Art Deco – The style of the 'Roaring '20s'

A new and sleek design sense swept the globe between two world wars

By Leigh Elmore

One hundred years ago, the decade of the 1920s marked a major shift in American culture. "The War to End All Wars" had ended two years previously. Men returning from military service had been offered a glimpse of a world "off the farm" and they flocked to the cities for follow newly inspired ambitions.

FLAPPER girl about 1925 complete with cigarette holder, cloche hat and stockinged long legs (photo courtesy Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

In the first year of the decade women finally received the right to vote with passage of the 19th Amendment, and America's political and social history was changed forever.
Modernism became the driving force in fashion and architecture as the motor car supplanted horse-drawn transportation on the nation's streets and roadways.

And in the living rooms across the continent Americans reacted against the ornamental Victorian and Edwardian styles of the previous decades. What emerged was a new style to go with the new internationalism; it eventually came to be known as Art Deco.

Today we are marking 100 years since the "Roaring '20s" and note that artifacts from that decade are year-by-year becoming officially "antiques" if we go by the standard definition.


This modern world

"The Roaring Twenties, a time of boldness that cannot return except in spirit!" remarked sculptor Corrine Weinberg," writing for the Art Deco Society of New York. "There were firsts for many things."

​This mantel clock from France is made of artificially aged metal and marble. The sleek big cat sculpture so prominent in the design is noted as a lioness in the auction description. It is a key wind clock measuring just over 24 inches long. In mint condition, it sold for $2,745 in a live webcast auction held in January 2016 by Morphy Auctions.  (photo courtesy Morphy Auctions)

For example, advertising design was especially inspired by having cigarette ads portraying the emancipated woman smoking and drinking in public. In defiance of the traditional female appearance, women adopted a new look by bobbing their hair. They also adopted the Egyptian Pyramid hairstyle, which echoed the geometric forms of the Art Deco age.

"Art Deco designs resulted in streamlined fashions, and they are as exciting and contemporary today as they were then, expressing a sense of chic and purity," Weinberg said. "Luxurious fabrics, opulent feathers, silks, long earrings, and an abundance of jewelry were worn to soften the straight lines of clothing. Big, overstuffed furniture was the style, as were sleeveless dresses, another indicator of the need for 'elbow room'."

Shorter dresses tended to be worn for the wild dances and kicking-up-of-the-heels, giving women a new sense of freedom and an extraordinary style.

Echoing that sentiment, Marilyn Friedman, a design historian, stated "For many, Art Deco is the embodiment of the 1920s – a period of prosperity marked by the syncopated rhythms of jazz, abstraction and exoticism in art, and a sense of joie de vivre." She points to French artists and designers as progenitors of the style like Louis Süe, André Mare and many others. "Their work celebrated the great French craftsmanship of the past yet could never be confused with their predecessors. The simplification of form and the elimination of applied ornament in favor of inlays are but two examples of the ways in which the new style differed from those of the past.

"For me, Art Deco is intertwined with what I view as the first wave of feminism," Friedman stated. "The low-slung seating appears to have been designed for women in chemises – no lady in a hoop skirt or bustled dress could manage the new chairs and sofas. The glossy surfaces of the highly lacquered furniture mirrored the sleek waves of the flappers' newly bobbed hairdos. During the Art Deco era women began to smoke and drink in public, to venture out alone to dance and listen to jazz, and to work alongside men."

Female freedom and sexuality were flaunted by performers like Josephine Baker and celebrated in artworks by Erté, Dunand, and Jean Dupas, among others. Paul Poiret dressed the new woman; Coco Chanel embodied her. "While the major French traditionalists were men, they seem to have designed with the new woman in mind; both groups freed themselves from the constraints of the past to embrace the new century," Friedman said.

Victoire, or Spirit of the Wind, is one of a complete set of glass radiator ornaments by René Lalique that was part of a collection of "automotive mascots" that sold for more than $550,000. (Photo courtesy Michael Furman/RM Auctions)

Friedman and other design mavens point to a particular exposition in Paris in 1925 as the birthplace of Art Deco, although it wouldn't have that name until the 1960s, she maintains. "Art Deco is an artificial construct, devised by design historians in the late 1960s to refer to works exhibited at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. The one requirement for inclusion in the exposition was that works had to show originality and new inspiration."

With knowledge of the styles shown in Paris, American designers experimented with their own interpretations of Art Deco. Two designers who adhered most faithfully to the precepts of the French traditionalists were Donald Deskey and Eugene Schoen, but other designers incorporated concepts of the French traditionalists into their projects as well.

"American designers moved on from traditional French Art Deco in several ways," noted Friedman. "Their horizontal designs referenced speed, they focused more on practicality than their French counterparts, and they often substituted manufactured materials for the exotic woods and ivory utilized by the French. Nevertheless, their debt to the traditionalists is manifest in monuments like Radio City Music Hall and in much of the American modern furniture designed in the late 1920s and beyond."

Art Deco necklace, Czech Bohemian Green Glass, available for $195 at

The style manifested in virtually every aspect of life from the smallest personal accessory to towering skyscrapers such as New York's Chrysler Building. And it swept over the world as a truly international movement, states Jared Goss, author of the 2014 book, French Art Deco, and can be seen in one-of-a-kind artist-made objects to items being cranked out of an assembly line.

"For example, how does one reconcile luxurious, handcrafted French objects made for the wealthy elite with machine-like mass-produced American ones made for middle-class consumers, both called Art Deco?" Goss asks.

With the advent of large-scale manufacturing, artists and designers wished to enhance the appearance of mass-produced functional objects – everything from clocks and ashtrays to cars and buildings. Art Deco's pursuit of beauty in all aspects of life was directly reflective of the relative newness and mass usage of machine-age technology rather than traditional crafting methods to produce many objects without artistic embellishments – preferring clean and simple geometric forms.

The Sparton Bluebird epitomizes the Art Deco radio. It is made with blue mirrored glass and chrome trim. Measures 14.5 inches in diameter. Even with condition issues – missing one chrome knob and the blue mirror has a few tiny spots and one small chip – this example sold for $2,250 in a live webcast auction held in January 2016 by Morphy Auctions. (photo courtesy Morphy Auctions)

"While the majority of work shown at the Paris Exposition was French, over 20 other nations participated, suggesting that by 1925 a full-fledged international design idiom – what is now considered Art Deco – was firmly in place. Art Deco, however, never was a unified style.  Rather, it was broad-ranging and often contradictory.

"Even so, a certain universality came from a widespread attempt to invent a design language suited to the modern world, one that addressed the needs and desires of the burgeoning 20th century and which reflected its changing mores, tastes, habits, and technologies," Goss states.

"And so, the Art Deco years were those of the Roaring '20s, the Jazz Age, the Skyscraper Era, and all their attendant personalities: the flapper, the vamp, and the Rockette; the bootlegger and the gangster," he said.

Further, it continued through the period of the Crash of 1929, the Great Depression, and the rise of Fascism, an era bracketed at both ends by devastating world wars. Art Deco encompasses and was informed by all of that.


Architecture is transformed

New York became a locus of Art Deco design in architecture, as noted by David Garrand Lowe, author of Art Deco New York.

The Chrysler Building is the classic example of Art Deco Archi-tecture. (photo courtesy Stanley Wlodyka for The

"One of the supreme visual delights of walking around New York today is the vibrant presence of the Art Deco skyscrapers: the Empire State Building, with its dirigible mooring mast; the soaring Number One Wall Street, whose limestone walls shoot up like lithic fireworks; and the Waldorf-Astoria, whose twin towers received their inspiration from Inca temples.

"The structure that epitomizes most perfectly, to me, what Art Deco means is the Chrysler Building. William Van Alen's slender skyscraper has all of the accouterments of the Art Deco era," Lowe writes. 

"The building embodies the style's fascination with speed and movement, two signatures of the modern era. It is no accident that it is a tangible advertisement for the man who paid for it, Walter Chrysler. It is significant that the 31st floor setback is embellished with facsimiles of hood ornaments and radiator caps of the 1929 Chrysler.

The gargoyles of the Chrysler Building are meant to resemble hood ornaments. (photo courtesy

These Moderne gargoyles drive away all memories of past transportation – horses and buggies and chariots. The décor of the upper level suggests the spokes of automobile tires. Now, better lit than ever before, they appear to whirl in the night sky. The Nirosta steel needle pierces the clouds," Lowe enthused. "The incorporation of the image of speed into Art Deco design is a natural consequence of the proliferation of new modes of transportation – dirigibles, airplanes, sleek ocean liners, and high-speed trains."

Buildings in the Art Deco style sprung up around the country. In Kansas City the Power and Light building, completed in 1931 is the most obvious example. Yet, traces of the style also appear in less significant buildings, such as the "film row" one-story buildings in the now trendy Crossroads neighborhood bordering downtown.


Collecting Art Deco

Because most Art Deco objects were mass-produced, a great many survive today, making them terrific and often surprisingly affordable collectibles. Industrial designers Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfus created many functional objects (such as clocks, radios, and telephones) with the classic Art Deco angular, streamlined look.

A lot of three Karl Palda Czech Art Deco crystal tableware, including two decanters along with a perfume bottle. Unsigned. Estimate: $100 - $200 plus shipping. Recently for sale at (photo courtesy

Statuettes and figurines, frequently of female nudes, were produced in plastic, bronze, and ceramic. Glass objects – from vases to perfume bottles – were also popular, with René Lalique, Antonin Daum, Henri Navarre, and Maurice Marinot among the most prized practitioners.

Porcelain figurines created for Robj, Rosenthal, and Lenci often depicted characters and caricatures dressed in the fabrics of the day, with Art Deco costume jewelry on their necks and Art Deco watches on their wrists. By the bed would be a bronze and mahogany clock, in the dining room a china service emblazoned with geometric patterns, and in the living room silver and enamel cigarette cases leaning against ashtrays made of Bakelite.

Art Deco had a great ride, but by 1939 the movement had run its course, giving way to World War II and what we now know as the Mid-Century Modern style. A 1966 exhibition in Paris at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs reminded the world why Art Deco, previously called modernism, had been so popular in its day. Today, it may be even more so.

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at

Back to the top

Feature Stories Archive — past articles