Art Deco is the term used to describe a style of design that first became popular at the beginning of the twentieth century and went on to have a massive impact on popular culture that is still being felt today.

The basis of the Art Deco style lies in these fixed constants:

  • geometric composition
  • simplification of form
  • strong contrast
  • subtle gradations of tone

The geometric shapes and simplification of form came from Cubism, Futurism and simple expediency in production. Art Deco is a style that lacks fine detail, but emphasises structure and line.

The strong contrasts of size, shape and colour took their lead from Fauvism and the flood of fashionable oriental art that was carried in on the wave of international trade exhibitions.

The subtle gradations of tone, with the characteristic mottled look that pervades Art Deco posters, were relatively quick and simple to produce using silkscreen and limestone lithographic printing techniques – and speed of production was essential.

Art Deco was perhaps the first school of art to find its voice through the graphic designer – then called the “commercial artist”.  There was a commercial artist resident in practically every print shop, and as a result the style spread around the world like wild fire.

It was an eclectic school that gathered together influences from Art Nouveau, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and Bauhaus and dropped them all into a melting pot stirred by the recent revolution in artistic print making, led by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin and Matisse.

Art Deco was originally called Style Moderne (the term Art Deco was not coined until the late sixties as an abbreviation of “Arts Decoratifs” – an exposition held in Paris in 1925) and is generally thought to have begun in France, but it is impossible to pin down a moment when this “Modernist” style came to the fore.

What can be said is that the eclectic and widespread nature of Art Deco was as a direct result of the many international exhibitions that had become fashionable at the time, and the advent of popular photography and film, for the first time a style had the opportunity to become truly international – copied, reproduced, exported and imported all around the trading world.

Art Deco in the graphic arts was arguably the dawning of the age of commercial art.

Art Deco was the art of the new industrial age of mass consumption – it is no coincidence that Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (a 1927 film showing a nightmarish industrialised vision of the future) was pervaded by the Art Deco style.

However, because Art Deco was so all-pervading and international during the twenties and thirties, the style can be used to evoke many different nostalgic themes, harking back to a “golden age” of fashion, film, travel, architecture, advertising, product design and even political principle.

In its strong use of type, so often made an inextricable part of the image, combined with simplicity and immediacy of message, the legacy of art deco can still be clearly seen every day in modern advertising and media.