "well symbolizes our epoch through his bindings." (quoted in Ray, 92). Other binders followed in his footsteps, creating modernist covers with an Art Deco feel. The most notable was Rose Adler, who also designed numerous covers for Doucet.

Art Deco also had a home in the world of commercial publishers' bindings, not surprising given the popularity of the style for manufactured goods. These covers reflected the interest in the modern industrial world with images of the city, the machine and dramatic images of humans in this environment. As in the fine leather covers of Legrain and Adler, there is an interest in geometric form and the inclusion of other types of Art Deco motifs. There were several distinct typefaces associated with Art Deco, and these are present on covers of the time (for example, pba01409 and pba00335). These typefaces have a clean, modern, bold look; usually one horizontal stroke is wider than the other, and sometimes other decorations are embedded in the lettering (as on pba00929). As in Children of the River, sometimes all it took was the distinctive use of font to make a cover Art Deco, but this was just one of many ways that designers pursued the self-conscious modernism of the style.

Search the PBO Database for Art Deco

Tise, Suzanne. "Art Deco." Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. New York: Grove, 1996. (online version is available at some colleges and universities)


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