Paris Exhibition Defines Art Deco Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Paris hosted a large invitational applied arts exhibition seeking the best in contemporary design, designers came to terms with modernism.

Summary of Event

Art Deco was a major decorative arts style of the 1920’s that survived in altered forms through the 1930’s and into the early 1940’s. During those decades, it also was called Art Moderne. It was in part a compromised modern style, but its association with the modern style caused much confusion in the reassessments made at the end of the twentieth century. The now nearly universal term “Art Deco” did not appear until the late 1960’s, when a revival of interest in 1920’s and 1930’s interior design and decorative arts occurred. That revival gained tremendous momentum for at least the next twenty years. The term “Art Deco” is derived from the name of an invitational exhibition of decorative and industrial arts that was held in Paris, France, in 1925. The goal of the style was to adapt design to the needs of mass production. Items thus incorporated straight lines instead of curves and symmetry rather than asymmetry, as forms of this type were easier to produce with machines. Art Deco also attempted to incorporate manufactured, rather than natural, materials. [kw]Paris Exhibition Defines Art Deco (May-June, 1925) [kw]Exhibition Defines Art Deco, Paris (May-June, 1925) [kw]Art Deco, Paris Exhibition Defines (May-June, 1925) [kw]Deco, Paris Exhibition Defines Art (May-June, 1925) Design movements;Art Deco Art Deco Architecture;Art Deco Interior design;Art Deco [g]France;May-June, 1925: Paris Exhibition Defines Art Deco[06410] [c]Fashion and design;May-June, 1925: Paris Exhibition Defines Art Deco[06410] [c]Architecture;May-June, 1925: Paris Exhibition Defines Art Deco[06410] Patout, Pierre Ruhlmann, Émile-Jacques Süe, Louis Mare, André

The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes occupied the same central Parisian site as the World’s Fair of 1900, a fair that introduced Art Nouveau to an international audience. The area of the Esplanade des Invalides was smaller than the area used twenty-five years earlier, reflecting the 1925 exhibition’s major focus on just the decorative arts. The Grand Palais, immediately adjacent, was serviceable and quickly was transformed for display use.

Approximately seventy-five pavilions and other structures graced the grounds. As in past fairs, most were intended to be temporary. Individual pavilions were composed of wood frames covered with plaster, a style similar to the so-called staff architecture of the “White City” of the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. Temporary construction or not, the exterior surfaces of the pliable structures seemed to encourage widespread decorative relief sculpture, often a hallmark of Art Deco design. Otherwise, all the pavilions respected established ordinances for low heights and gardenlike settings, taking care to utilize existing trees. Altogether there were about 130 buildings and thirteen entrances, four of which were major, in addition to a good number of intervening gardens and fountains.

Architecturally speaking, the fair buildings ranged from neoclassical constraints to bold cubist experimentations and novelties. Said to be among the best designs were the pavilions of the department stores Au Printemps, Au Bon Marche, Grands Magasins du Louvre, and Galéries Lafayette. Collectively they embodied grandiosity, with faceted planes, rich decorative surfaces, and prominent use of metal and glass. Another structure that has been singled out for the excellence of its design was the Pavilion of a Rich Collector, by architect Pierre Patout. This closely resembled a home Patout had produced for Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, a gifted furniture designer in the Art Deco style. In turn, Ruhlmann and his design team were responsible for most of the interior design and contents of Patout’s pavilion, which was also known as the Ruhlmann Townhouse.

Regardless of building styles, the buildings’ interiors received the most attention, as they promoted changes in contemporary lifestyles and sought to showcase the best of the new decorative arts. Redesigned family spaces included living rooms, dining rooms, specialized bedrooms for gentlemen and ladies, libraries, smoking rooms, and studies, in addition to accommodations for live plants and flowers in volume. The decorative appointments for these rooms suggested high ideals, as unrestricted patronage was the rule. That resulted in items of high craftsmanship but occasionally of dubious practicality. For example, furniture was generally sumptuous and surface-oriented, with a preference for rare and imported woods. It was often large or exhibition-oriented, even pompous and overly finished. When less hybrid in style, however, it was civilized, striking, and comfortable. Legs on Art Deco furniture at this fair were often tapered or minimized by a platform for a chair or chaise, adding a sense of importance. Key designers in 1925 included Ruhlmann, André Groult, Pierre Chareau, and partners Louis Süe and André Mare.

Lighting in the interiors was more scientific, at least in theory, than it was at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. Illumination was more logical than the Tiffany lamps used twenty-five years earlier. Indirect lighting diffused and softened the glow of electric lamps, which had become affordable. Table lamps and chandeliers, however, often incorporated the French passion for exotic materials, forms, and surface treatment.

The Paris fair of 1925 was a study in contrasts, contradictions, and crosscurrents. Rising architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) observed that the fair was a turning point away from antiques and handcraft and toward machined solutions, as well as an expression of a keen interest in newness and experimentation. Caught in the middle of this flux was a major ornamental design style, Art Deco.


Europe seemed to be more affected by the decorative arts of the 1925 Paris fair than by the fair’s architecture. The exhibition focused almost exclusively on applied art, and almost all the exhibitors were Europeans.

Careers were launched immediately for some designers, and the reputations of others were solidified. The furniture design partnership of Süe and Mare, critically successful at the fair, continued in a firm called the French Art Company until it was purchased in the late 1920’s by the Maison Fontaine. The exposure of Süe and Mare’s work at the 1925 exhibition surely helped the partners land major commissions for the luxury-class cabins of the steamship Paris and decorative schemes for the grand salon of the ocean liner Ile de France.

The success of Süe and Mare, whose workshop was relatively large, was repeated by smaller design studios, although Art Deco furniture was popularized by aggressive Parisian department stores more than by designers’ showrooms or the annual salons. For example, the Grands Magasins du Louvre produced designs for a wide variety of household items in the Art Deco style without extravagant decoration, manufactured them, and subsequently introduced a large public to an affordable range of Art Deco items.

In the fields of art glass and utilitarian glass, Glass;Lalique René Lalique’s Lalique, René fortunes following the 1925 exhibition are legendary. By 1900, he was the leading Art Nouveau jewelry designer in Europe and could have rested comfortably on that reputation and retired. Instead, he embarked on a serious exploration of both art and production glass and mastered them by the 1925 exhibition. By then, he was well past sixty years of age. Within a few years of the fair, his production had become exceptionally varied. His company was prolific, producing items ranging from ashtrays to clock cases, from decanters to perfume vaporizers. Lalique became the leading Art Deco glass designer of the 1920’s and 1930’s. His firm survived the German occupation of World War II and was perpetuated by a son and grandson. To the examples of Süe and Mare and of Lalique can be added dozens more in the media of metalwork, graphic design, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, painting, and silver.

The designers of Art Deco responded to changes in life and society, both of which had become more urban and faster paced. Products reflecting this new life, including automobiles, cigarette cases, cocktail shakers, radios, electric lamps, and posters, were created in Art Deco style. In addition, those items were produced in new ways, often incorporating new materials or experimental combinations of existing ones. Likewise, themes and imagery reflecting a changing society were explored well into the 1930’s in the media of sculpture, glass, painting, and lighting. These themes included flight, the emancipation of women, the machine, modern art movements, non-Western cultures, dance, and jazz.

The 1925 Paris fair was influential in introducing Art Deco to a broad public. One wish or dream of the fair organizers, however, was not realized. The 1925 Paris fair showcased both decorative and industrial arts, as the full title of the exhibition stated. Its organizers hoped that artists, designers, manufacturers, and capitalists would collaborate in the design, production, and marketing of domestic items of high design but realistic prices. The hoped-for collaboration saw few projects by the fair’s opening or even after it closed, as manufacturers generally were wary of expensive-sounding proposals of doubtful financial success.

Collaboration did occur between designers and teams of designers for complete interiors, both at the fair and elsewhere, but that was a different development. The creation of a more affordable or more popular Art Deco occurred primarily in the United States, with its much larger middle class and its advanced marketing, advertising, and capitalist potential.

Thousands of visitors from the United States traveled to the 1925 exhibition. Many may have wanted to visit an American pavilion, but there was none, as President Herbert Hoover had declined the invitation to have the United States represented. Among the throngs of Americans in attendance were members of numerous professional design organizations who provided detailed reports on the pavilions and their contents to their respective design groups back home. These reports translated into a major impact on architecture and design in the United States for the next fifteen years.

Within a year of the 1925 Paris fair, selections from the exhibition toured the United States, being placed on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and at other major sites. Two years later, the fashionable New York City store Lord and Taylor hosted an exhibition of furniture by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Francis Jourdain. Their strain of Art Deco design, combining a respectful classicism with ornamentally elegant surfaces, found favor among Americans as something both old and contemporary. That kind of thinking in turn encouraged the rise of a major architectural style, American Art Deco. The result was a compromised modernism. It was both decorative and functional, new but not shocking, and it appealed to corporate image makers and real estate developers who were somewhat frightened by the international style of modernism.

The 1925 Paris exhibition’s most noticeable impact on the United States took the form of Art Deco architecture. The movement was primarily surface-oriented, with design motifs or relief sculpture at the cresting and at the bases of buildings and their lobbies. New York City saw the construction of the largest number of Art Deco buildings in a single urban space, including the highly emblematic and even spectacular Chrysler Building, designed by William Van Alen; the Empire State Building, by the firm of Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon; and the Fuller Building, by A. Stewart Walker and Leon Gillette.

World War II interrupted the Art Deco episode in architecture and the decorative arts. People seemed ready to forget it during the 1950’s, but from the 1970’s onward an amazing revival occurred. Museum-quality decorative arts items began to fetch tremendous prices in galleries devoted to Art Deco and at auction. Since that time, many major Art Deco buildings have been restored. In Miami, Florida, four hundred or so “Tropical Deco” buildings have been protected as the largest architectural historic district in the United States, and many have been renovated and restored. Postmodern architecture of the 1980’s and 1990’s, reflecting a hunger for ornamentation and inclusion of past styles, incorporated aspects of Art Deco, as did the fine-art media of painting and sculpture. Design movements;Art Deco Art Deco Architecture;Art Deco Interior design;Art Deco

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arwas, Victor. Art Deco. Rev. ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. Introduction to Art Deco in its original European setting; includes information on sources, major designers, and their seminal works. Devotes a chapter to the 1925 exposition, with special emphasis on pavilions and their contents’ designers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bouillon, Jean-Paul. Art Deco, 1900-1940. Translated by Michael Heron. New York: Rizzoli, 1989. Tracks avant-garde design and ornament from 1900 to the eve of World War II, weaving in a subtheme of sumptuous materials and anthropomorphic decorative motifs versus taut abstract patterns. Includes perceptive commentary on relationships between major art movements and corresponding developments in interior design and decorative art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duncan, Alastair. American Art Deco. 1986. Reprint. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999. Discusses architecture, interiors, and decorative arts created in the United States by both European immigrants and American-born designers. Stresses two formative international design tendencies: the German-Austrian emphasis on logic, geometry, and function applicable to mass production, and the colorful, ornamental, and playful French tendencies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hillier, Bevis, and Stephen Escritt. Art Deco Style. London: Phaidon Press, 1997. Opens with a chapter on the 1925 Paris exhibition and then traces manifestations of Art Deco design around the world. Includes many illustrations, brief biographies of notable designers, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McClinton, Katherine M. Art Deco: A Guide for Collectors. New York: C. N. Potter, 1972. Important, informative work by a knowledgeable professional who visited the 1925 exposition. Preface and first two chapters offer helpful descriptions of major emblematic features of the style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Sarah. Art Deco: The European Style. Greenwich, Conn.: Dorset Press, 1990. A general study aimed at collectors and connoisseurs of the style. Presents a dutiful account of the 1925 Paris exhibition followed by fourteen chapters showcasing major divisions of decorative arts.

Hoffmann and Moser Found the Wiener Werkstätte

Chanel Defines Modern Women’s Fashion

Lang Expands the Limits of Filmmaking with Metropolis

Empire State Building Opens

Golden Gate Bridge Opens

Rockefeller Center Is Completed

Categories: History