Art Deco vs. Art Moderne

The Difference Between Two Often Confused Styles

Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann Art Deco Sideboard


The term Art Deco is often applied to furniture from the 1920s through the early 1940s. So is the term Art Moderne. Understanding the difference between the two isn't always easy—especially since, just to add to the confusion, Art Deco was called Moderne in its own time, and today, much of what's technically Moderne is called Art Deco. Here, we unravel the difference between these two styles.

Art Deco

The style known today as Art Deco (a term actually coined in the 1960s) hit the world in 1925, at the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels, a sort of world's fair for —though it had actually begun to develop several years earlier (the Exposition had been planned for 1915, but was delayed by the onset of World War I). Art Deco built on the stylized cleanly-lined forms of immediate style predecessors Art Nouveau and Jugendstil. Whole books can be (and have been) written on the various influences on Art Deco, which range from Greco-Roman to Egyptian to Asian.

From Greek and Roman architecture came the ideals of proportion and balance; from Egyptian art, a two-dimensional silhouette; from lacquered Asian artifacts, a shiny, glossy finish. Some of Art Deco's leading designers, such as Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, were additionally influenced by late 18th-century furniture-making (whose aesthetic also hearkened back to Antiquity)—specifically, a sense of lightness and the use of contrasting inlays.

Just because they were simplified and stylized, however, doesn't mean that Art Deco pieces were plain or Spartan. Its practitioners were not form-follows-function guys (in fact, some of the furniture designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright was notoriously unfunctional). Art Deco designers were all for ornamentation—just a different, more restrained kind of ornamentation. Victorians loved to stick stuff onto furniture, to embellish basic frames and shapes. With Art Deco, the texture and embellishment came from contrasts in the materials—variously colored woods and inlays—or in the material itself: burled or birds-eye or visibly grained woods, tortoiseshell, ivory, tooled leathers. Lacquered glosses accentuated color differences. Animal skins and patterned fabrics in bright colors were popular, too.

Like the Jazz Era in which it thrived, Art Deco furniture conveys a sense of dash and lightness. Some of that sensation derives from the lively patterns of its wood or upholstery; some derive from the contrasting shapes contained with a piece. A square table-top might sit on a lyre-shaped base, for example, or a kidney-shaped desk might stand on four ramrod-straight legs.

Along with Ruhlmann (whose work illustrates this article), some of the dominant names in Art Deco include Paul Follot, Jules Lelou, Ruba Rombic and the design firms of Süe et Mare and Dominique.

Art Moderne

If Art Deco has its roots in France, Art Moderne (also known as American Moderne or Modernist) is native to the United States, dating approximately from the early 1930s and lasting until the 1940s. And it shares many of the qualities associated with the country in that period: bigger, bolder, and brassier—literally.

Think of Art Moderne as Art Deco on steroids. Art Deco placed an emphasis on shape and absence of superfluity, but Moderne was positively streamlined (a hot new scientific theory of the time: the shaping of objects along curving lines to cut wind resistance and make them move more efficiently). The furniture is much more pared or stripped down, making all the more prominent its geometric outline (especially beloved: a swelling curve, like a teardrop or torpedo). Moderne designers often conceived pieces as a series of escalating levels—breakfronts were big—similar to a staircase or the setback effect of those newfangled skyscrapers that were arising in every city. Some of Moderne's most iconic pieces, designed by Paul Frankl, were actually called "Skyscraper" furniture.

Moderne subscribed to an ideal of the machine-made. It was the antithesis of the earlier Arts & Crafts movement. Much of it was designed to be mass-produced, but even if it wasn't, it looked as if it could be: Art Deco's balance and proportion extended to regularity and repetition. Much of the decorative interest in a Moderne piece comes from the precision of line and duplication of functional features—handles, knobs, bolts. Otherwise, surfaces are often plain, with even less detail than in Deco pieces. Instead, as befits the contemporary sense of a sped-up world, Moderne furniture often conveys a sense of motion—in a table's tiered levels or the jutting thrust of a club chair's arms.

Though light and uncluttered, Moderne pieces never seem skimpy, thanks to the sensuality of their rounded, curvaceous forms. As in Art Deco furniture, big use is made of color contrasts, especially black and white, and contrasting materials—not just to different woods, but chrome, metal and plastics. Slick, shiny surfaces continue to predominate, giving furniture the gloss of a new machine.

Like the Austrian-born Frankl, many Moderne designers (K.E.M Weber, Josef Urban) were, in fact, European émigrés. Other major Moderne names include Paul Fuller, Donald Deskey, Norman Bel Geddes, and Russel Wright.

Summing Up

Admittedly, Art Deco and Art Moderne overlap, both stylistically and chronologically (Frankl's first Skyscraper furniture, for example, dates from the late 1920s). Of the two, Art Deco is the more familiar term. In his Art Deco of the 20s and 30s, furniture historian Bevis Hillier applies it to both styles throughout the between-the-wars period, characterizing the earlier 1915 to 1930 version as feminine, and the later, 1931 to 1945, as masculine. But other historians and many antique dealers, reserve the term for furniture (usually European-designed) of the mid-teens and 1920s; the streamlined modes of the 1930s are, strictly speaking, Moderne—especially with American pieces.

In the end, though, it's more a question of style than pinning down a date. Think of Art Deco as chic, Moderne as sleek. Or Art Deco as organic, Moderne as mechanic—the former reveling in restrained craftsmanship, the latter a celebration of geometric shape as precise as only a machine can make it.