The Wolfsonian in Miami offers a comprehensive view of Art Deco on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the most expansive exhibitions of the Art Deco movement in recent history, “Deco: Luxury to Mass Movement,” is to be found at The Wolfsonian–Florida International University in Miami Beach, Fla. It’s an appropriate site, considering that Miami Beach is known for its significant collection of Deco-inspired historic architecture. In fact, Deco is such an important element of the city’s style and history that many exhibition visitors don’t realize that the style was not born in Florida, says exhibition co-curator Shoshana Resnikoff: “When we talk to locals about Deco, they assume it’s local—that it came from Miami Beach.”
The reality, of course, is that the Art Deco movement originated in France in the early 1920s. From there, it spread across Europe and later landed in the U.S., where it evolved in response to the Great Depression. The history of Deco is rich and varied, and “Deco: Luxury to Mass Movement” is no less so. Through a series of delineated sections, the museum show explores this highly significant movement in its many expressions, its European origins and its eventual U.S. developments.
While pinpointing the moment at which any art movement truly originated is an impossible feat, identifying the time at which it became popularized is somewhat easier. For Art Deco, that was the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Art Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. “This is such a well-known, celebrated style that we wanted to show how it started,” says co-curator Silvia Barisione, who manages the European side of the exhibition. “It’s initially associated with French luxury, but the style spreads all over Europe, to different nations which give birth to different styles. There were so many different variants.”
At the Paris Exposition, artisans and architects from more than 20 countries came together to display their interpretation of “modern” decorative arts and architecture. There was a heavy emphasis on luxury: highly detailed ornament, high-quality materials, and superior craftsmanship. Objects from this watershed event are some of the first things visitors see when they walk into the exhibition. There’s the poster design advertising the Paris Exposition, designed by Robert Roquin in 1923 and featuring an intricate, circular design motif that can be seen as a bridge between the elaborate Art Nouveau style and the more formalized Art Deco style.
Visitors will also see a Dutch vase by Theo Colenbrander from the same year, 1923. Kracht, model number 21, is one of several models that was shown at the Exposition, and features a bold geometric pattern that is reminiscent of Indonesian decorative style (Indonesia being a Dutch colony at the time). From here, the show moves through an exploration of several different motifs and inspirations: Nature, Exoticism, Geometry, and History. “We want to show the main features of the various objects,” says Barisione. “We have the geometric traditions, the depictions of nature especially in terms of light and color, and the influence of the colonies of the time.”
Deco designers drew extensively from all of these concepts. For example, the Italian designer Gio Ponti reinterpreted classical Greco-Roman pottery with his 1924 plate Le attività gentili. I progenitori [Noble Activities. Our Ancestors], on display in the “History” section. From “Nature,” a beautiful, nature-inspired earthenware bowl manufactured by Cantagalli in Florence depicts stylized gazelles leaping and grazing through a highly abstracted background of leaves, flowers, and geometric shapes. And a 1929 black-and-white book cover for the title L’homme traqué, designed by French designer Francis Carco, depicts the bold contrast and sharp geometry associated more closely with mid-movement Deco.
Finally, the European section closes with a section on department stores, which were critical in the translation of Deco from a luxury movement to one for the masses. These merchants, like Printemps and Au Bon Marché, exhibited in their own pavilions at the Paris Exposition and carried Art Deco home furnishings, decor, and beauty products well into the 1930s. Visitors can view items including a catalogue published by Le Printemps in 1927 and a floral powder compact, Pavots d’argent [Silver Poppies], by the French designer René Lalique.
The U.S. half of “Deco” picks up right where the European half leaves off, says Resnikoff, who curated the American side of the show—with department stores, but those across the Atlantic such as Gimbel’s and Macy’s. “America did not have a pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exposition, but we did send museum curators and department store buyers, and they’re the ones who come back and help popularize the styles,” she says. “The beginning of Art Deco in the U.S. is very much brought in by these buyers and also émigré designers.”
At first, American-made Art Deco objects were closely inspired by European designs, drawing from the luxurious, nature- and history-inspired motifs found across the continent. However, it didn’t take long before a uniquely American style develops, one inspired not by reinterpreting the past but by looking boldly toward the future.
The origins of this progressively minded design actually come from industry and architecture, specifically from the skyscraper. This influence can be seen most directly in the 1926 Skyscraper bookcase, designed by the Vienna-born American émigré Paul Theodore Frankl. Reaching up toward the ceiling in a series of square and rectangular boxes of varying sizes, the bookshelf is heavily reminiscent of the buildings it was named after and was part of an entire line of Skyscraper furniture that was shown in museums and sold in Frankl’s own store.
A poster for Gimbel’s, a popular American department store, designed by Leo Rackow in 1935, also clearly depicts the American Art Deco designer’s preference for future-oriented, industrial-inspired motifs. The image features a Greco-Roman-inspired athletic human figure looking skyward as he draws back a bow to shoot an arrow into the great beyond.
Another important element of the Americanized Art Deco movement is streamlined design. At the time, streamlining was being implemented in engineering and vehicle design, as a functional way to reduce drag. During the late 1920s through early 1930s, says Resnikoff, “we begin to see streamlining as a stylistic technique that conveys speed, futurism; we see it in the teardrop shape, and racing stripes.” Examples include a 1935 cigarette lighter designed by Louis V. Aronson, the Ronson Touch Tip, which features the curves and outlining reminiscent of an ocean liner, and a bi-colored, streamlined seltzer bottle from 1938, Soda King Siphon.
The exhibition closes with an invitation to visitors to take a walking tour through Miami Beach to view examples of Art Deco that won’t fit in a museum gallery: architectural icons like the Colony Hotel and Essex House.
By the time a visitor is finished with “Deco: Luxury to Mass Modern,” he or she will likely have a thorough appreciation of just how varied and widespread the Art Deco style was—at least, that is Barisione’s and Resnikoff’s hope. “In a way it feels like getting back to basics, but that’s important for such a complicated style,” says Resnikoff. “Because Art Deco is a commercially-driven style and not a design movement, it’s very much a thing where you can’t necessarily define it, but you know it when you see it.”
By Elizabeth Pandolfi