Introduction to Art Deco Style

Art Deco was an exuberant design style that originated in 1920s France and flourished internationally throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The name “Art Deco” comes from Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, a world’s fair held in Paris in 1925, where the style was widely displayed. Art Deco drew inspiration from many different sources such as the emerging machine age, up-and-coming cities like New York, ancient cultures like Mayan and Egyptian, Cubism, Fauvism, and Futurism. The overall look is sleek, streamlined, geometric and symmetrical with rich colors, lavish ornamentation, luxurious materials, and a blend of craftsmanship and technology.

Art Deco style made its way into all areas of design including architecture, interiors, furniture, fashion, jewelry, graphic arts, industrial design and film. It represented the excitement and glamor of the roaring twenties, but also offered a sleek contrast to the delicate and fussy Victorian and Edwardian styles that preceded it. Art Deco was all about embracing the future and the machine age with sophistication, opulence and a dash of exoticism. Its legacy lives on today with design motifs that still look fresh and innovative.

If you’re attracted to the geometric lines, sleek furnishings, rich details and sophisticated glamor of Art Deco, this iconic style may be right for your home. Here’s an in-depth look at the origins, history, characteristics, major artists and designers, and tips for decorating in the quintessential Art Deco style.

What is Art Deco Style?

Art Deco is a decorative style that emerged in the “Roaring Twenties” and flourished internationally in the 1930s and 1940s. It draws inspiration from modernism, industrialization, emerging technologies, and visual arts movements like Cubism and Fauvism. The result is a sophisticated style characterized by:

  • Geometric shapes and patterns
  • Sleek, streamlined silhouettes
  • Smooth lines and curvilinear forms
  • Symmetry, repetition, and clean lines
  • Luxurious materials like lacquer, inlaid wood, stainless steel, chrome
  • Bold colors, often primary hues enriched with black and metallic
  • Stylized motifs and iconography from nature, travels, technology, and ancient cultures
  • Blending of craftsmanship and technology
  • Visual impact through contrasts, embellishments, and ornamentation

Art Deco got its name from Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, a world’s fair held in Paris in 1925 that showcased the style. It reflected the confidence, glamor and social and technological changes sweeping the world in the early 20th century. The development of streamlined industrial products like cars, trains, and ocean liners inspired the clean lines and aerodynamic curves of the style.

Art Deco was all about celebrating the future and the Machine Age. It embraced the promise of technology even as it highlighted fine craftsmanship and luxurious materials. Themes of travel, nature, science fiction, and mythology added a sense of romance and exotic adventure. Art Deco touched all areas of design before declining in popularity in the 1940s. Its influence can still be widely seen and felt in modern design today.

Origins and History of Art Deco Style

The Art Deco style has its roots in the early 20th century’s new interest in promoting the applied arts. In 1905, the government of France formed an initiative to encourage cooperation between artists and manufacturers. This led to the style that came to be known as Art Nouveau, characterized by flowing organic lines based on natural forms like flowers, trees and insects.

While Art Nouveau was still popular going into the 1920s, a shift was underway as artists adopted a cleaner and more streamlined aesthetic inspired by industrialization and the sleek forms of cars, trains, ships and planes. In architecture, early hints of this modern style emerged in the work of avant-garde architects like Peter Behrens and Walter Gropius, founders of the German Werkbund and Bauhaus movements.

In 1925, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was held in Paris to promote products from the French luxury goods industry. The exposition featured 15 different pavilions showcasing the latest trends in fine and decorative arts from 20 countries. The sleek, geometric “modernist” style on display came to be known as Art Deco, a shortened form of the exposition’s name.

The Art Deco style spread internationally, flourishing up through the 1930s and into the 1940s. It reflected the age of jazz, the rise of cinema and Hollywood, and a growing fascination with speed, machines, technology and skyscrapers. Some key developments include:

  • Architecture: Landmark Art Deco buildings like the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building in New York City came to symbolize the glamour, ambition and modernity of the era.
  • Fashion: Couturiers like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli created sleek, sophisticated fashions featuring geometric silhouettes, nautical lines, pants for women and natural shoulder lines.
  • Furniture: French designers like Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Jean Dunand embraced exotic veneers, inlays, organic motifs and the sleek “streamline” look.
  • Graphics: The neon lights of Broadway, the exotic motifs of travel posters and the visual styles of Cubism and Surrealism inspired eye-catching graphics and typefaces.
  • Films: The science fiction fantasy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and escapism of musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers captured the public imagination.
  • ** Depression Era:** The optimism of the late 1920s gave way to economic crisis in the 1930s, but Art Deco offered affordable glamor and escapism. Glass, Bakelite, chrome and stainless steel furnished sleek streamline designs.

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 brought Art Deco to an abrupt end. Post-war interest turned to new modes like Mid-Century Modern. But Art Deco experienced a revival in the 1960s and remains a touchstone today for its enduring sophistication.

Characteristics and Motifs of Art Deco Style

Art Deco is easily identifiable by its bold geometric forms, rich materials, sleek lines and stylized design motifs. Here are some of the most common elements and visual characteristics:

Silhouettes and Shapes

  • Sleek, streamlined forms with curved edges
  • Angled, faceted and zigzagged outlines
  • Smooth, clean lines and geometric shapes
  • Aerodynamic and “speed line” forms suggesting movement
  • Highly stylized human and animal figures
  • Sculptural quality and strong silhouettes

Patterns and Details

  • Chevrons, sunbursts, fountains
  • Intricate geometric patterns
  • Repetition of lines, shapes and details to create movement
  • High contrast, richly layered and highly ornate compositions
  • Luxurious materials layered and arranged for visual impact

Materials and Embellishments

  • Rare and finely grained woods, lacquer, and veneers
  • Glass, chrome, bakelite, aluminum and stainless steel
  • Inlaid wood, ivory, mother of pearl, agate and jade
  • Marble, onyx and granite for floors and walls
  • Rich colors like jewel tones, black, metallics and ivory

Motifs and Iconography

  • Stylized plant forms and tropical motifs
  • Bold zigzags suggesting electricity and power
  • Images of soaring skyscrapers, cars, trains, planes and ships
  • Ancient imagery from Mayan, Egyptian, African and Asian cultures
  • Stars, lightning bolts, sunbursts
  • Allegorical and abstract female figures
  • Animals like gazelles, horses, birds and other sleek creatures

Influences and Themes

  • Achievements in modern industry, engineering, transportation, and manufacturing
  • Influences from Cubism, Art Nouveau, Futurism on shapes and compositions
  • Iconography from ancient cultures, African and Asian art, Mayan reliefs
  • Theatricality from stage sets, fashion and cinema spotlights
  • Science fiction fantasies, mythology, dreams of escape and adventure
  • Jazz music, dancing, and famous destinations like Paris and Broadway

Art Deco’s signature motifs visually captured the themes and spirit of the age: from the sleek forms of industrial design and fast modes of transport to the exotic imagery of far off destinations. Its bold geometric style symbolized the opportunities of the technological era even as it retained elegance and craftsmanship.

Major Artists and Designers

Art Deco was a widely popular international design movement, but these artists, architects and designers played key roles in shaping and spreading its aesthetic:

  • Erté (Romain de Tirtoff): This Russian-born illustrator and designer created iconic stylized fashion drawings and set designs.
  • Tamara de Lempicka: Her dramatic Art Deco paintings featured sensual figures in cool, angular compositions.
  • Jean Dupas: His Art Deco posters and paintings featured exotic motifs, women, and nature.
  • Paul Colin: Famous for his posters of Josephine Baker and other stars from Parisian theater and nightlife.
  • Cassandre (A.M. Cassandre): An influential poster, typeface and graphic designer in the Art Deco style.
  • Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann: A renowned furniture designer who created sleek, sculptural pieces using rare and exotic woods.
  • Edgar Brandt: His Art Deco forged iron works were fixtures in iconic interiors by designers like Eileen Gray.
  • Cartier: The famed jewelry company that created elaborate Art Deco pieces using platinum, diamonds and colored gemstones.
  • René Lalique: A leading French glass artist who created beautiful glass sculpture, vases, jewelry, and perfume bottles.
  • Clarice Cliff: She modernized English ceramics with her bright, stylized, geometric designs.
  • William van Alen: The architect of the Chrysler Building, the definitive Art Deco skyscraper.
  • Ernst Rochlitz: German designer of streamlined metal furnishings like the iconic Pillivuyt Sanka coffee service.

These are just a few of the many diverse talents across media like graphics, fashion, architecture and furnishings who shaped the Art Deco movement and made it an emblem of 1920s and 30s style.

Art Deco Architecture

The architecture of the Art Deco period features sleek, sculptural forms, geometric motifs, and lavish, exotic ornamentation. Early Art Deco buildings emerged in Europe in the 1920s, while American Art Deco architecture flourished up through the late 1930s.

Early High-Rise Buildings

Groundbreaking early skyscrapers by Walter Gropius and Peter Behrens in Germany pioneered the sleek, modernist aesthetic. This influenced Art Deco pioneers like Auguste Perret in France, whose Théâtre des Champs-Élysées combined a concrete frame with rich decoration.

New York Skyscrapers

New York City boasts some of the most iconic Art Deco architecture. The Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center complex feature soaring forms clad in stone, stainless steel and lavish custom details.

Streamline Moderne

This late phase of Art Deco reflected nautical and aviation influences with curving rounded corners, porthole windows, horizontal banding, flat roofs and masts. Examples include the Marine Air Terminal at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Tropical Deco

In warm locales like Miami and Los Angeles, Art Deco architecture took on colorful, often nautical themes with decorative motifs inspired by tropical plants, fruits, palm trees and ocean waves.

Movie Theaters and Auditoriums

Grand movie palaces like Radio City Music Hall in New York and Eastern Columbia Building in Los Angeles demonstrate Art Deco’s flair for drama with atmospheric interiors.

Global Reach

Art Deco architecture spread worldwide from Latin America to Shanghai, capturing the sleek modern spirit of the era with local touches. Lavish Napier City Hall in New Zealand blends Maori motifs with Art Deco style.

Residential Architecture

Homes often adapted signature Art Deco details like curvilinear glass block windows, geometric doors, reflective surfaces, glass brick, rounded corners, and decorative plaques.

The bold forms and lavish details of Art Deco architecture captured the forward gaze and luxurious aspirations of the period between world wars. Its legacy lives on in landmark buildings that continue to impress.

Art Deco Interiors

Art Deco interiors are defined by smooth lines, geometric forms, rich colors and sumptuous materials. Key elements include:


Sleek, gently curving shapes with exotic woods, glass, chrome and lacquer. Stylized animal and plant motifs are common.


Bold lighting fixtures in glass, chrome or geometric metal silhouettes. Chandeliers feature patterns of crystal beads and pendants.

Textiles and Upholstery

Reflecting the parallel influence of the Bauhaus movement, textiles tend to feature abstract or geometric patterns in rich colors. Popular upholstery fabrics included velvet and leather.


Polished stone, marble, terrazzo, parquet wood floors in geometric patterns and custom carpets with bold repeating motifs.

Wall Treatments

Contrasting planes of richly colored or mirrored glass, enameled metal panels, intricate reliefs in stone, wood and plaster. Murals and custom graphics adorn public spaces.


The sleek forms and lavish materials of vases, clocks, screens and objets d’art create striking focal points. Stylized blackamoor figures were a popular motif.

By blending sumptuous materials, geometric patterns and stylized decoration, Art Deco interiors encapsulated the elegance and forward gaze of the era. Many iconic public spaces like theaters, restaurants, lobbies and office buildings embraced the style’s visual drama.

Art Deco Graphic Design and Illustration

The Art Deco movement had a strong impact on graphic design with its bold colors, geometric forms and abstract patterns.

Posters and Advertisements

Eye-catching graphic posters promoted travel, luxury products, theater, art exhibitions, movies and more with striking images of idealized modern people.

Packaging and Ephemera

Product packaging, magazine covers, matchbooks and other ephemera all adapted signature Art Deco motifs like sunbursts, lightning bolts and female silhouettes. Graphic patterning created visual interest.

Logos and Lettering

Stylized, geometric lettering spelled out brand names and slogans. Fonts like Broadway capture the exuberant, angular look of the era.

Fashion Illustration

Illustrators like Georges Barbier and Erté created iconic images of sophisticated women in sleek gowns and accessories that captured the Art Deco aesthetic. Their works informed fashion trends.

Travel Posters

Exotic, idealized travel posters tempted viewers with images of faraway beach resorts, tropical locales, romantic towns and cities painted in vivid colors with touches of Deco style.

From its inception, Art Deco expressed itself boldly through graphic design. Illustrators, typographers and poster artists conveyed the excitement and aesthetics of the style in memorable images that still influence design today.

Art Deco Fashion and Jewelry

Fashion and accessory design were key beneficiaries of the sleek elegance of the Art Deco look.

Silhouettes and Details

Simplified silhouettes based on straight, clean lines rather than corsets and ruffles. Knee-length hemlines and natural waistlines were newly liberated styles for women. Bold geometrics, sunbursts, and abstract florals embellished sleek dresses, trousers, swimsuits and robes.

Textures and Materials

Velvets, silks and soft satins draped beautifully on the body. Synthetics like rayon offered new sheens. Metallic lame cloth and glass beads added flash. Furs, feathers and leather created striking accents.


Platinum, diamonds, colored gemstones and enamel created lavish pieces featuring symmetrical, geometric forms. Stylized flowers, bows and exotic motifs were signature detailing.


Sleek clutch handbags, sculptural hats, Bakelite bangles and cosmetic cases, decadent dressing gowns and silk pyjamas all reflected Jazz Age luxury.

Makeup and Hair

Bobbed hairstyles, pale skin and red lips defined the 1920s glamor look. Dramatic eyes and eyebrows were accentuated with powders and pencils.

Art Deco chic defined 1920s sophistication. Its sleek elegance and craftsmanship created a trendsetting fashion look that still inspires today.

Tips for Decorating in Art Deco Style

Here are some tips for bringing the sleek elegance of Art Deco into your own rooms:

Seek Out Deco Details

Look for existing details like geometric doors, rounded edges, glass block windows or decorative molding to build upon. Add touches like custom light fixtures or hardware.

Bring in Signature Materials

Introduce glass, glossy lacquer, sleek chromed or stainless steel accents, exotic woods, reflective surfaces, and terrazzo or stone flooring and wall accents.

Add Streamlined Furnishings

Choose furnishings with curved silhouettes, exotic veneers, stylized geometric patterns and clean lines. Upholster seating in velvets or leather.

Use Angular Geometry

Incorporate facets, zigzags and chevrons in fabrics, custom carpeting, woodwork, wallpaper and ornamental objects. Repeat lines and geometric shapes.

Select Bold Hues

Draw from Art Deco’s rich color palette like jewel tones, contrasting black and metallics, ivory neutrals and glossy blacks. Use color to highlight sleek forms.

Lighting and Accessories

Make lighting a focal point with sleek fixtures and indirect cove lighting