Sandwiched between the two most prominent conflicts of the 20th century, the era of Art Déco embodiesthe concept of a reactionary form of expression. Responding to post-WWI austerity in Europe, art deco swept the international design community between 1925 and 1939. Written by Brit Bevis Hillier, a dedicated expert and author about all things Art Déco, and interior designer Stephen Escritt, this 240-page coffee-table sized book is a scholarly exploration of the movement we now know and appreciate as Art Déco.
The Term Art Deco
Remarkably, the term “art deco” was popularized by Mr. Hillier in 1968, some 30 years after the style had reached its zenith. The origins of this term can be traced to the Paris Exhibition in 1925, which was officially called:”Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes”.
Art Deco Style
Indeed, at the time, Mr. Hillier described his efforts to showcase the contributions of art deco as “rehabilitating a despised style.” Like Victorian art historians before him, thirty years had proved to be not long enough to create general artistic appreciation for the era’s accomplishments – we only need to look to the ‘80s to understand the feeling. Struck with a “voyeurish interest in the period,” Hillier set about documenting art deco through a series of books culminating in Art Deco Style.
The book covers the full range of art, design and architecture. Though the era is ignited by the 1925 Paris Exhibition and the emergence of the German Bauhaus, America’s economic boom in the 20’s allowed for ample investment in what was then known as ‘jazz modern’. Unlike England’s art deco buildings, many of which had fallen victim to wartime bombings, America’s art deco structures survived to become much beloved landmarks of the era – think the Chrysler building or Ocean Drive in South Beach, Florida.
Surprisingly, as Mr. Hillier notes in the introduction, art deco does not have a singular definition, nor does it represent the same thing to everyone. Art Deco succeeded Art Nouveau, and it is often considered a blanket term for style falling between the two world wars, though modernism and neoclassicism were concurrent styles, among others.
Art Deco – The Last Total Style
In the rambling introduction, Mr. Hillier describes art deco as a “total style” that was purely ornamental, unlike modernism, which had political underpinnings. Due to deco’s application to all manner of consumer goods, the style was able to transcend socioeconomic boundaries that often made art forms exclusively accessible to the elite class. Unfortunately, the widely available and commercial nature of art deco clocks, radios, toasters and other products eventually diluted the appeal of the style and ultimately it was viewed as gaudy. Despite art deco’s elusive definition, Bevis Hillier’s photograph selection, while a bit sparse, does a good job of representing the key design uses and characteristics.
Mr. Hillier’s extensive coverage of the architectural elements, such as the magnificent interiors of wealthy private home owners or long destroyed public buildings, give us a spectacular look into environments created solely to exhibit art deco yet remain inaccessible to admirers. In addition, the text is punctuated with original advertisements, all of which further the notion of “total” style and give us a rare glimpse into the social context of the era. In all, the book does a wonderful job of conveying the design history of the movement in combination with the true permeation of the style into all areas of decoration.
The ambitious range of the material and the obvious passion of the author clearly shine through his words. Over six chapters, Mr. Hillier covers the birth, development, and internationalization of art deco. He closes the text with a chapter dedicated to the revival of interest in the style, and how art deco’s legacy continues to be a beloved tour de force in the decorative arts.
Unlike most coffee table books, Art Deco Style is not light reading with the typical heavy emphasis on photography. Though the text is neatly centered in the page, and punctuated with the occasional photo, it tends to be dense and rambling. Even a college course on art deco might find it difficult to seriously tackle the scale of Mr. Hillier’s work in a semester’s time. In addition, the coffee table format seems to be at odds with structure and content of the book; even the cover is strangely blank for a book that is intended for display.
While Art Deco Style is without a doubt the authoritative reference for documenting and preserving the style, it is not suitable for everyone. If you’re looking for a book for learning, reference, or sheer coverage, then Bevis Hillier’s magnum opus is highly recommended. For any other purpose, just the book Art Deco Style is more likely to overwhelm the reader with unnecessary detail, and underwhelm with a lack of visual accompaniment.
However, if you also acquire the catalog of the first Art Deco exhibition ever, which took place in 1971 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, you will find a lot of pictures of Art Deco items featured in the Art Deco Stylebook.
Copies of Art Deco Style can be found for $25 (used) or $115 (new). The exhibition catalog is available for about $20.
Funnily, Hercule Poirot has an apartment full of Art Deco furniture – just another reason to watch this series.