Aesthetics Wiki

Art Deco is a 20th century aesthetic that emerged in France before WW1 in the 1910s as a luxurious, highly decorated style. It flourished in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, before gradually vanishing in the late 1930s and WW2. Because of this, the style is highly associated with the 'roaring twenties', and provided an escapade from the realities of the Great Depression during the 1930s. There have been multiple revivals, some in the 1980s and multiple today. Art Deco's influence permeated everything from architecture, to film to jewelry. The style uses geometric forms, clean lines, and is often angular or streamlined. Colors are usually bold and chosen for contrast. Patterns are bold and geometric, symmetrical or asymmetrical. Expensive materials were used, both natural (exotic woods, ivory, mother-of-pearl) and manmade (chrome, stainless steel, Bakelite). The Art Deco aesthetic is also very important to Dieselpunk and Decopunk, as without it, neither would really exist.

The style was in a constant and very gradual transition, from the highly ornate form of the late 1910s and early 1920s, to the more streamlined and modernistic form of the 1930s. In architecture, the late form of Art Deco from the 1930s in known as Streamline Moderne, or Art Moderne, which had a more pared-down aesthetic, incorporating curves, clean lines and minimal decoration, which developed out of the glamour and style of cruise liners and the polished efficiency of machines. Art Deco initially appeared in France during the 1910s, and spread quickly throughout the world, most dramatically in the United States.


Art Deco as an aesthetic was a direct reaction to the previous standard: Art Nouveau (which was popular between 1895 and 1900), and eventually overtook the Beaux-Arts and neoclassical stylings that were popular in European and American architecture at the time. Art Deco actually took inspiration from various other previous aesthetics of the time: pre-modern art that could be seen in the Louvre at the time (among other art museums, Russian Constructivism, Italian Futurism, Orphism, Functionalism, Fauvism, Modernism, the recent unearthing of ancient Egyptian artifacts, and so much more). Art Deco itself eventually evolved into the style known as Streamline Moderne.


"Art Deco architecture was an architecture of ornament, geometry, energy, retrospection, optimism, colour, texture, light…" ― Patricia Bayer, 1992[1]

Shockingly, many examples of Art Deco are still standing to this very day, especially in New York City; buildings such as the Chrysler Building, the American Radiator Building, the General Electric Building, the Comcast Building, and the Empire State Building. Other examples of Art Deco architecture include the Lincoln Theater in Miami, Florida, the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, and the Robert Stanton Theater at King City High School in King City, California. One of the more popular elements in Art Deco architecture is Streamline Moderne, an international style of Art Deco architecture and design that emerged in the 1930s. It was inspired by aerodynamic design. Streamline architecture emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements.[2]

Streamline Moderne appeared most often in buildings related to transportation and movement, such as bus and train stations, airport terminals, roadside cafes, and port buildings. It had characteristics common with modern architecture, including a horizontal orientation, rounded corners, the use of glass brick walls or porthole windows, flat roofs, chrome-plated hardware, and horizontal grooves or lines in the walls. They were frequently white or in subdued pastel colors.[3]

Although Streamline Moderne houses are less common than streamline commercial buildings, residences do exist. The Lydecker House in Los Angeles, built by Howard Lydecker, is an example of Streamline Moderne design in residential architecture. In tract development, elements of the style were sometimes used as a variation in postwar row housing in San Francisco's Sunset District.

Streamline style can be contrasted with functionalism, which was a leading design style in Europe at the same time. One reason for the simple designs in functionalism was to lower the production costs of the items, making them affordable to the large European working class. Streamlining and functionalism represent two different schools in modernistic industrial design.


While Art Deco is primarily renowned as an architectual style, there was a definite painting style associated with the Art Deco aesthetic. The style's simplified forms and strong colours were particularly suited to the graphic arts. The most noteworthy artists associated with it were Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron (commonly known as Cassandre), Jean Dupas, Tamara de Lempicka, Reginald Marsh, Rockwell Kent, and Diego Rivera. However, the aesthetic tended to lend itself much better to sculpture, as many statues were created in the Art Deco style. Demêtre Chiparus was a Romanian sculptor who worked in Paris, and used ivory brought by Belgian merchants from Congo to make the hands and faces of his figures. Many of his artworks are polychrome (in multiple colours), standing on marble pedestals.

The Art Deco period was also one when graphic design and poster illustration flourished. The posters of Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron (commonly known as Cassandre) are very iconic. They are characterized by flat shapes, simplified icons, limited colours, and gradients. He payed careful attention to alignment and rhythm, using modular grids and combining basic shapes. His posters that present vehicles, like cruise liners or trains, are very expressive, having a highly monolithic look.


Exotic woods and luxury materials like mahogany, ebony, shagreen (a type of sharkskin), ivory and mother-of-pearl were used in Art Deco furniture. Many of the famous designers of this style prized high-quality materials, creating pieces and entire interiors that were the epitome of luxury. One of the leading designers was furniture maker Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann. Its reliance on private patrons, most notably from the French couturiers, Paul Poiret and Jacques Doucet, and its incompatibility with industrialized production ensured that Art Deco was a relatively short-lived style. From the beginning, the movement spanned work of designers like René Lalique, Jean Dunand, and Edgar-William Brandt, but also the creations of modernists like Eileen Gray, Pierre Chareau and Robert Mallet-Stevens.

The period between the two World Wars was also a time of technological innovation, thanks to advances in plastics, stainless steel, and aluminum. Items like radios, clocks, combs, and even door handles were made of Bakelite an early plastic that could be moulded easily and inexpensively. Affordable objects like these brought Art Deco to many homes.

Much of the furniture was luxurious, had sinuous shapes and was produced using rich materials. Some of the most iconic pieces were produced by Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, a leading French post-WW1 cabinet maker. His creations are considered to be among the finest examples of Art Deco. They were very glossy, often with a ebony and ivory colour contrast. In comparison with the Art Deco furniture that looked luxurious and fluid, some pieces were sturdy and pared-back, with angular, Modernist shapes. Much of this geometric kind of Art Deco furniture was for the US market and was mass-produced.

Another area were impressive design were produced during the 1920s and 1930s was the one of clocks. Multiple sets made to be put on mantels were produced. They are often made up of marble and/or onyx with warm colours, and usually have a bronze figurine at the top of the clock. Multiple designers, like Jean Goulden, produced Cubist-inspired pieces, that featured angular geometric shapes. Another influence of Cubism was how some clocks have square, octagonal or even triangular dials. The fonts used for the dial numbers were also Art Deco, so the entire clock looked very harmonious and homogenous.

Glass from the same period was extremely creative, expressive, and technically creative. Beautiful effects were achieved by working with layers of glass. Here, fluid motifs taken from Art Nouveau were present, together with new, bold and modern shapes. René Lalique and the Daum bothers (aka Frères Daum) produced some of the most luxurious glass pieces.

During the 1930s, Art Deco became more popular, due to its associations with the dreamlike Hollywood lifestyle and, as a result, was eventually fully embraced by mainstream manufacturers. Because of this, kitschy mass produced Art Deco-like objects started to appear. Their quality was in contrast with the one of luxurious designs from the 1920s.


Art Deco fashion followed a lot of the same rules laid out for its art and architecture, introducing lots of geometric shapes, long lines, and exaggerated accessories. Art Deco fashion included lots of evening gowns, skirts, hats, and bias-cut dresses. For women, the Art Deco period was the time of the "flapper"; a woman who bobbed their hair, loved jazz music, wore excessive make-up, drank, smoked, drove, had casual sex, and generally took a proverbial piss on social norms at the time. The Flapper sub-aesthetic in Art Deco was forever immortalized by the legendary cartoon character, Betty Boop.


Jazz is the music genre most associated with the 1920s and the 1930s. However, songs of Maurice Chevalier, like Paris sera toujours Paris and Valentine, or Josephine Baker's Dis moi Josephine and La Petite Tonkinoise, encapsulate the vibe of Art Deco Paris. The creations of Busby Berkeley also capture this vibe. Cuphead is a 2017 video game that is heavily inspired by the cartoons of the 1930s, and so its soundtrack is reminiscent with that period.

Versions and subgenres[]

Early Art Deco[]

The style appeared in the 1910s, before WW1. At the beginning, it was not well defined, and so it was influenced by the movements popular at the time, mainly Neoclassicism, Neo-Rococo and the Neo-Louis XVI style. The Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris has a small collection of furniture of this type.

Mixed with Neo-Egyptian[]

The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, opened in November 1922, sparked a wave of Egyptomania. Because of this, there are some examples of 1920s and 1930s Art Deco mixed with Neo-Egyptian motifs. The aesthetic of Ancient Egypt mixed well with Art Deco due to the fact that both use simplified motifs, geometric shapes, symmetry and repetition. The combinations of intense colours found in Ancient Egyptian jewellery were reused in the 1920s.

Streamline Modern[]

As time passed, Art Deco became increasingly more simplified. The one from the 1930s was different compared to the one from the 1910s and 1920s through its simplicity, and more or less lack of ornamentation.

Streamlining involves the contouring of objects into rounded, smoothly finished and often teardrop-shaped aerodynamic shapes so as to reduce their drag and resistance to motion through air. Streamlining was first used in the early 20th century to improve the performance of aircrafts, locomotives and automobiles when moving with high speeds. However, by the 1930s, industrial designers were using streamlining less for functional reasons, and more for making household objects look sleeker and more appealing to the consumer. Using clay models, designers created sleek, modern-looking shapes for a whole range of products, including fridges, vacuum cleaners, radios, cameras and phones.

Besides design, streamline forms are also present in the architecture of the 1930s. This made buildings look like huge appliances. A key feature of them are the rounded corners, whether the balconies have them, or the facade is rounded due to the building being at the intersection of two streets. Many buildings in Miami Beach were designed in this style, which continued until the New York World's Fair in 1939.


The Art Deco period ended more or less when WW2 started. However, its decline was not linked with the war. There was a very smooth and gradual transition from the ornamented Art Deco designs from the late 1910s and the 1920s, to the minimalist Bauhaus designs of the late 1930s and 1940s. Late Art Deco designs are often simplistic, featuring round corners, giving hints of the trends of the following decades. This is because Modernists wanted to get rid of ornamentation and produce objects and buildings made up of basic shapes, that looked futuristic and machine made. However, interesting and creative shapes can be found in post-Art Deco design and architecture, particularly in Mid-Century Modern and Brutalism.


  1. The Definitive Visual History of Design, 2015, published by DK Limited, page 163
  2. Times of Malta - A True Example of Streamline Moderne
  3. Wikipedia - Streamline Moderne