Photograph courtesy of Michael Barnum Studio/ Boston Design Center

Design School

The History of Art Deco

By Meaghan O'Neill
September 27, 2017

A primer on the popular style—and how to get the look

After a decade or more of simplicity and pared down interiors—minimalism and midcentury modern influences have dominated the design scene—the more glamorous look of Art Deco is quickly becoming a trend.

Short for “Arts Décoratifs,” the Art Deco movement first began in the 1920s. A stark contrast to the more organic Art Nouveau style that came before it, Art Deco was driven by the elegance, luxury, and precision that were spawned by a new machine age. Raw edges and rustic forms gave way to highly stylized, refined patterns and sleek, metallic shapes. This future-forward influence remained relevant throughout the post-war 1940s, when it eventually gave way to midcentury modern designs.

In the living room of the same home, Barnum installed an antique Art Deco French credenza to anchor a seating area. Sophisticated vintage case goods typically blend well with contemporary or transitional styles. Photograph by Michael J. Lee
In a Boston living room, Barnum installed an antique Art Deco French credenza to anchor a seating area. Sophisticated vintage case goods typically blend well with contemporary or transitional styles. Photograph by Michael J. Lee

In an age of rapid technological advancement (similar to the current era, in a way) new materials such as chrome, stainless steel, and even plastic were celebrated. Bold geometric patterns, angular forms, exotic materials, mirrors, glass, and linear shapes—hallmarks of the era—were all about making a big statement. “I like the cleanliness of the whole period,” says interior designer Michael Barnum, principal of Michael Barnum Studio in Boston, who frequently uses vintage Deco pieces to anchor a room’s design. “They have an immediate presence.”

As the current economy rebounds from the setbacks of the past decade, a trend toward Art Deco makes sense: The style symbolizes a hopeful yet slightly restrained sentiment that speaks to the rise of wealth without being over-the-top. “During the recession, the midcentury modern trend was a reflection of simplicity,” says Barnum. “Art Deco has substance and quality without being frilly.”

Art Deco has substance and quality without being frilly.

Transforming vintage Art Deco buffets, like this 1930s one, into a bar is one of Barnum’s signature moves. The quality and value of vintage Art Deco pieces, says the designer, is unparalleled. Photograph by Michael J. Lee
Transforming vintage Art Deco buffets, like this 1930s one, into a bar is one of Barnum’s signature moves. The quality and value of vintage Art Deco pieces, says the designer, is unparalleled. Photograph by Michael J. Lee

Deco is declaring its cultural presence beyond the interiors scene, too. Just take a look at some of the most stunning outfits from the 2017 Met Gala. Cara Delevingne’s Chanel pantsuit and Nick Jonas’s Ralph Lauren tuxedo showed off bold geometric patterns with streamlined silhouettes. Sean Combs (in Rick Owens) and Blake Lively (Atelier Versace) wore outfits reminiscent of famous Deco skyscrapers, like the soaring Empire State and Chrysler buildings. Likewise, the 2017 Academy Awards set was also driven by the sinewy lines and gleam of Deco design. And though few designers are doing period-replica spaces, the design team at Embraer recently outfitted a luxury jet as an elegant homage to the era.

Ready to glam up your space with some sophisticated Art Deco décor? Even if modern rustic or California cool currently rules your home’s mood, it’s easy to incorporate a piece or two. Barnum suggests starting with Deco-motif textiles or layering an animal skin over an existing floor covering. He’s also drawn to vintage pieces, which often, of course, can be the best way to add the flair of an era to an interior. A chrome console or ebonized dressing table, for example, would be stunning additions. Or try a sunburst mirror—a typical Deco motif—that would transition beautifully into almost any interior. “The quality of vintage Deco pieces is superior,” says Barnum. “The craftsmanship was unmatched.”

Art Deco pieces can be a spectacular way of layering glamour and a touch of history into a space. “Deco blends well with so many eras because it’s not gender-specific. You can put it next to a fancy French piece or Biedermeier and it looks great,” explains Barnum. “It always holds its own.”