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Influences of Egyptian Art on Art Deco

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A dissertation on Art Deco & how it was influenced by the discovery of Egyptian art, more specifically the findings at Tutankhamen's tomb.

Explore how the London exhibition of these findings was of great significance to the worlds of fashion & interiors in the 1970's and how many designers started to redeploy Egyptian motifs in their work.

Introduction

Egyptian art and design was very much centred on decorative motifs and patterns for both large and small items. As Egyptian artefacts were uncovered and became known to modern civilization, their art designs began to have an influence on modern design.[1] This paper will look at how these Egyptian motifs and designs became hugely influential on the Art Deco movement in the 1920’s and 1930’s, as well as the revival of the movement in the 1970’s. There will be a particular focus upon the artefacts found in the legendary tomb of Tutankhamen. Through the London exhibition of this work, its decorative motifs spread into what we now know were the beginnings of the Art Deco movement. It also had a strong influence on the resurgence of Art Deco designs in 1970’s home decorations and furnishings.

The paper will be split into two main sections, with the first section looking at the general influence of Egyptian design on Art Deco design. The second section will then look at specific examples of designs and designers to support the claims of Egyptian influence on Art Deco design through the artefacts of the Tutankhamen exhibition.

Firstly, though, it is worth mentioning a brief history of how Egyptian design began to influence modern design, particularly in the Western world. It was in the 18th century that Egyptian design first became fashionable for furnishing within British homes, mainly through the influence of Italian design at the time. This is when obviously Egyptian items were being used as designs within homes, including obelisks and sphinxes. As Western society learnt more about Egypt through the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, the opening of the Suez Canal and an exhibition of Egyptian artefacts by Belzoni in 1821, the trend for Egyptian design as a fashion continued throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century.[2]

However, during this time much of the Egyptian designs were limited to copies or replicas of large, visible artefacts of Egypt. It was not until the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 that the styling of Egyptian design began to really influence modern design. The artefacts in Tutankhamen’s tomb were of amazing quality and style, and it is these artefacts that inspired the Art Deco movement. Examples first appeared in architecture such as the Hoover Building in London in 1931/32, which is still around today. Many other aspects of design from this period such as furniture, jewellery, and even clothing were influenced by Egyptian design. However, it was the Art Deco movement that took Egyptian motifs and designs and used them in a different way, rather than exactly copying or reproducing existing designs. [3]

The artefacts of Tutankhamen again had an influence on design in the 1970’s as they were exhibited in London. This sparked a renewed interest in Egyptian design and again clothing, furnishing and decorations were created in an Egyptian style.

The next section of the paper will look at the general design similarities between Egyptian design, particularly the Tutankhamen artefacts, and the Art Deco movement.

Influence of Egyptian Motifs on Art Deco

At first glance, the obvious similarity between Egyptian design as seen in Tutankhamen’s tomb and Art Deco design is the use of decoration to cover as many different surfaces as possible. Egyptian designs were highly decorative, and this was a huge influence on the Art Deco movement that used decorative patterns and design elements wherever there was space to do so. [4]

However, the term Art Deco itself was not coined until the 1960’s, and in the 1920’s and 1930’s the movement which is later known as Art Deco was more concerned with mixing the glamour of Hollywood with the mystical and spiritual designs of ancient cultures such as Mayan and Egyptian.

The concept of Art Deco was to do with forms, shapes and geometric lines which signified the rise of the machine age, the aeroplane and the automobile. However, they also mimicked the geometric patterns found in Egyptian design and hieroglyphs.[5] As 1930’s Britain and America were reaching a more advanced stage than modern society had ever achieved, the style of Art Deco paid homage to this through its use of the Egyptian motifs – the motifs of the ‘pinnacle’ of ancient society.

The influence from Egyptian design also had to do with a fascination for the primitive and the primeval of ancient times. The influence of the Tutankhamen artefacts can be seen in the adoption of pharaonic imagery in Art Deco, such as scarabs and cats.[6] An article in Harpers Bazaar in 1928 showed this influence directly by showing women’s accessories of the time against profiled heads of Egyptian females.[7]

There was a very clear influence from Egyptian design on the Art Deco architecture in cities like London and particularly Manhattan in the 1930’s. Symbolically, the beginning of the era of skyscrapers is like the looming of the ancient Pyramids. There is a certain sense of mystery in such powerful and dominating structures, and this was certainly part of the Egyptian influence on Art Deco architecture at the time.[8] Other designs in Europe more showed more direct influence from Egyptian design, with pyramid style apartments and buildings being planned in London, New York and Paris as a sign of luxury and sophistication.[9]

Hybridism is another area where Egyptian design has influenced Art Deco. Egyptian design was based upon a mix of traditional and contemporary styles, and mixed decorative style with function and purpose. Art Deco also did this by mixing not only Egyptian styles but the styles of other ancient cultures as well as the functionality and precision of modern design.[10] Whilst Egyptian design was a hybrid of designs from the cultures and peoples that were dominated by the ancient Egyptians, so Art Deco was a mixture of the traditional and the modern from all over the world.

Egyptian design was also important as a social influence on Art Deco, because the discovery of Tutankhamen and the tomb’s wonderful artefacts represented a time when luxury, mysticism and a ‘golden age’ were occurring. During the 1920’s and 1930’s people were still recovering from the ravages of the First World War, and they wanted to move away from those times of hardship into a new era of peace, fashion and decadence. Egyptian design was a perfect representation of such an era, and this is another reason why the Art Deco designs of the time incorporated Egyptian motifs.[11]

The geometric patterns of Art Deco however are perhaps the main focus of the movement’s aesthetic, and came not only from Egyptian design influences but from the influences of Cubism. It was the geometric patterns of Cubism mixed with the decorative aesthetic of Egyptian design that influenced much of the European and American movements of Art Deco during the 1920’s and the 1930’s.[12]

A further design aspect of Art Deco influenced by the Egyptian, or at least the perception of Egyptian, design was the concept of feminine style. The 1920’s and the 1930’s were the start of a new era for feminine style after the austere fashions of the early 1900’s. Egypt, with its female gods and female ruling figures, is seen as a barometer of classic feminine elegance and style. Therefore, many of the fashion styles and interpretations of Egypt at the time were based on this idea of femininity. Nowhere can this be better seen than in the 1930’s film version of the story of Cleopatra, where Cleopatra is played by Claudette Colbert. The movie was made on the back of the popularity of Egyptian-inspired Art Deco, or ‘Nile Style as it was sometimes referred to in Hollywood circles. Colberts image as Cleopatra was far more about current Art Deco style than historic recreation of Egyptian design.[13]

She even advertised her hair in a curled ‘Egyptian’ style and endorsed Cleopatra Egyptian-inspired dresses and gowns like those shown in the movie. Even the physical feminine style for women at the time of being tall and thin was similar to historical records of the feminine style preferred in ancient Egypt. Her costumes in the film were influenced by those historically recorded for Isis. Below is an example of this style, showing the influence of Egyptian style on Art Deco even in contemporary movie-making of the time. This may have been a film based on an Egyptian story, but Colbert was known for wearing modern styles even in such movies and this is reflected in the Art Deco Egyptian dress worn.

Colberts Art Deco Cleopatra Look[14]

The Art Deco movement’s use of Egyptian motifs and design was certainly launched fully by the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, and this set off the recreation and interpretation of Egyptian artefacts and design in almost all areas of art and design. This ranged from costumes such as those designed by Sonia Delaunay, the Egyptian Theatre by Grauman and the biscuit tins of Huntley and Palmer. Some of these designs will be examined more closely in the next section of the essay. What all of these designs share is the sense of decadence, elegance and sophistication that people craved during this era and was expressed through the use of Egyptian motifs.[15]

Art Deco architecture was influenced by Egyptian architectural techniques in that it places a certain importance on aesthetics as well as functionality. This makes the architecture closer in some ways to painting or art rather than merely the design of buildings. Art Deco buildings like the Egyptian buildings were highly functional, but not at the cost of style and decoration.[16]

Jewellery of the Art Deco period was also greatly influenced by Egyptian design as well. The fascination with Egyptian culture meant that artefacts from Tutankhamen’s tomb were reproduced or at the very least elements of their design were used for highly sought after jewellery pieces. Although Egyptian motifs had been used before this time, this was the first time that they were used to such an extent in modern, fashionable design. Van Cleef and Arpels in Paris set tiny Egyptian figures in coloured stones into a diamond background, and Cartier designed Egyptian-inspired clocks. A heavy use of previous metals such as platinum and gold as well as diamonds became more popular, inspired by the hugely elaborate and stunning gold pieces found in the tomb. However, this type of jewellery became less popular after the 1929 Wall Street crash and cheaper materials were again used.[17]

However, not all of the Art Deco movement was influenced so heavily by Egyptian design. The Art Deco movement in Paris was influenced more by the visit of the Russian ballet and the aesthetics that came with their performance. However, in London and New York the scenes, particularly architecture and interior decoration were highly influenced by Egyptian design.[18]

However, towards the end of the 1930’s the style started to become less fashionable, and tastes changed. The Art Deco movement though would be revived in Britain in the 1960’s and 1970’s, again when it was heavily influenced by the arrival of the London exhibition of the Tutankhamen artefacts.

The first stirrings of the Art Deco revival in London were through retail styles of stores like Biba in Kensington. The ceramic designs of Clarice Cliff were still in high demand, and even the headquarters of MI6 has a number of Art Deco touches in terms of detail and symmetry. [19]

However, it was the arrival of the Tutankhamen exhibition in London in 1972 that again sparked a revival of Egyptian-inspired Art Deco style. The sheer excitement and opulence of the exhibition of these world famous treasures meant that Egyptian design once again became fashionable. The exhibition attracted around 1.7 million viewers in its year run and inspired the revival of the Egyptian inspired Art Deco movement that is sometimes referred to as ‘Egyptian Revival Art.[20]

This revival of the Art Deco was also a response to Modernism that had deemed Art Deco too decadent and had replaced the decoration with ‘cleaner’ looks. The Postmodernist architecture and design began to pay homage to the decorative excesses of Art Deco and ornate jewellery, ostentatious sports cars and lacquered furniture once again moved design back towards a more decorative aesthetic.[21]

It was almost as if the arrival of the Tutankhamen exhibition sparked a remembrance of the Art Deco style, and this created the first real collecting phase of Art Deco in the UK. Exhibitions and retrospectives began to flourish and the movement was looked at again in a new light. It once again became fashionable as celebrities such as Elton John and Barbra Streisand began to collect Art Deco pieces. [22]

We have seen in this section how Egyptian motifs were one of the key elements in the Art Deco movement in the 1920’s. The real spark of inspiration came with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter in 1922. The decadence and decorative appeal of the artefacts in this tomb appealed to the tastes and fashions of the time and became imbedded in the Art Deco movement. The architecture of New York and London during this period is highly influenced by Egyptian motifs, as well as the furnishings, fashion and art.

Although the movement was replaced by Modernism in the 1940’s, the arrival of the Tutankhamen exhibition in London in 1972 once again created a demand for Art Deco designs that were inspired by Egyptian motifs.

The next section of this paper will examine some of the key examples of Egyptian motifs within Art Deco design in the 1920’s/30’s and the 1970’s in Britain and how they are inspired by the artefacts found in Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Examples of Egyptian Motifs in Art Deco Fashion and Interiors

The Egyptian motifs appeared in Art Deco in the 1920’s and 1930’s most prominently in the architecture of Britain and America. In Britain, perhaps the best surviving example of this Egyptian inspiration in Art Deco is the Hoover Building in Perivale.[23] Other good examples still to be seen in London are The Daily Telegraph Building designed by Ernest Elcock (1928-1931). This building has huge, bulging Egyptian columns. Another building of the same era is the Carreras Building in Camden which features an imposing Egyptian colonnade. [24] The Carreras Building is influenced by the Temple of Bubastis, the cat-headed goddess. It had a sense of spaciousness and light to match the mystical feeling of the ancient temple, and was adorned with a wide variety of Egyptian motifs and designs.[25]

In America one of the earliest examples was the Egyptian Theatre (1922) by Sid Grauman. However, many of the skyscrapers in New York built during this era have some Egyptian influence – even the famous Empire State Building with its needle-like point and angular edges similar to many of the ‘needles’ found in Ancient Egypt.[26]

The rebuilding of San Francisco after the terrible 1906 earthquake was masterminded by Timothy Pfleuger. He built a number of Art Deco buildings including the Castro Theatre and the Telephone Building. Pfleuger mixed all types of ancient cultural influences into his decorative works including Egyptian and Mayan motifs.[27]

Interior design was also influenced by the Egyptian motifs from Tutankhamen’s tomb. The Harrods Egyptian escalator hall in London may not be the best example of Art Deco, but it shows how the influence of Egyptian design continues even as art movements change. The designer, William George Mitchell said that he wanted the “staircase to be a walk-in sculpture, a journey from the Lower Nile to the Upper Nile.”[28]

It is also clear that the areas where Art Deco was most prevalent tend to have the most examples of Egyptianized architecture. London has some, but the Art Deco movement was more prevalent in New York and this is where the largest concentration of Egyptianized buildings is located.

The influences of Egyptian design could even be seen in the writings of famous literary minds of the time. F. Scott Fitzgerald begins one of his most famous short stories known as ‘May Day with a sort of Mock Arabian introduction of how New York will be reborn for the Art Deco. It establishes the importance of exoticism within Art Deco, which is certainly something that Egyptian design can add to the mix.[29]

This exoticism can be seen in the jewellery of the time, particularly the high-aesthetics of Cartier. As Bracewell discusses an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum on Art Deco, a 1925 vanity case is mentioned as an example of this Egyptian-inspiration in Art Deco. The vanity case is the shape of a sarcophagus, and illustrates the exotic luxury that is synonymous with Egyptian designs in Art Deco pieces. The catalogue option for the vanity case reads as a veritable plethora of luxurious materials and decorative design – "Gold, platinum, carved bone, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds, onyxes and enamel; interior with folding mirror, tortoiseshell comb, lipstick holder and cigarette compartment."[30]

The Cartier jewellery epitomised both the visual design aspects of Egyptian design in Art Deco, but also the ethos and ideals of the Art Deco movement. The jewellery was decadent, but because it harkened back to the past and primeval culture it was not ostentatious in the same way as the Art Nouveau movement before it. The Cartier brand and its use of precious materials using modern lines, but combined with ancient motifs and symbols, shows the glamour and escapism that Art Deco was trying to create.[31]

The furnishings of the time were also examples of the almost Pharoah-esque aesthetics of the Art Deco movement. Two houses in England – Coleton Fishacre and Courthauld house – are excellent examples of the use of luxurious fabrics and different textured materials within Art Deco interior design. The influence from Egyptian design is less obvious here, and is more to do with the luxurious fabrics and importance of aesthetics that are stylistically similar to the ancient Egyptian palatial interiors. Both use clean lines mixed with good colours, sensitive lighting and textured materials to create a tactile environment.

The interior of Coleton Fishacre was designed by Basil Ionides, who invoked a Jazz Age feel in the house. Dining rooms contained Lalique lights, and ornate iron framed furnishings. The sea-blue tabletop was clearly influenced by the colours within the Tutankhamen tomb. [32]

The initial movement of Art Deco was certainly geared towards the upper classes and incorporated not only the influences from the Tutankhamen tomb but also the improvements in transport technologies and communication. This brought new and exotic materials to the market such as ebony, shark skin, mother of pearl, lacquer and tropical woods. This allowed for experimentation with new and exciting materials, but still paying tribute to the traditional and ancient cultures where they came from. The Egyptian influence was just one of these influences, although perhaps the most striking of all thanks to the artefacts found and the decorative beauty of the items in the tomb.

The rise in consumerism reflected the dawning of a new and wonderful age, and so it was only natural that elements of previously successful and respected societies would be included in design. With no society more famed and revered in the ancient world than Ancient Egypt this meant the design elements crept into many of the styles of age including the Chrysler Building by William Van Alen (1927-1930). Just as the pyramids of ancient times were engineering wonders that looked like they could not be built by the hands of humans, the modern skyscrapers of the 1920’s and 1930’s were designed to look like they were made by machines, with their huge heights and angular structures.[33]

However, the movement changed somewhat in the later era of Art Deco and the revival in the 1970’s, where again ‘Tutmania took over and the demand from the masses for Egyptian inspired design meant that mass production techniques and cheaper materials were now used and the focus was less on luxury and more on the motifs and exoticism of Egyptian design. The designs became more like reproductions of Egyptian designs than inspirations within a distinct movement.

Fashion throughout the Art Deco period though was perhaps one of the most heavily influenced areas of design. Delaunay was one such fashion designer of the Art Deco period who was influenced by Egyptian designs. She had always incorporated different styles into her work, including influences from Fauvism, Cubism and ethnic trends. Her career saw her develop from a painter to a designer, and it was in her capacity as a designer that she was involved in costumes for Diaghilev’s version of Cleopatra (1917). Many of the costumes for dancers of this production could not be full recreations of Egyptian clothing, but instead were Art Deco pieces that hinted at Egyptian motifs through the scarves and other accessories for the costumes.[34]

However, it must also be shown that there were a number of designers within the Art Deco movement influenced by other designs. Clarice Cliff marked her Art Deco with different ethnic designs, but was perhaps most famous for her use of bold colours and Cubist designs. Although there are certainly some Egyptian influences in Cliffs work, it was her hybridity and blending of styles in pottery that made her a success in the late Art Deco period, and still makes her work sought-after today.

Cliff mixed themes from the Jazz Age and exotic elements of different ethnic cultures with elements of De Stijl and Cubism to create Art Deco pottery that was influenced by everything yet looked like none of the individual influences. The items she created were meant as household items and used materials that were less expensive than the opulence associated with the earlier Art Deco period.

However, the concept of hybridity is certainly an idealistic homage to the hybridity seen within the great and Ancient Empires such as the rule of the Egyptians. Their culture mixed together all of the cultures they had observed and the knowledge they had learnt, which was evident in their beautiful but elaborate designs. Cliff’s design mimics this with its use of hybridity, and whilst visually there are few influences in Cliffs work to Egyptian design, her use of Art Deco hybridity is indirectly influenced by the hybridity of Egyptian design. [35]

Virtually all of the major Art Deco designs have some influence from Egyptian design, either through their visual aspects such as Egyptian motifs or through the ideals of hybridity, exoticism, decoration and aesthetics. The designers that have been looked at in this section give a glimpse at both the visual influence of Egyptian design on Art Deco design as well as the idealistic influence. From the deep-sea blues of the table at Coleton Fishacre to the bejewelled sarcophagus-shaped case created by Cartier, Art Deco owes a great deal of its stylistic and visual appeal to Egyptian Design. This is most evident in large cities such as London and New York where the giant architectural monoliths carry the motifs and flourishes of Egyptian design.

Whilst Egyptian design was popular before the Art Deco movement, it was the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 that really influenced the movement. The artefacts found in this collection were so mesmerising and unlike anything seen before that their style was sought-after as an escape from the previous designs of the late 19th century and early 20th century. This link to Egyptian design is not only in the visual aspects but in this ideal of luxury, exoticism and hybridity that epitomises Art Deco.

The next section will conclude the paper, and look at the main points of similarity and influence between Egyptian design and Art Deco, and how this is particularly linked to the Tutankhamen artefacts.

Conclusion

Art Deco’s goal was to break away from the Art Nouveau of the 19th century and break the rule of not paying tribute to past styles, whilst still looking forward. Art Deco did this by looking at truly ancient motifs and styles from Egypt that was at once primeval and dazzlingly modern because of the distance of time between the modern era and the ancient era.[36] The need to move away from the horrors of the First World War and embrace and new, elegant and decadent present meant that the 1920’s were a place where decorative design took precedence. However, it was the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter that really caught the imagination of the public and pushed Egyptian design as a major influence for the Art Deco movement. Although the term Art Deco was not coined until the 1960’s[37], the influences of Egyptian design on the movement in the 1920’s and 1930’s can be seen throughout all aspects of design at this time.

The Art Deco architecture of New York and London was heavily influenced by Egyptian motifs including the pyramid shapes, the decorative interiors and exteriors and the sheer size and dominating presence of the buildings themselves. The design aspects of furnishings, jewellery and even fashion were influenced by Egyptian design during the Art Deco period. The two styles have similarities in concept and meaning as well as visual appearance, with both styles being a synergy of different styles and techniques from the past and the present. This is why the influence of Egyptian design within Art Deco is so far reaching, with all the different materials and types of design being used in this movement.

Also, both movements place the bulk of importance upon decorative aesthetics, with function important but not at the cost of decoration. The use of precious metals, frequent and multiple design elements and geometric designs also match. Even the ideas of femininity were fairly similar as can be seen through Hollywood movies of the time and their use of sleek, tall women wearing clothes that enhanced their appeal as ‘Goddesses’ or powerful, mysterious women.

The movement was replaced by modernism in the 1940’s, but it was once again revived in the UK in the 1970’s with the arrival of the London exhibition of the Tutankhamen artefacts. Egyptian-inspired furnishings, decorations, jewellery and fashion became popular, and this era is often dubbed as the ‘Egyptian Revival Movement. It coincided with a renewed interest in Art Deco, and shows the deep links between the Art Deco movement and Egyptian design not only in visual similarity but in design ideals and principles.

In conclusion, the influence of Egyptian design on Art Deco both in the 1920’s/1930’s and the 1970’s was significant, constituting not only a visual influence on the movement but a stylistic and symbolic significance. Although Art Deco’s primary style of geometric patterns and lines was perhaps more heavily influenced by Cubism, the decorative aesthetics of Egyptian design brought many of the design aspects and motifs that we associate with the Art Deco movement.

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1


Footnotes

[1] PETRIE, W.M.F. (1999), p. 1

[2] MIDGLEY, A. (2008)

[3] MIDGLEY, A. (1998)

[4] STOFIK, M.B. (2005)

[5] CLOUZOT, H. (1997), pp. 1-2

[6] PETRIE, W.M.F. (1999), pp. 111-112

[7] FISCHER, L. (2003), pp. 14-17, fig. 1.4

[8] STRINER, R. (1990), pp. 22-23

[9] CRANFIELD, I. (2001), p. 12, top picture.

[10] LI-HSUN, P. (2007), p. 37

[11] CRANFIELD, I. (2001), pp. 12-13

[12] MENTEN, T. (1972), pp. 3-4

[13] CONDON, S. (2007), pp. 37-41

[14] CONDON, S. (2007), p. 40

[15] ELLIOTT, B. (2008), pp. 115-121

[16] DOWS, D. (1942), p. 572

[17] WILNER, T. (2005)

[18] SMITH, C. (2008)

[19] 20TH CENTURY LONDON. (2008)

[20] MORRIS, S. (2007)

[21] RIDING, A. (2003)

[22] FUSCO, T. (2004)

[23] LONDON FOOTPRINTS. (2007)

[24] ECHO. (2006)

[25] HUMBERT, J-M and PRICE, C.A. (2003), pp. 105-106

[26] STOFIK, M.B. (2005)

[27] POLETTI, T and PAIVA, T. (2008), see images on back cover

[28] BINNEY, M. (2007)

[29] BRACEWELL, M. (2003), p. 38

[30] BRACEWELL, M. (2003), p. 39

[31] SILVESTER-CARR, D. (2003), p. 2

[32] SILVESTER-CARR, D. (1999), p. 4

[33] DAWSON, J. (2003), pp. 21-22

[34] LI-HSUN, P. (2007), pp. 212-214

[35] LI-HSUN, P. (2007), pp. 240-243

[36] THOMAS, B. (2005)

[37] CHILVERS, I. (1999), p. 31


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