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The twentieth century ushered in an eclectic, luxurious and modern style of design and decoration the world would define at the Paris 1925 exhibition as Art Deco. The material world was now an amalgamation of new technologies and processes and drew from many worldwide influences. However, the greatest influence of the movement was the new visual language, color and iconography of the avant-garde art world: Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, De Stijl, Bauhaus and Constructivism to name a few. As Helen Appleton Red described the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, "The Exposition marks the coming of age of a new decor...as inevitable a manifestation of the forces of evolution as modern art...passing through the Porte d'Honneur one comes...upon a cubist dream city...its cubist shapes and futurist colors...looking like nothing so much as a Picasso abstraction..."
The impact of the avant-garde on all aspect of the decorative arts may seem surprising to some. Before the 1930s knowledge of this new art was exclusively through collectors, dealers, curators and various enthusiasts; outsiders viewed the work as alien or even threatening to established societal traditions and values. Furthermore, many avant-garde artists insisted on a work of art's autonomy and rejected any decorative intentions. In the 1912 publication Du Cubisme, Albert Gleize and Jean Metzinger claimed, "Many consider that decorative preoccupations must govern the spirit of the new painters. Undoubtedly they are ignorant of the most obvious signs that make decorative work the antithesis of the picture." To them the true function of art was to engage the mind and emotions independently from its context, while the applied arts were defined by the need to harmonize with the context. A work of art that was "decorative" couldn't exist.
But by the late twenties and thirties, artists and designers were taking an active interest in the development of the decorative arts and familiarized the public with the language of the avant-garde. For example, the poster designs A. M. Cassandre and Edward McKnight Kauffer, who interpeted Cubist and Constructivist imagery for their graphic design; photographers Cecil Beaton and May Ray introduced abstract and surrealist images into their work; Alexander Archipenko's and Salvador Dali's mannequin designs contributed to the overhaul of store front displays in the twenties; film directors Marcel L'Herbier and Jack Conway commissioned set and costumes based on the art of the time. By taking such active interest, the two separate worlds of art and design began dabbling in one another.
The association between avant-garde artists and Art Deco designers was also encouraged by shared sources of interest and inspirations, as well as shared patrons and friends. The Cubists' fascination with African masks and artifacts from the Paris Trocadéro in 1907 was shared by the furniture and bookbinding designs of Pierre Legrain, as well as Eileen Gray and Maria Likarz. The couturier Jacque Doucet had a wide collection of artwork ranging from Picasso, Jacque Lipchitz and George Braque to Gray and Legrain. Inevitably these connections would lead the Deco designers to new aesthetics and new ways of thinking for their own art.
Evidence of this kind of influence can be found when drawing a comparison to the gown designs of Madeleine Vionnet and Fernand Léger's rendering of figures throughout his career. And not just his figures, but the Cubist rendering of form in general. Both were working in Paris during the same time and became friends; Leger was reportedly fascinated by Vionnet's techniques and would visit her at her studio to watch her work when he felt depleted in his own creations. She was known for thinking of the woman's body as a cylinder and dressing a three-dimensional form instead of front and back. By the late 1920s she had pioneered a new fashion design as the sequencing and spinning of continuous shapes in a web of pattern pieces. She was thinking of the body as a construction of planes much like Léger and the other Cubist and Futurist artists were exploring in their work. As a result her work was more daring and pushed the traditional silhouettes for women, yet depended on the natural geometry of the woman to bring life to the work. Perhaps it is more than coincidence that Vionnet began to break the planes of the body after Léger and company began to break the planes of his pictorial space.
Other decorative artists were more ambitious in establishing the association between Art Deco and avant-garde art; many wanted to be recognized as equal in stature to fine artists and wished to have their work viewed accordingly. Legrain's selection of work published in the contemporary album Objets d'art in 1929 featured designs by the glassmaker Maurice Marinot, lacquerer and metalsmith Jean Dunard, and the bookbinder Genevieve de Leotard as well as Jean Fouquet, Gerard Sandoz and Jean Goulden, showcased this de luxe work in a new light.
Similar tendencies can be found in the work of Viennese Franz Hagenauer, specifically his decorative adaptations of the work of Constantine Brancusi, Lipchitz and numerous other abstract sculptors. The artist names Brancusi's Mademoiselle Pogany series as inspiration for his Buste de jeune fille in 1930, but even Hagenauer's female figures in the fifties had the same large eyes and rounded features of Pogany. Other similarities can be seen in a comparison of Brancusi's Bird in Flight sculptures with Hagenauer's Horse and Rider from 1935. Both pieces share similar aesthetic qualities, but more importantly is their implication of movement and speed; Bird in flight is about the essence of upward thrust, the elimination of obvious features create the illusion of intense speed. Horse and Rider suggest the same kind of speed, with the horse leaping forward onto its front legs, the rider flung back in counterbalance to the animal, even the decorative curl serves to push the horse further forward. Others like Hagenauer include the German architecture critic Adolf Behne, who designed lamps in glass and mixed materials that derived directly from Bauhaus Vorkus exercises.
Perhaps the clearest reasoning for the avant-garde influence is fine artists were, for a number of reasons, taking interest and participating in the applied arts. Some did so because of their belief in the interdependence of the arts, such as Walter Gropius's Bauhaus group in 1919 and Holland's De Stijl group two years prior. Both groups greatly believed in the cross fertilization between fine art, crafts and industrial; the colors and forms of fine artists associated with the Bauhaus were echoed in their colleagues designs for domestic wares. But for many artists, migration to the decorative arts and design meant financial stability and the funding to support their own fine art practices.
Raoul Dufy, a French painter often known more for his ventures into design than fine art, designed bold fabric designs for the couturier Paul Poirot and textile manufacturer Bianchini- Fernier. He began studying at the École Nationale des Beaux-arts in Paris with George Braque, and became fascinated with Cezanne's play on pictorial space and the appearance of depth on a flat painting surface. Dufy's new influences made it difficult to sell his new work and his older Fauvist work, so he began illustrating books with overly decorative woodcut prints, which caught the attention of Poirot and Bianchini-Ferier and began his long career in textile design. He also designed set for Paris theatre houses that mimicked the regattas and resort subject matter that he would begin to explore in 1920. But what is interesting is that Dufy never saw his applied work as his main calling, he was first and foremost a painter and he allowed his commercial work to compliment and influence his personal paintings.
Sonia Delaunay's earliest designs were made from the "simultaneous" paintings she and her husband Robert completed, translating the brightly colored and geometric shapes into lampshades, textiles and illustrations for the first "simultaneous" book. During the first world war Delaunay began designing clothes, accessories and occasional interiors for Madrid society figures and opened her own shop to sell the designs to the domestic interior. By 1923 Delaunay had sold more than 50 designs to a Lyon silk manufacturer, and she had set up her own business with Jacque Heim designing dress fabrics, clothes, and accessories.
Besides avant-garde artists' direct ventures into the decorative arts and Deco designers striving to be seen as fine artists, this was a time of great communication of all ideas and all ways of thinking and living. All these examples indicate that however puritanical avant-garde artists and theorists might preach the need to keep art away from function and decorative application, in practice there was an abundant interest in the crossover between fine and decorative arts. This fascination was the starting point for the reinvention of modern art and design as we see it today.