In the 1700s, French designers were the undisputed arbiters of taste. By the end of the 19th century, their reputation had diminished due to the commercial failure of Art Nouveau and the advancement of Austrian and German design and manufacturing. The creation of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs in 1900 was the first step towards revitalizing the industry. In 1912, the French government proposed an international show to promote the nation’s design supremacy but the outbreak of World War I delayed it until 1925.
Sixteen million visitors attended the show over its seven-month run. The coherence of everything on display, from architecture and interior design to jewelry and sculpture, indicates that Art Deco was already a mature international style. Indeed, it had blossomed in the post-war years and began its decline shortly after the fair. Nevertheless, it was hugely popular with consumers for several more years.
Ornamentation was the defining characteristic of Art Deco, whether in the application of a decorative skin or the design of a utilitarian object, a bowl for example, in an entirely ornamental way. In painting and sculpture, human figures, animals, and plants were prevalent motifs, as were abstract geometric shapes. These works weren’t considered serious attempts at artistic expression, although the style was porous to the fine arts movements of Cubism, Fauvism, and Orphism.
Designers were also encouraged by the French government to explore the opportunities presented by the country’s colonies in Asia and Africa. New materials like sharkskin, ivory, and exotic woods were exploited, as were techniques like lacquering and ceramic glazes. The trend towards exoticism culminated in 1931 with the Exposition Coloniale at the specially constructed Palais de la Porte Dorée.
The 1930s brought with them seismic changes. The Great Depression made purely decorative designs and exotic materials seem irrelevant if not distasteful. Instead, as Jean Cocteau put it, a Return to Order, or the styles of old, took place. In 1937 came the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne. Its emphasis on science and technology decisively, if unintentionally, marked the end of the Art Deco period.