What is Art Deco? 1925, When Art Deco Dazzled the World at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in the Palais de Chaillot offered a simple but elegant definition: “a style involving simple geometric shapes, evolving in reaction to Art Nouveau – the first genuinely industrialized artistic style.” And in demonstration of this, the first thing the exhibition shows is a vitrine next to the main entrance, which contains a selection of comparable samples of art nouveau and art deco, with pairs of chairs, architectural models, metal work, statues and designs. It soon becomes completely apparent what a revolution Art Deco sparked.
The style was long-lived, as its heyday stretched from 1919 to 1940; and the exhibition captured Art Deco at its peak. The show’s curators argued that the 1925 Exposition was more than just an event – it illustrated a state of mind as France sought to display its recovered glory and power.
The exhibition opened with a look at the French architects and craftsmen involved in the style. Art Deco buildings were constructed by architects and designers, who consistently cooperated on their projects, and indeed, were often educated together whilst still studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. A prime example of this was the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, built in 1913 by architect Auguste Perret with Antoine Bourdelle and Maurice Denis. The building was one of the first examples of this team method, and to this day remains a beautiful reminder of harmonious craftsmanship.
Next came a display of the motifs used in Art Deco design; although many have become familiar over the years, the exhibition revealed just how revolutionary they appeared to contemporary viewers. One notable item included a screen holding glass by René Lalique, which was the Porte d’Honneur of the 1925 Exposition.
Before exploring the 1925 Exposition proper, the exhibition introduced various themes, which would become the foundation for later motifs. The Architect and the Fashion Designer looked at the long and profitable friendship and working relationship between Jean Patou and Louis Süe. They met during the 1916 Balkans Campaign during WWI and saw their friendship blossom into an artistic oeuvre: Süe went on to design Patou fashion houses as well as perfume bottles. A small display of Patou dresses was presented alongside Süe’s highly architectural (and very Art Deco) perfume bottles, including one in the shape of another important icon, the ocean liner Normandie.
The next section, La Femme Moderne was based around the atelier of painter Tamara Lempicka, with a blown-up photo of her contemporary studio and a sample of her work, including her portrait of Suzy Solidor. Then came a selection of designs for automobiles and for aviation, complete with a 1925 sheet metal sports car model, a model of an airplane as well as designs for the 12ème Salon de L’Aéronautique at the Grand Palais – plus an amazing modernist ceiling. The Influence of Africa looked at the predominance of the African motif in the 1925 Exposition, and included a film of the singer and dancer Josephine Baker.
Thus far, the exhibition had been fascinating but rather diffuse, amounting to a series of beautiful images. But as soon as the displays about the 1925 Exposition began, the striking world of French Art Deco design and craft came into full view. The display started with a huge model of the Tourist Pavilion designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens, its belfry and clock becoming a hugely influential icon in design. There was a picture of the pavilion in situ, looking rather striking next to the Grand Palais (built 25 years earlier), an indication of the determined modernism of the 1925 Exposition.
Indeed, the 1925 Exposition featured a series of pavilions devoted to different manufacturers and department stores – the grands magasins. The French Pavilion was designed to show every aspect of French excellence, while Printemps Magasins had the Primavera pavilion, a spectacular concrete-domed roof with cast class lenses. Though it is difficult for photographs to do the pavilions justice, the displays also included samples of the wares from the original constructions. Au Bon Marché’s pavilion, bearing the grand name of Pomona, was designed by Louis-Hippolyte Boileau and decorated with mosaics, sculpture, glass and wrought iron work. Galeries Lafayette’s pavilion, La Maitrise, was all Hollywood-style grandeur; its architect, Joseph Hiriart, specialised in designing grand villas. For the ateliers of the Grands Magasins du Louvre, Etienne Kohlmann and George Djo-Bourgeois designed an elegant octagon, Studium, again with a whole team responsible for every single detail of the construction.
The Manufacture de Sèvres had a spectacular pavilion, designed by its director Geo Lechevallier-Chevignard; in fact, not one but two pavilions linked by a pleasure garden displaying stoneware and terracotta. The garden had geometric carpet bedding with Art Deco motifs, and giant Sèvres pots. Not only was there a display cabinet of pottery statues from the pavilion, but later on, the exhibition also presented a display of the huge pots made specially for the 1925 Exposition. Besides these grands magasins, another 40 shops brought fine craft to the event.
Perhaps the most significant of them all, the French Embassy pavilion was designed by Charles Plumet, the head of the exhibition, and aimed explicitly to bring the idea of exporting French good taste abroad. This was later put into practice when designing French embassies in Belgrade, Ankara and Ottawa. The exhibition display included a spectacular chest, the Meuble Elysée by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, ornamented with a fine network of inlaid ivory. Ruhlmann also designed the interiors of the Hotel du Collectionneur in Pierre Patout’s pavilion, and here the exhibition had brought together furniture and wall coverings to reproduce the boudoir.
Not limiting itself to just buildings, the exhibition’s Le Renouveau du Jardin looked at the gardens of the 1925 Exposition, reflecting the way public and private gardens of the period took on highly geometric forms with the rediscovery of Moorish gardens. The entrance gates in the Place de la Concorde were designed by architect Pierre Patout with sculptors Jan and Joël Martel, and here the display included a selection of evocative period photographs of the gates.
The final room was perhaps the largest and looked at the dissemination of the style, with drawings and posters on themes such as tourism, shops, casinos, hotels and social housing, as well as a fine array of models of key Art Deco buildings. The ocean liners Normandie and L’ile de France came in for their own display, with not only drawings, artefacts and furniture by Patout, but also a film made on board. The selection in this room indicated the firmly francophone bias of the exhibition: primarily a dissemination of French Art Deco, the collection also provided examples of the work of French architects in other countries. As it turns out, Shanghai has 165 listed Art Deco buildings.
1925: When Art Deco Dazzled the World was a fascinating exhibition, one which made the Art Deco style come alive and seem very much a state of mind, rather than just a way of building. At its best, the style involved architects, fine designers and craftsmen working in tandem to create buildings and interiors of impressive craftsmanship and elegance. Though art deco was easily debased and commercialised, the curators here had assembled an excellent selection of the best examples of Art Deco at its summit, to reveal the fantastic possibilities that the style offered.