Art Deco is the term retroactively applied to a style of decorative arts and architecture that predominated in America from the late 1920s up until the start of World War II, and in Europe even from even earlier, perhaps as far back as 1900. The term comes from the name of a 1925 French Worlds Fair, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, in which many Art Deco works were exhibited. Although the Art Deco style was absolutely pervasive in the western world in the 1930s, it was not recognized as a movement at the time, and although the term "Art Deco" did exist, its practioners were more likely to call their style "modern" or some other adjective, whereas "Art Deco" really gained much of its present currency when it was used by art critics looking back upon the style during the 1960s.

Art Deco had many influences and took many forms - everything from spoons, vases, toasters, and paintings to skyscrapers, ocean liners, and dirigibles - but at its core Art Deco represented an admiration and idealization of the machine and strove for an elegant, machined aesthetic. The major design features of the Art Deco style include simple, clean shapes, particularly with a "streamlined" look, symmetrical and geometric forms, often repeated with perfect uniformity, and bold, sweeping curves.

Other influences included Art Nouveau, cubism, fauvism, functional design, neoclassicism, the Bauhaus, Leon Bakst's sets and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and "primitive," "Oriental," "Egyptian," or "Aztec" art forms. Some ubiquitous motifs included sunbursts, chevrons, stylized images of flowers, foliage, or animals, and athletic nude female figures.

Art Deco designs blended traditional materials such as jade, coral, obsidian, and silver with then ultra-modern materials such as steel, ferroconcrete, chrome plating, glass, and early plastics such as bakelite. Popular Art Deco fabrics included sharkskin and zebraskin designs. Bright, bold colors were appropriated wholesale from the fauvist palette.

Fundamentally, Art Deco was a style of opulence and optimism, in which inhered a sense of the indomitable advancement of human progress. In this sense, it was the ultimate expression of "modernism" as an artistic movement. It is a tribute to the enduring appeal of the style that although birthed in the roaring twenties, it survived and actually thrived during the Great Depression, although it could not survive the devastation of World War II. At least in the western world, that is, for Art Deco remained popular well into the 1960s in developing countries, such as India, where it continued to be viewed as a sign of modernity.

Today, Art Deco designs are often in demand by retro enthusiasts of all stripes, and Art Deco is often used in movies and comic books (such as "Batman") to evoke a certain 1930s feel. Recently there has been a revival of interest in real Art Deco items among collectors, especially because despite their studied attempt to look machined and mass-produced many Art Deco items were actually hand-made in limited quantities by master artists.

Noted practitioners of the Art Deco style included furniture designers Jacques Ruhlmann and Maurice Dufrène; metalsmith Jean Puiforcat; artists and jewlers René Lalique, Raynmond Templier, H.G. Murphy, and Wiwen Nilsson; fashion designers Erté and Paul Poiret; sculptors Carl Paul Jennewein, Paul Manship and Chiparus; graphic artist Edward McKnight Kauffer, interior designer Donald Deskey; and architects Eliel Saarinen, Ernest Cormier, Raymond Hood, William van Alen, and Wirt C. Rowland.

Classic examples of Art Deco designs include:

If you're ever in the area, there is a wonderful Art Deco post office in Santa Barbara, California.

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