Designing Women: Cinema, Art Deco, and the Female Form

By Lucy Fischer | Go to book overview

1. THE ART DECO STYLE
Modernity and the Feminine

THE ART DECO AESTHETIC

In 1936, toward the end of an era ruled by the aesthetic of Art Deco, interior designer Winnifred Fales envisioned the future and asked what critics to come would make of the movement and the concepts for which it stood. Writing now, more than six decades later (“beginning at the end,” as Fales anticipated), I find that her question still begs an answer. It is the purpose of this book to provide one—to ponder the “meaning” of Art Deco as it impacted the era's conception of cinema, womanhood, modernity, fashion, and consumerism. To accomplish this, however, I must first probe the term Art Deco itself, then explore and enumerate the mode's basic components —its design elements as well as its social-ideological imperatives. For as Roland Barthes has written, while “a little formalism turns one away from History … a lot brings one back to it” (1957:112).

Today's furnishings: what report will they make of us to our descendants? … Beginning at the end, which of necessity will be the starting point of future generations attempting, from a study of its art forms, to reconstruct the social codes of the first half of the present century and discover “the ideas for which the period stands,” what do we find expressed by the Contemporary mode?

—Winnifred Fales (1936:172)

The name Art Deco has come to signify a popular international trend that surfaced between 1910 and 1935 and affected all aspects of world design: fashion, crafts, housewares, jewelry, furniture, architecture, and interior decoration. What is both significant and problematic about the term is that, although its use is now ubiquitous, it was not coined until the 1960s —as an abbreviation of the hallmark Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, staged in Paris April through October of 1925 (Duncan 1993:8).1

1. Steven Levin (1991:5) says the term Art Deco was coined in 1966 for an exhibition in
Paris (March 3-May 16, 1966) at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The catalog for the show
was entitled Les Années '25'—Art Deco/Bauhaus/Stijl/Espirit Nouveau.

-11-

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