Published  08/01/2010

A New Look for a New World. Art Deco Complete: The Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 1930s

A New Look for a New World

Art Deco Complete: The Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 1930s by Alastair Duncan
Published in the UK by Thames and Hudson (£50); in the US by Abrams ($125)

Reviewed by CINDI Di MARZO

After turning the final page in Art Nouveau and Art Deco authority Alastair Duncan's weighty guide to the Art Deco movement, readers will understand that the tome's title is misplaced. 'Essential' might be more appropriate to brand Duncan's work, as it seems Art Deco's history, stylistic range and implications for future designers demands even more study and research than has been devoted to the topic. Of course, there have been many such studies since the 1960s Art Deco revival, as well as collectors' guides, coffee-table presentations and showcases devoted to high-style Parisian Art Deco and the low-style 'kitsch' of mass-market consumption. Duncan's impressive bibliography alone comprises overviews (Encyclopedia of Art Deco, American Art Deco, etc.), as well as focused works on furniture, bookbinding and lighting.

In his introduction to Art Deco Complete, he states his position on the style's parameters:

'In the history of the applied arts in modern times, Art Deco is a special chapter, one that has been characterized by multiple theories about its origins, its significance and its influence. Because of many seemingly contradictory factors, an exact definition of the style and its scope has proved elusive.'1

Duncan applies an expansive vision to Art Deco, considering designers and works that fall outside the movement's traditionally held time frame (1920 to the start of World War II). One might predict that Duncan, whose credentials include more than a decade as officer and consultant at Christie's New York (1977–1990), would take a purist's approach to a subject that has made his career and reputation. Most notable (and admirable) is the author's nearly childlike enthusiasm for the style's depth, sophistication and subtlety, particularly when he relates the sea changes caused by talented artists in furniture, bookbinding, graphic design and lighting. Flashes of such passion are brief, overshadowed by rapid-fire delivery of designer names and characteristic features of their works approximating the evening news. Given the amount of material covered, this fault is forgiven. For the most part, Duncan trains his eye on high-style Art Deco as exemplified by interiors and furnishings exhibited at the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, with developments in other countries discussed as these countries' designers embraced, built upon or rejected influences emanating from Paris, or moved toward a functionalism reflecting machine-age technology and concerns.

The book's format has been set to help readers navigate Duncan's wide terrain. Mostly successful at accomplishing this feat, the author and editors have divided the volume. The first part consists of Duncan's illustrated introduction to nine fields in which Art Deco designers excelled and featured biographies of pioneering artists in each field: furniture and interior decoration; sculpture; paintings, graphics, posters and bookbinding; glass; ceramics; lighting; textiles; silver, metal, lacquer and enamel; and jewelry. In the second part, readers will find an alphabetical listing of designers, artists and manufacturers with colour photos of designs by some of the listed names, as well as a glossary of materials and technical terms, bibliography and index. A glaring drawback to the chosen method of cross-referencing is that small capital letters, bold-faced and italicised type and asterisks appear within the body of part-one texts to signal a biography either in part one or two, or a glossary. Does this sound confusing? At first, the cross-referencing system might prove daunting because accessing material in part two as one reads part one will be essential to all but Art Deco scholars and collectors. (Another problem: It is quite difficult to repeatedly turn pages from back to front of a nearly 600-page volume. Perhaps sidebars with glossary terms in each section would have proved effective.)

Rare and luxurious furniture coverings (galuchat) and veneers (palissandre de Rio); sculptural mediums (chryselephantine); lacquer inlays for furnishings and bookbindings (coquille d'oeuf); glass-making techniques and decoration (Graal; intercalaire); and industrial-age metals and synthetics (stainless steel, bakelite) are among the many innovative design tactics Art Deco artists employed to achieve various effects. Duncan covers these and an astounding array of influences detected in Art Deco works: ancient civilizations; eighteenth-century elegance; orientalism; Arts and Crafts; Art Nouveau and Jugenstil; Bauhaus; Wiener Werkstätte; Glasgow School; Fauvism; African animals and motifs; Jazz; sports cars; and luxury ocean liners.2 Never-far from these influences in Duncan's commentary, Cubism plays a critical part in Art Deco design vocabulary. Readers will, likely, be grateful for Duncan's mastery, as he ranges far, follows seemingly endless routes outward yet retains his tether to what makes a person describe something as 'Art Deco'. Paging through part two of Art Deco Complete, readers might attempt defining this essence, as Duncan so expertly has done. While words might not suffice to join Jacques Adnet's pewter table lamp (p.319), Black, Starr & Frost's enamelled cigarette case (p.334), Adolphe Chanaux's earthenware plate (p.347), Josef Csáky's marble sculpture (p.359), André Groult's bedroom ensemble (p.386), Georges Lévard's Grand Salon (p.425), Mybor's wool carpet (p.449), Henri Rapin's glazed porcelain vase (p.471) and Louis Sognot's chromed metal and tinted glass jardinière (p.495), a certain intuition emerges. Whether in the hands of Art Deco luminaries (Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, Tamara de Lempicka, René Lalique, Clarice Cliff, Edgar Brandt, Cartier) or their lesser-known counterparts, Art Deco style is, above all, instinctively cohesive. Duncan locates the link in a 'refreshing snap' and 'compelling nostalgic charm'. For collectors and novices alike, Art Deco Complete is compelling in its charm. The volume delights on the sensual level. One might call it 'essential'.


1. Art Deco Complete: The Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 1930s by Alastair Duncan, published in the UK by Thames and Hudson (£50); in the US by Abrams ($125). The 544-page jacketed hardcover contains 1,000 full-colour illustrations.

2. For more on the iconic Art Deco designs created for the French luxury liner Normandie, as well as the interplay between Parisian high-style Art Deco and Modernism in New York, see 'A Creative Transatlantic Tango Shapes the Modern World: Paris/New York, 1925-1940', Studio International.

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