In 1925, the city of Paris organized an international exhibition of contemporary art entitled: the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts. This temporary exhibition lasted for six months in Paris, housed at both The Grand Palais and The Invalides. It allowed Parisian decorators and designers the opportunity to exhibit the new style they had been developing for several years. Starting in 1912, the Art Deco style (which takes its name from the 1925 exhibition) was a reaction against the curves of Art Nouveau, employing stricter geometric forms, directly inspired by the French style “Louis-Philippe.”
Wood marquetry, common in Art Nouveau furniture, was replaced by precious and foreign woods, like Makassar ebony or Brazilian rosewood, mother-of-pearl inlay, ivory, even precious stones. The Japanese lacquer technique as well as the egg shell lacquer, previously unused in Western design, were hallmarks of Art Deco. Gone were the references to nature and poetry, replaced by simpler, streamlined designs, encompassing the earlier idea of a “total work of art.” Furniture was designed as an ensemble, for an elite social class able to pay the price for an updated interior.
Originally the International Exposition was to take place in 1914 but was postponed until 1925 due to WWI. The rules of the new Exposition were released in 1922 and all participating designers were aware of article 4: “To be admitted to the exhibition works must be based on new inspiration and a true originality performed and presented by artists, artisans, industrial designers, modelers and publishers in decorative and industrial modern arts. Rigorously excluded are imitations and counterfeiting of old styles.” Each country had its own exhibition area, show casing the latest innovations in architecture, furniture, objects, and paintings. Notable exceptions were America and Germany, both of which did not exhibit.
The most successful pavilion was the French “Hotel for a Rich Collector.” The instillation was arranged by a large collective of interior designers and artists, including sculptors Antoine Bourdelle, Jean Besnard, Gaston Le Bourgeois, François Pompon, Jean Despiau, Georges Janniot, and decorators Pierre Legrain, Jean Dupas Charles Jaulmes, Léon Jallot. Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann supervised the collaborating artists and installed his own architecture with the help of the French architect Jean Patout. The “Hotel” was representative of a total Art Deco interior, the ideal home for a wealthy collector in the 1920s. After the Exposition, Ruhlmann received so many orders that he needed to double his staff, until the crash of 1929.
The “Société des Artistes Decorateurs” (SAD) had their own pavilion entitled “A French Embassy.” Each room was made created by a designer working independently or in collaboration with other artists. The goal was to show diverse range of French luxury furniture. Two rooms were highlights of the “Embassy”: the bedroom of the Ambassador’s wife, where furniture had shapely and feminine forms and was covered with shagreen. Ensemblier André Groult, who had worked for the great French couture designer Jacques Doucet perfecting the technique of stingray, discovered a few earlier, had upholstered the furniture. The second room was the Office of the Ambassador, overseen by decorator Pierre Chareau. The library had secret compartments to hide books or precious objects from the view of your guests, and the desk had hidden drawers. The room was very inventive; a precursor of the Modernist designs Pierre Chareau became famous for.
As the exhibition name indicates Industrial Arts were to be showcased as well as Decorative. The pavilions of Konstantin Melnikov for the USSR and that of French artist Le Corbusier’s “Espirit Nouveau” were spare and modern. Both pavilions received praise and criticism for their lack of ornamentation and use of inexpensive materials intended for mass production. Le Corbusier’s exhibition trumpeted “Purism”, a concept described in New Spirit magazine which advocated the rejection of the decorative trend and advocated a return to the ordered forms of the machine age. Differences with Art Deco ensemblier are notable: Le Corbusier assisted by his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, made furniture he called “equipment”. These were standard, embedded in the walls like modular lockers. Inside the cell housing, no décor was tolerated. Only genuine works of art such as paintings by Ozenfant, Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso and Le Corbusier were displayed. Critics were divided about those two pavilions and their strange furniture, which recalled the Werkbund show that took place in 1910 at the Paris Salon d’automne. In that show the designer and artists worked together in order to produce pieces, made with metallic tubes, leather and glass, of the very simplest design, also designed for the mass market.
In 1929, the modernists left the SAD and founded their own movement, the Union of Modern Artists or UAM. The founding members were architects Robert Mallet-Stevens, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, decorators Pierre Chareau, Pierre Legrain, Charlotte Perriand, Jo Bourgeois and sculptors Jan and Joël Martel. Any unnecessary decoration was removed. Using new materials such as concrete, combined with metallic tubes and glass, the artists sought to show the structure and rationale behind each piece instead of hiding the “inner working” as had every previous generation of designers. Despite the efforts by the proponents of modernity to overcome traditional styles, by the end of the Second World War Art Deco had come to an end. A new generation of decorators inspired by Ruhlmann captured the eye of consumers.