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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Art Deco Difference

The Aesthetic Movement (c.1865–1900) in decorative arts was a by-product of the radical literary philosophy of "Art for art's sake," championed by, among others, the flamboyant Oscar Wilde. The Arts and Crafts Movement (1856–c.1918) was populated by reformers like William Morris, who believed the industrial revolution and the promotion of mass-produced replicas of historical styles were murdering the souls of the workers. Art Nouveau and Jugenstil (c.1880–c.1918) responded to rigid and academic dictums in the decorative arts with free, organic lines and a lightening of colors and shapes.

By contrast, the style we have come to know as Art Deco took form (and its name), not from a philosophy or a spirit of social reform, but from a single event, planned to re-establish France's international pre-eminence in the decorative arts following the devastation of World War I. To be sure, the Art Deco style borrowed from the movements listed above—but only those elements which were consistent with its message of progress and modernity. Art Deco had no interest in looking back, only forward.

The event was the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Moderne which ran from April to October. Nations were invited to exhibit their original and progressive designs and manufactured goods. Notably absent were Germany, invited too late to produce an exhibition, and the United States. Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce declined the invitation, stating that there were no significantly 'modern' products being made in the U.S. in 1925. He need not have worried about the U.S.'s ability to match the criteria set out by the host country. No other country relied more heavily on their historic strengths than France, generally ignoring their own directive.

To put into perspective the diversity of designers who influenced the 1925 Paris Exposition, it may be fun to take a look at a few pieces in the Kirkland collection with connections to that historic event.

Hector Guimard (1867–1942) is best known as the father of French Art Nouveau for his iconic design of the Paris Metro stations in 1900. In 1901, Guimard joined five fellow French designers to form the Societe des Artistes Decorateurs. It was through the creation and planning of that organization that the 1925 Paris Exposition was realized. This Art Nouveau Planter (c.1900) by Hector Guimard sits on the Endre Thek cabinet in the Watercolor Room.

Edgar Brandt (1880–1960) was considered the master of decorative metalwork when he created the iron railings for Jacques-Emil Ruhlmann's Pavilion of a Wealthy Collector. The exhibit generated criticism for ignoring the everyday consumer. Maybe Brandt's Pelican Ash Receiver (1925) created that same year, would have been more within their reach. You'll find it in the Watercolor Room as well.

When the Italian company Richard-Ginori won the 1925 Paris Exhibition's Grand Prix for their small neoclassical room, the young Gio Ponti (1891–1979) had been its creative director for 2 years, bringing with him dramatic changes in the style produced by the company. His inspiration was the classical world, but his aim was to interpret it in a uniquely modern way.
In 1971 Ponti designed the North Building of the Denver Art Museum and it was during this time that his friendship with Vance Kirkland blossomed. The museum is fortunate to have a number of Ponti pieces. This exquisite vase, entitled Il Trionfo Delle Aamazzoni (The Triumph of the Amazons) (1925) is currently on view in Exhibition Room I.

Josef Hoffman (1870–1956), co-founder, with Koloman Moser, of the Weiner Werkstätte (1903-1933) was the architect chosen to oversee the Austrian section of the Exposition. One featured exhibit was his Room of Relaxation—walls covered in WW patterned wallpaper with no furniture of any kind, just a deeply upholstered floor with cushions and niches in walls instead of tables. In the Watercolor Room, you'll see his earlier Weiner Werkstätte designs for a Table and Chair for the Jacob and Josef Kohn Co. (c.1905).

René Lalique (1860–1945) created a colossal glass fountain for the Paris show in addition to a dining room for the Sèvres Pavilion and a pavilion devoted to his own work. He also led the jury for glass works. He had been a star of Art Nouveau since the turn of the century, known for his jewelry designs, glass wares and automobile mascots. While you're in the Watercolor Room, take a look at his exquisite Coquilles Bowl (1924).


In 1925, the French put up more than 100 buildings to house their own exhibits. All but one celebrated historic French classicism and ornament. Le Corbusier (1887–1967 born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret), Pierre Jeanneret(1896–1967) and Charlotte Perriand (1903–1999) designed the Pavilion de l'Esprit Nouveau to "deny decorative art, and to affirm that architecture extends to even the most humble piece of furniture, to the streets, to the city, and to all." Authorities were so upset by the trio's work that they erected a twenty foot high fence to hide the building. Only the intervention of the Minister of Fine Art forced the fence to be removed just before the opening of the Exposition.

In this visionary "machine for living," as Le Corbusier called it, pure form replaced decoration and foreshadowed the modernism that would eventually replace Art Deco. A few years later, he and his collaborators designed the Basculant Chair (1928). You can have a look for yourself in Exhibition Room II.

Mary Beth Orr, Volunteer and Public Programs Coordinator