Art Deco – A Design Movement of Excess and Energy

Art Deco – A Design Movement of Excess and Energy

Maggie Toth

When you hear “Art Deco,” you might picture the Roaring Twenties—the famous setting for extravagant lifestyles and the Jazz Age. And that’s because the time of economic growth and prosperity was a driving force behind the movement.

Art Deco is a style of visual arts, design, and architecture that first appeared in France right before World War I. But it was at its height after the Great War ended. It officially launched in Paris in the 20s when everyone wanted to start fresh and leave the atrocities of World War I behind.

The Art Deco movement influenced design, buildings, fashion, furniture, cars, and even movie theatres. It was seen in everything from magazine ads to everyday objects like radios and refrigerators. Even the clothing style of the Roaring Twenties (think flapper girls) was touched by the movement. You can still see Art Deco’s excess and energy in design—like typefaces and architecture—today.


What is Art Deco?

Art Deco comes from a French term that means “decorative art.” Embodied in the design of the Chrysler Building in New York, Art Deco budded from a desire to be done with the past and embrace a human-made future—one full of machines and conveniences. The aesthetic movement played a role in shaping the West’s modern imagination, especially in the United States and France.

When Art Deco started making noise, it came about as a reaction to the highly stylized Art Nouveau movement, which began in the late 1800s in France and spread throughout the world with its elegant, curvy designs. Art Deco, on the other hand, was sleek and rich, but not overly ornamental.

A high-living decadence arrived in thriving post-war America. With new technologies—cars, radios, refrigerators—accessible to the average person, tastes for decoration and luxury increased.

As it gained popularity, the look became linked with technology, success, and optimism. New design materials also began to emerge—like chrome and lacquered surfaces, for example. And it makes sense. When the movement first caught on in the early 1920s, the world was in a period of wealth. The U.S. and Europe both had strong economies. And you can see this in the style of the Art Deco movement.

Typically, Art Deco designs are based on geometric shapes that drew from Greco-Roman Classicism. It’s characterized by triangular, zigzag shapes, chevron patterns, stepped forms, and sunburst motifs. Luxury was a hallmark of the style, and as it progressed, plastics, stainless steel, and aluminum made it more affordable and accessible.


Art Deco in graphic design

A culture where advertising was gaining popularity helped Art Deco take off. And the classic vintage styles of Art Deco still influence graphic design today. Art Deco graphic design was a mass-produced style that was popular in magazines and posters.

One of the most influential designers of the Art Deco movement was A.M Cassandre, whose advertising posters (full of geometric shapes and designs) helped define the Art Deco look. He believed in integrating text and images, which was an important influence in graphic design.


The end and rebirth of Art Deco

Art Deco started to lose its popularity in the West when it gave the impression that it was mass-produced and gaudy, giving a false sense of extravagance. And in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, it became more restrained. It eventually fell out with the austerity measures of World War II.

But the saying is true: history repeats itself. Despite its demise with the rise of more frugal times, Art Deco has lived through major revivals in the ’60s and ’80s, and its glamour and allure still live on today. There’s even a resurgence of interest in Art Deco interior and graphic designs a century later in the 2020s.