Art Deco was the sort of style that gives eclecticism a good name.
That, at least, appears to be the thesis behind a major exhibition, "Art Deco 1910 - 1939," which arrives this fall in Toronto from London's Victoria & Albert Museum (through July 20). It later travels to San Francisco and Boston.
It is the first show in 30 years to be devoted to the widespread decorative arts style of the 1920s and 1930s. It presents Art Deco as stylistically so inclusive in its choice of design sources that the label seems to apply to the wonderful diversity of an era rather than to a stylistic movement. All kinds of styles, ancient and modern, are placed under its banner - and virtually anything was designable, too, from teapots to jukeboxes, from buttons to ocean liners. Photographs, book binding, jewelry, furniture, hotel lobbies, radios, meat-slicers, outboard motors, and gramophones - the list of objects touched or transformed by Art Deco amounts to ubiquity.
Some people have suggested in the past that the label "Art Deco," used for such a pluralistic range of design phenomena, might be stretched to the breaking point. But clearly the organizers of this beautifully staged exhibition disagree. In effect, this show constitutes a deliberate challenge to conventional notions of "a style" as something consistent, programmatic, or even instantly recognizable. Art Deco's very eclecticism is seen as a positive and appealing raison d'être.
There are design features that are indelibly Art Deco of course - jazzy zigzags, radiating sunbursts, "moderne" frozen fountains. But this exhibition contains far more than such obvious clichés. The degree of energy and invention is almost overwhelming.
Ghislaine Wood, the show's chief curator, points out that the term Art Deco wasn't even coined until 1966 - well after the era's end. "All style labels do break out of their boundaries, actually, once you start looking at the material," she says. "But Art Deco has [by now] been used in all sorts of contexts, to denote many different things. The genie has already escaped the bottle. The way we've used it in this exhibition is to look at the decorative approach to modern design in the prewar period."
While the designers we now call Art Deco considered themselves decidedly modern, their contemporaries, the Modernists, were rigorously clear they were no such thing. They couldn't be modernist because they were so unashamedly "decorative."
The Modernists were bent on being neither decorative nor derivative. They wanted to wipe the slate clean. Modernists still tend to dismiss Art Deco as frivolous and decadent.
It is true that the Deco designers raided ancient Egyptian, Etruscan, Cretan, Mexican, and Japanese art (to name a few). But they also borrowed from comparatively recent styles such as Art Nouveau and modern art. If this meant they could sometimes be justifiably accused of "pastiche," that pastiche was not mere nostalgia. Its aim, says Ms. Wood, was "renewal." This freshness and liking for novelty are why it could include popularizing takes on such recent developments as cubism and primitivism, not to mention an enthusiastic engagement with the age of the machine.
Paris fair a defining moment
The current exhibition gives much attention to "the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts," which opened in Paris, after many years of postponement (not least caused by a world war), in 1925.
The 1925 Paris fair is seen today as a defining moment in the story of Art Deco. A "Grand Salon" in that exhibition, designed by Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, is re-created here. It offers a telling glimpse of the elitist, very French atmosphere of the Paris fair and its strange mixture of superb craftsmanship, exotic historicism, and modernity.
It wasn't remotely modern enough, though, for Modernist architect Le Corbusier or the painter Fernand Leger, whose stripped-bare, strictly rectilinear "Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau" must have seemed a fish out of water at the fair. Le Corbusier described his pavilion as "a unit in a housing scheme" and said it was intended as "a house for everybody." Le Corbusier, even before the fair had opened, voiced his objections - the archetypal Modernist disdain for Art Deco - in a letter: "Innumerable pavilions are being built, all decorated and decorative ... which gives me the impression of pure madness. I didn't think that the level was so low."
The decorative characteristics of Art Deco, as the exhibition amply shows, vary considerably. Partly this is to do with its widespread appeal and ability to take on local color. Primarily French, it spread rapidly. Versions of Art Deco were to appear as far afield as India, South Africa, China, and Australia. Each country made Art Deco its own.
As the period moved forward, though, the most significant emergence of Art Deco was in America. It was here more than anywhere that it fully engaged, in the '30s, with the machine age and mass production. What had been elitist found ways of adapting to the Depression period without losing its 1920s glamour.
Art Deco was able to espouse new materials, plastics for instance, and invest them with stylish sensuousness and humor. Its stamp was put on everything from refrigerators and cars to airplanes and skyscrapers. And in terms of fashion, the haute couture of Paris catwalk models (lushly represented here) was taken over by Tinsel Town's dazzling movie stars.
It was not a style, however, that simply became a cheap parody of itself as it became more popular. It had, as Wood puts it, been "a commercially generated style" from the outset. It wanted to entertain the world rather than improve it. Its origins in France had come from a desire "to dominate world markets" and therefore it needed to be "excessively appealing," says Wood, "and it was extremely successful in that."
It faded out by World War II, and Modernism ruled (or that's the theory) for almost three decades. It was only when Modernism started being questioned that Art Deco's virtues, instead of its hedonistic frivolity, began to be appreciated once again.
Perhaps they are like incompatible siblings. As Wood puts it: "When one is in the ascendant, the other is in decline." And although postmodernism is in many ways entirely different from Art Deco, its reaction against Modernism "does point to the fact that people actually like decoration and ornament."
The crowds milling round the Art Deco show in London bear witness to that.