The ABCs of Art Deco Style

A vocabulary introduces art deco history, influences & motifs.

Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum

Art Deco 

Begun in France but blossoming in the United States, the new style that broke from revivalism affected architecture, furniture, industrial design, clothing, and jewelry. The term Art Deco, in wide use by the late 1960s, comes from the 1925 Paris Exposition
Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Influences on Art Deco are many: classicism, the faceted forms of Egypt and the Aztecs, pyramids but also aviation’s streamlined designs. Art Deco spoke of luxury during harsh economic times. Modern opulence came from mirrors and metallics, chrome and gold—used in machine-age interiors. Wallpaper and fabric depicted exotic plants and animals. Expensive silver, jade, marble, and lacquer gave way in later years to aluminum and plastics, making the style functional as well as glamorous.


Popularized again during the Art Deco period, it is a pattern of inverted Vs. A zigzag moulding has a run of chevrons.


The highly influential, avant-garde art movement of the 1910s and 1920s influenced not only painting and sculpture but also music and architecture through the 1930s. The movement begun by Picasso and Braque led to an abstracted, two-dimensional geometric style that can be seen in Art Deco poster graphics and jewelry as well as architecture and interior design.

Depression Era 

A broad term for styles popular during the Great Depression and war years, 1929–1944, encompassing Art Deco design, early modernism, and such period touchstones as uranium glass and veneered furniture.

Egyptian Revival

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 led to a third Egyptian Revival as Egyptian motifs became part of the language of Art Deco architecture, furniture, and decorative objects through the 1930s. American theatres in the style were the ultimate expression.


The intense colors used in Art Deco style may have stemmed from Parisian Fauvism, named for a group of artists (including Matisse) whose expressionist work emphasized strong color. The Fauves were among the first to study African and Oceanic and other non- Western and folk art traditions.

Gatsby Era 

Named for Fitzgerald’s fictional character, it refers to Jazz Age society with its cynicism, consumerism, changing roles, and modernism.

Jazz Age

American name for the rebellious, Prohibition-stoked, culture-changing era when women got the vote and African–American jazz music and dance gained nationwide popularity. (The Roaring Twenties is another name for its first decade.) Author F. Scott Fitzgerald probably coined the term, in his 1922 collection of short stories. Jazz Age interiors combine pastels and neutrals with bold, exotic accents. Several colors sponged on a wall while wet produces what 1920s–30s decorators called a jazz finish.


Used somewhat interchangeably with “Art Deco” during the 1920s, now it refers to an architectural style of the 1930s–40s. Smooth surfaces, curves, and a horizontal emphasis suggest velocity. Art Deco, on the other hand, often has a vertical emphasis. Moderne and Deco styles share simple forms and geometric ornament.


A monumental, four-sided pillar, square in plan and tapering to a pyramidal top, originating in Ancient Egypt and familiar from the Washington Monument. Depictions of obelisks are common in Egyptian Revival ornamentation.

Ocean Liner Style 

A sub-type and occasional synonym for Art Deco and Art Moderne, this term points to the influence of the era’s opulent yet technologically advanced, steam-powered passenger ships. Modernist architects including Le Corbusier even saw the liner as a model for high-density housing. (The architect suggested that their engineering and structure were critical, not their Art Deco interiors, which he disparaged.)


Due to concerns about tall, looming edifices creating dark tunnels at street level, the New York City building code was revised in 1916, leading to the step-back or ziggurat skyscraper. The form familiar from the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, Radio City Music Hall, Houston City Hall, the Kansas City Power and Light Building, the Louisiana State Capitol, and many others was adopted in the design of everything from lighting to tiled bathroom niches.

Slipper Shade 

Ornamental glass shades were used in the elegant 1930s lighting suites that were a signature Art Deco lighting style. The slipper (or slip-fit) shade literally slips into the holder, without the need for set screws. Shades are usually made of decorative, molded glass.

Streamlined Moderne 

A late Art Deco-era style characterized by aerodynamic curves, long horizontal lines, and occasionally by ship motifs. Houses have flat roofs or tiled parapets; walls are often stucco; steel windows wrap corners and glass-block panels are common. Streamlined style came from industrial design and is seen in everything from tubs to toasters.


It’s a zigzag motif adapted from the pyramidal structures of the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians. Ziggurats and inverted ziggurats were popular Art Deco forms.

Tags: art deco interior design OHJ May 2019

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