Down to A Fine Art
Defined by its dynamism and breaking of boundaries, art deco was a design trend that captured the collective imagination. From its origins in Paris, we look back at the movement and its place within the ‘années folles’.
By Steph Green
After a decade ravaged by war, the world was restless for a new artistic sensibility—one with faith in progress, technology and glamour. That’s where art deco came, or danced, in. Various disciplines graced its easel, daubing their influence on the world around them. Sculpture, interiors, textiles, architecture—art deco was widespread, radical and ready to leave an indelible mark.
When we think of art deco, we think of the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age. We think of The Great Gatsby; of flapper girls and feathers; of bold, sans-serif typefaces. We think of the sleek symmetry of the Chrysler building; of champagne-fuelled luxury sleeper trains. Within this realm, art deco excited with its singularity and newness. Never mass-produced, it used expensive, exotic materials: ebony, silk, ivory, chrome. It could be as large as the Empire State Building or as small and delicate as Lalique glass. It was both a feeling blowing through time and a tangible reality. It sat in the same trailblazing era of James Joyce’s Ulysses, of Marlene Dietrich’s androgyny, of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The movement’s apex, however, culminated in Paris.
When we consider early twentieth-century Paris, we may think more of the decadence of Beaux Arts and Art Nouveau. Delicate watercolour paintings of women in silk gowns; Hector Guimard’s ornate Métro train entrances; the sinewy, whiplash-line detailing at the Grand Palais. And yet, Paris was in fact the birthplace of art deco—or, at least, its etymology.
The term ‘art deco’ was born in the City of Lights in 1925. Stemming from ‘Arts Décoratifs,’ it came from the name of a world fair held that year. This enormous event introduced the world to a radical new way of thinking about design and ‘style moderne’. Visited by sixteen million people, it helped the masses bid adieu to the difficult wartime period and the finicky design styles that accompanied it. It ushered in modernity, freedom, and an intoxicating mélange of geometric patterns.
A stroll through Paris’ charming cobbled streets reveals a treasure trove of art deco architecture. Possibly the most famous art deco building here is the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It shocked the public and was dismissed as ugly on its 1913 opening, with its rectilinear composition and stucco plaques. Similarly, the iconic Folies Bergère music hall flummoxed Parisians when it unveiled its bold, gold façade in 1926. It was around this time that Josephine Baker would take to its stage, clad in her infamous skirt made of bananas and wearing little else. Both dancer and building embodied the free-spirited, rollicking ethos of the art deco movement.
It wasn’t just Paris’ entertainment venues that succumbed to art deco’s irresistible charm. The Saint-Esprit church, constructed in 1928 with its huge dome and its repeating round windows, brought modernity to the liturgy. Piscine Molitor, where Louis Réard later unveiled the first ever French bikini, was completed in 1929. The namesake of Pi in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the public swimming pool was angular, stylish, and wouldn’t have seemed out of place in The Great Gatsby’s West Egg.
Fittingly, Paris has paid homage to its art deco roots with the emblem for the 2024 Olympic Games. The logo, a nod to when Paris last hosted the games in 1924, embodies this the city's visual heritage. From the use of gold to the vintage typeface, it is both glamorous and contemporary—utterly embodying what art deco symbolizes.
Those on the hunt for art deco nostalgia today can emulate the era’s glamour on board the historic Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train. Rumbling across the tracks at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the historic train remains an icon of art deco design to this day. Some of the train’s journeys depart from Paris towards Venice or Verona, while other routes journey to Budapest and Istanbul. From black lacquer panels to intricate marquetry, take a moment to marvel at the art deco craftsmanship as you journey past unparalleled views. Close your eyes. Take a sip of chilled Taittinger. If you try hard enough, it’ll feel like the era never ended.
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