The Art Deco Crossover

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The Art Deco Crossover: A Merging of the Avant-Garde and Decorative Arts, 1910-1939

The twentieth century ushered in an eclectic, luxurious and modern style of design and decoration the world would define at the Paris 1925 exhibition as Art Deco. The material world was now an amalgamation of new technologies and processes and drew from many worldwide influences. However, the greatest influence of the movement was the new visual language, color and iconography of the avant-garde art world: Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, De Stijl, Bauhaus and Constructivism to name a few. As Helen Appleton Red described the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, "The Exposition marks the coming of age of a new decor...as inevitable a manifestation of the forces of evolution as modern art...passing through the Porte d'Honneur one comes...upon a cubist dream city...its cubist shapes and futurist colors...looking like nothing so much as a Picasso abstraction..."

The impact of the avant-garde on all aspect of the decorative arts may seem surprising to some. Before the 1930s knowledge of this new art was exclusively through collectors, dealers, curators and various enthusiasts; outsiders viewed the work as alien or even threatening to established societal traditions and values. Furthermore, many avant-garde artists insisted on a work of art's autonomy and rejected any decorative intentions. In the 1912 publication Du Cubisme, Albert Gleize and Jean Metzinger claimed, "Many consider that decorative preoccupations must govern the spirit of the new painters. Undoubtedly they are ignorant of the most obvious signs that make decorative work the antithesis of the picture." To them the true function of art was to engage the mind and emotions independently from its context, while the applied arts were defined by the need to harmonize with the context. A work of art that was "decorative" couldn't exist.

But by the late twenties and thirties, artists and designers were taking an active interest in the development of the decorative arts and familiarized the public with the language of the avant-garde. For example, the poster designs A. M. Cassandre and Edward McKnight Kauffer, who interpeted Cubist and Constructivist imagery for their graphic design; photographers Cecil Beaton and May Ray introduced abstract and surrealist images into their work; Alexander Archipenko's and Salvador Dali's mannequin designs contributed to the overhaul of store front displays in the twenties; film directors Marcel L'Herbier and Jack Conway commissioned set and costumes based on the art of the time. By taking such active interest, the two separate worlds of art and design began dabbling in one another.

The association between avant-garde artists and Art Deco designers was also encouraged by shared sources of interest and inspirations, as well as shared patrons and friends. The Cubists' fascination with African masks and artifacts from the Paris Trocadéro in 1907 was shared by the furniture and bookbinding designs of Pierre Legrain, as well as Eileen Gray and Maria Likarz. The couturier Jacque Doucet had a wide collection of artwork ranging from Picasso, Jacque Lipchitz and George Braque to Gray and Legrain. Inevitably these connections would lead the Deco designers to new aesthetics and new ways of thinking for their own art.

Evidence of this kind of influence can be found when drawing a comparison to the gown designs of Madeleine Vionnet and Fernand Léger's rendering of figures throughout his career. And not just his figures, but the Cubist rendering of form in general. Both were working in Paris during the same time and became friends; Leger was reportedly fascinated by Vionnet's techniques and would visit her at her studio to watch her work when he felt depleted in his own creations. She was known for thinking of the woman's body as a cylinder and dressing a three-dimensional form instead of front and back. By the late 1920s she had...
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