Defining Art Deco Style

A Unique Style of the 20's and 30's

1929 photo of the Art Deco interior of a house which serves as the set for the film 'Our Modern Maidens'.
General Photographic Agency / Getty Images

Authentic Art Deco wares dating back to the 1920s and ‘30s are highly valued in today's collectibles marketplace, and stylish decorators love them too. Unfortunately, that is one of the reasons the terms “Art Deco” and “Deco” are so widely used, even when that’s not an appropriate descriptor. If you're in the market for Art Deco era collectibles and wares, you'll need a good understanding of what Art Deco style is––and what it isn't.

Characteristics of Art Deco Style

Art Deco design was influenced by earlier styles, including Art Nouveau, the Bauhaus, and Cubism, and drew on decorative concepts from American Indian, Egyptian, and classical sources. Many Art Deco pieces feature nudes and motifs from nature like animals, trees, and sun rays.

Most Art Deco pieces are symmetrical; in many instances, imagine dividing an Art Deco piece down the center––the halves will be mirror images. Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann made furniture that fits into this category, and this master designer is said to have introduced the world to Art Deco style.

Symmetry isn’t always a defining characteristic, however. Some Deco items have bold geometric shapes that define them, like the fabrics designed by Sonia Delaunay, used in textiles and clothing during the 1920s. Angular lines, zigzags, and pyramid shapes were all popular in Art Deco design. Even the straight lines of drop-waist dresses popular during the 1920s are typically angular and exhibit Deco style.

Other motifs reflecting distant cultures were incorporated into some Deco styles, including Greco-Roman, Egyptian and Asian, along with jazz-age symbolism. Exhibited in items from clocks to jewelry, images like the familiar flapper walking a dog come into play here, as well as those indicating speed like airplanes or trains.

The Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center, both classic New York City skyscrapers, are examples of Art Deco style architecture with their sleek, linear aesthetic and geometric features.

Art Deco Versus Art Deco Revival

Popular styles and imagery have always been copied, and Art Deco designs are no exception. Artists and designers are inspired by the past to create new items in homage, and they usually have a bit of a modern twist to distinguish them. These are considered to be revivals of older styles rather than reproductions. For instance, a piece of jewelry or furniture with Deco influence made during the 1980s would be a revival piece, although it looks much like an original. If the items being newly made are exact copies of old pieces, they would be put in the reproduction category.

Jewelry is one area where Art Deco styles are perennially popular, but revivals reach into all areas of decorative arts. To distinguish old from new, look at the materials used and the construction of the item. Some modern materials and components were not yet available during the 1920s and '30s. Craftsmanship can also be a clue, so looking at manufacturing details will also help to distinguish true Deco from Deco Revival pieces.

Art Deco Versus Art Moderne

The term Art Deco wasn’t actually coined until the 1960s, and the term Style Moderne was used in the years leading up to the 1920s. There is a great deal of similarity between these two styles, and some sources state that they are identical. In some cases, Art Moderne pieces, sometimes called American Moderne, are bigger and bolder than Deco pieces. The style idealized mass-production and a machine-made aesthetic, so balance, proportion, repetition, and precision are common across all forms of Art Moderne art and furnishings.