Spontaneity Makes Art Deco Hard to Pin Down


By Karen McCready

Thames and Hudson

192 pp., $24.95

A feeling of the not-entirely-serious hovers engagingly around the fringes of that polyglot style of the 1920s and 1930s known as Art Deco.

As the name itself suggests, Art Deco applies to the decorative arts, not to the "high art" endeavors of painters and sculptors. It belongs to dress fabrics and perfume bottles, wallpapers and teapots, buttons and vases, rugs and radio sets.

Epithets like "amusing," "stylish," "fancy," and even "whimsical" are apt to spring to mind as tags for many Art Deco artifacts. Novelty seems quite as acceptable as serious originality.

"Art Deco," writes ceramics historian Garth Clark (in his introduction to "Art Deco and Modernist Ceramics" by Karen McCready) was "less a movement per se than a spontaneous flowering of fashion." He is comparing it with the same period's ideological modernism, which had its "manifestos, clearly articulated social goals, and critical intellectual stance."

Clark continues: "Modernist thinking was at odds with the spirit of Art Deco: its search for the new, combined with edicts that form should follow function, and its blanket rejection of decoration for decoration's sake, meant that it could never be at ease with the permissive eclectic nature of Art Deco."

Clark is certainly to be commended for his attempts to disentangle the contradictory multifaceted styles of the 1920s and 1930s. However, the array of illustrations that follow, brought together with a striking catholicity of taste by McCready and supported by her all-too-minimal caption notes, only serves to show that this was an gloriously confused time.

The ceramic objects shown are so various - produced with such disregard for theories and rules - that the overall picture is one of happy, inventive mayhem. Styles slop over everywhere; little is clear-cut. What was originally intended for contemplation on the walls of an art gallery might well be adapted as a design for a pepper pot or a coffee cup. Boundaries were no sooner set up between one stylistic stance and another, than hordes of disrespectful borrowers and copycats raided and pillaged.

"At this time," as McCready puts it in her preface, "perhaps uncharacteristically, the applied arts absorbed many of the creative inventions of the fine arts."

It is a design-world in which Mickey Mouse is as acceptable as Frank Lloyd Wright; in which brightly painted ashtrays presided over by fey harlequin-figures vie with vessels of quietly self-possessed presence and subtle color; in which the neoclassical rubs shoulders with the jazzy, suave modern streamlining with elaborately decorative Victorian revivalism; and in which, on the one hand, a puritanical simplicity can be adopted for its suggestion of elegant style, and, on the other, an ebullient vulgarity verging on kitsch can be unashamedly exploited for its mass appeal.

Either way, a sort of unpretentious nonchalance underlies these objects, whether they are superbly well-made, or just plain cheap. They do not pretend to be art. They only claim to be style - and as such they have come to be identified as typical evidence of a period much in the same way as 1920s and 1930s fashions in clothes have. Clothes of the time ranged from the most expensive haute couture to the most modest varieties of ordinary wear. The ceramics similarly ranged from singular art objects to cheap and cheery items made for the mass market, from display-cabinet "china" for wealthy collectors to popular and affordable tableware.

In this free-for-all context, even the most sensitive forms and shapes could be seen as potentially popular - and sometimes became remarkably so. Russel Wright's sensuous, richly colored "American Modern" dinner service of 1937-38, for instance, "became an instant rage amongst American housewives starved for good modern design," according to Clark.

This traffic was not, however, all one-way - not always bringing the fine arts down to the popular level. There were attempts to elevate the design of commonplace things by commissioning serious artists (not to mention individual designers who were gaining in status and were by no means always "unknowns"). Their designs would then be carried out by artisans, by craftsmen, or manufactured by industrial processes.

There was in this period a distinct move away, in some quarters, from the whole idea of "craft" and toward an industrial aesthetic. The Bauhaus designers, for example, were anti-craft but pro-Technik. Their designs were to be machine-made.

This book includes one or two Bauhaus-type ceramics. Largely missing from it, however, is the pottery of the artist-potters like Bernard Leach. Leach's pottery, a 20th-century renaissance of traditional, pre-industrial practices, involved the whole man rather than an industrial "division of labor" in which different people act as raw material supplier, designer, maker, decorator, marketer, and so forth. In Leach's concept of pottery, the potter's hand, heart and eye is crucial in every stage.

Leach and his followers belonged to the same period as the Art Deco and Modernist crowd, but (in the terms of this book) they could hardly have been further from such practices.

Art Deco and Modernist design were both commercial at root and so can be seen as responding to the tastes of the period as well as helping to form them.

Clark's essay suggests a certain personal distaste for Art Deco. He describes it, for example, with such phrases as "promiscuous pastiche" and "theatrically innovative." But Art Deco is only one aspect of this rich period, and Clark's final paragraphs conclude that the 1920s and 1930s were "a golden period" for ceramics - "a time when the possibilities for new designers, architects, and potters with ambition and talent were endless."

These two decades were an inter-war period. A spare practicality descended on the world of design with the dire advent of World War II - a practicality that even the worst of the Depression years had failed to impose.

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