Our Mission

The Art Deco Society of Washington is a non-profit organization incorporated to foster awareness, preservation, and appreciation of the Art Deco period.

Our goals are to

  • Educate the public about the value and beauty of this unique period in 20th century culture.
  • Preserve the era’s decorative, industrial, architectural, and cultural arts.
  • Celebrate the period’s dance, film, and music.

What Is Art Deco?

The term “Art Deco” was coined in the 1960s to describe the modern style exhibited at the 1925 Paris “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes". The meaning of the term, however, is much debated. In his 1968 book Art Deco Bevis Hillier defined art deco as the decorative art of the 1920s and 1930s. Scarcely a year later, however, another British author, Martin Battersby, introduced the more refined “art déco” in his book, The Decorative Twenties. According to Battersby, the 1925 Exposition “at once gave the style its name, demonstrated the culmination of the style and…saw its passing.” Battersby used the term art deco to describe the decorative arts during the period 1910 to 1925. Two years later, in The Decorative Thirties, Battersby described the style of the 1930s as modernism.

Take a trip through the 1925 Exposition and you could garner support for either Hillier’s or Battersby’s views. Many pavilions displayed and celebrated the graphic designs and handcrafted furnishings from 1910 to 1925. The exposition was originally planned for 1915 but was postponed because of World War I. Other pavilions, however, provided a glimpse of the future with displays of tubular chromium furniture.

Today, the term is generally used to describe the decorative arts between the two World Wars.

Art Deco Graphic Design

Although the roots of art deco are generally traced to the 1925 Paris Exposition, the style developed much earlier in graphic design. In the 1908 publication Robes de Paul Poiret Racontées par Paul Iribe (Dresses by Paul Poiret Presented by Paul Iribe) women’s bodies were presented in a slightly elongated, tubular form. Iribe’s style was reinforced the following year with the arrival of the Ballet Russes in Paris.

The new style caught on quickly in French and American fashion magazines. Among the foremost proponents of the new style of fashion illustration was Helen Dryden, whose covers for Vogue between 1911 and 1923 and later for Delineator showed a steady evolution of art deco graphic styling.
The avant-garde art movement began to influence the development of the art deco graphic style following World War I. Among the elements of the avant-garde incorporated into art deco graphic style were the more radical use of geometric designs and extreme simplification of design.

Growing Gap Between Machine Design and Aesthetics

The industrial revolution of the 19th century led to mass production of consumer goods. The increased efficiencies introduced through machine production lowered prices, but little attention was paid to aesthetics. The widening gap between machine-age design and aesthetics created a backlash among the artistic community, fueling the development of the arts and crafts movement in the late nineteenth century.

Often viewed as the inspiration for the modern design consciousness, Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh believed that art should be applied to the design of everyday objects. Mackintosh favored a return to hand-made goods and away from machine-made items. Fellow architect Josef Hoffman shared many of Mackintosh’s views and was an early advocate for the use of limited ornamentation. Hoffman was a founding member of the Vienna Secession in 1897 and the Wiener Werkstätte in 1903. Hoffman’s son, Wolfgang, became a leading designer of art moderne tubular chrome furniture in the 1930s.

Although Mackintosh rejected machine-made goods of the 19th century because they lacked an aesthetic quality, his belief that art should be applied to design of everyday objects ultimately contributed to a fundamental redirection in machine age design. The gap between efficiency and aesthetics began to narrow in the years immediately following World War I.

1925 Paris Exposition

Many, like Martin Battersby, view the 1925 Paris Exposition as the end of the Art Deco movement. Although the Exposition was originally planned for 1915 as a way to promote modernism, it was delayed 10 years because of World War I. Despite the war, the development of the art deco style continued. By the time the Exposition was finally held in 1925, the style was commonplace in Europe, and to a lesser extent, in the United States. Art Deco fashion design and avant garde paintings were widely accepted and Exposition pavilions for leading magazines such as L’Illustration and Arts et Décoration simply displayed the new style. Other exhibits displayed the works of avant garde and cubist artists.

Bevis Hillier’s followers also had a strong case in arguing that the Exposition marked the birth of the Art Deco movement. They point primarily to the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, where tubular steel and chromium-plated furniture and industrially-designed objects by Le Corbusier and others were displayed. A style that had, before 1925, been characterized primarily by one-of-a-kind hand crafted decorative items would quickly be supplanted by a style characterized by mass production of machine-made items created by a new class of artists—industrial designers.

Art Deco in America

America declined to participate in the Paris Exposition. Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, declined a 1923 invitation to participate because, he said, the United States had no modern art.
The effects of the Paris Exposition in America were initially muted. High-end department stores like Bloomingdales and Macy’s held expositions of French art deco furniture and emerging industrial designers like Paul Frankl, Norman Bel Geddes, and Walter Von Nessen, but these exhibits were geared toward the wealthy.

Most Americans were introduced to Art Deco home furnishings at the movies. Joseph Urban used modern furnishings in Enchantment (1921). This was followed by numerous other films with Art Deco furnishings such as The Young Diana (1922), Camille (1921), and Salome (1922). Our Dancing Daughters (1928) featured art moderne sets designed by Cedric Gibbons. The movie palace itself was also transformed into an art deco showplace and screen magazines often featured the art deco lifestyles of movie stars.

But, it was the 1933-34 Chicago “World of Tomorrow” Worlds Fair that ushered the Art Deco style into the homes of everyday Americans. Americans (and visitors from around the world) traveled to Chicago aboard streamlined buses and trains designed by industrial designers such as Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss. At the Fair, they were exposed to Art Deco home furnishings in a row of model homes furnished by such designers as Wolfgang Hoffman and Gilbert Rohde. They saw the latest in streamlined automobile designs, including Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion.

1933-34 also saw the introduction of new Art Deco giftware lines by such metalware companies as Chase, Revere, Kensington, and Manning Bowman. But, the Art Deco style was not limited to metalwares. Glass and pottery manufacturers brought out new lines and clock and radio manufacturers created new Art Deco-styled cabinets and cases. Even boilers and caskets took on a streamlined appearance.

The Art Deco style encompasses the full spectrum of life in the 1920s and 1930s—architecture, sculpture, household goods, fashion, graphic design, automotive design, music, even Religion. Some of America’s greatest churches, such as Tulsa’s Boston Avenue Methodist Church, were designed in the Art Deco Style. Many of the nation’s World War I memorials, such as Kansas City’s Liberty Memorial, now the National World War I Memorial exhibit strong Art Deco influences.

The Art Deco era is generally viewed as encompassing the period between World War I and World War II. But, just as the era started earlier in the graphic arts, the era continued post World War II. Buildings, such as the U.S. General Accounting Office headquarters at 441 G Street NW, designed with a strong Art Deco influence before the United States entered World War II, were constructed post-war. Similarly, many automobile manufacturers simply reintroduced pre-war designs immediately after the war, delaying introduction of new styles until the late 1940s. Fashions and music continued to evolve during and after World War II, but radical changes did not occur until the 1950s.