From the time I was a little girl, I had a fascination for early 20th century design, such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco. I particularly loved the prints and plastered my walls with posters and postcards from that era. Today, as an interior designer, I still feel this nostalgic pull, but also have a keen interest for the history of styles. I love visiting historic houses around the world and transport myself back into a time, long before I was born, wondering what life might have been like back then.
20th century design is a particularly interesting era, for it marks a great turning point in the history of design. You have probably heard of Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Art Deco, Bauhaus and Modernism and maybe even of the Glasgow style, Secession and Liberty style. However, unless you take the time to study them, it’s easy to get confused. Today, I would like to take you on a journey into the past and elaborate on these different styles. When I say elaborate, I don’t only mean, explaining the different styles, but also the social and historic background, which in fact, has a far larger impact on design and styles than we may think.
A glimpse into the late 19th century
It is difficult to draw a line between different style eras, because they are so strongly related and often influenced by previous styles. This is why I will give you a glimpse into the time just before the turn of the century, so you can understand the strong influence it had on 20th century design.
After the industrial revolution and after a long period of historic revival styles, such as Gothic, Renaissance and Rococo, Europe seemed to be ready for something new and different. This is how, towards the end of the 19th century, the Glasgow style emerged in Scotland. The aim was to unify architecture, interior design, furniture and fittings in a harmonious way suitable for modern life.
Rennie Mackintosh, an architect and designer, played a leading role in the development of the style. He and three of his fellow art students, formed a society called ‘The Four’, under which name they produced graphic work, metalwork, textiles and furniture.
The main characteristics of the style were geometric and elongated forms and motifs, stylised flowers and lettering using type fonts typical to the style. Japanese design elements, which had become popular in earlier years, also greatly influenced the Scottish style. Subtle tones, contrasted by black and white and the use of symbols deriving from Celtic myths and religion were very common.
The turn of the century bringing on a desire for new things
During the early 20th century there were major industrial and technological advances, which had a big impact on society, architecture and design and of course the imminent war.
The International Exhibition in 1900, which was held in Paris, is often considered as the official launch of Art Nouveau. Nearly 50 million people visited the fair, which displayed the latest inventions in machines and architecture. The displays included the ‘Grande Roue de Paris’ (ferris wheel), diesel engines, talking films, escalators and the telegraphone (the first magnetic wire audio recorder).
The name Art Nouveau (literally: new art in French) derives from the art gallery ‘Maison de l’Art Nouveau’ in Paris and the German equivalent Jugendstil (literally: youth style), from the magazine ‘Jugend in Munich’ (youth in Munich).
Art Nouveau, took on various names across Europe and the USA. However, it always referred to being new and modern. In Austria the style was referred to as the ‘Vienna Secession’, in Spain as the ‘Modernista’ movement, in England it was often referred to as the ‘Liberty style’, taking its name from the famous Liberty store on Regent Street and in the USA it was known as the ‘Tiffany style’, after the American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, famous for his coloured glass lamps.
Art Nouveau, however, was more than a style. It was also a movement, which consciously aimed to create a modern style taking advantage of modern materials such as iron and glass, as well as modern industrial techniques. The style encompassed architecture, interior design, furniture, ceramics, textiles, graphic arts, decorative arts, jewelry and everyday objects.
There were two versions of Art Nouveau: the curvilinear, naturalistic style, which was predominant in France, Belgium, Italy and Spain and the rectilinear, more rigid version in Germany, Austria and Britain (in particular Scotland). The rectilinear style was strongly influenced by the Glasgow style of earlier years.
Due to industrial advances and the growing wealth, in particular in the middle classes, home appliances, such as stoves, washing machines, televisions and telephones, became increasingly common and called for new challenges. Designers now had to plan spaces not only for aesthetic reasons, but also for functionality.
Art Nouveau furniture was often polished and varnished and quite complex with curving and naturalistic shapes, which made it rather expensive. It did not replace other styles of furniture and was often seen as ‘art furniture’. The style gained most popularity in Continental Europe.
With the beginning of the First World War in 1914, Art Nouveau came to an abrupt end.
Post-war escapeism and the roaring 20’s
World War I, which ended in November 1918, completely changed Europe in many ways. After the gloomy years of war, people wanted to escape reality and enjoy life. This is how the roaring 20’s began. A time for fun, speed, glamour, travel, alcohol and sex.
The 1920’s were a social revolution and a time of great change for women in particular. They would be seen wearing short skirts, smoking and drinking in public. They also started practicing sports and go after jobs, which had previously been reserved for men only. For instance, Amy Johnson, an English aviator, who broke many long-distance records. It was also during this time that interior decorating became a popular woman’s job, with Elsie de Wolfe, probably being the first one.
The name Art Deco, which was applied retrospectively, derives from the ‘Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes’, which took place in Paris in 1925. The exhibition was a celebration of modernity and essential to the growing popularity of 20th century design.
The Jazz age, born in the USA, quickly spread to Europe. In London a group nicknamed ‘The bright young things’ (there is a movie about them), which was literally funded by the press to drink and party, became representative of the lifestyle and London the playground of the 1920’s.
Machines, cars, ocean liners and planes became faster as technology advanced rapidly. Speed not only influenced design in terms of production, but also greatly impacted the design itself. Objects and decorative items were given a streamlined look to represent speed.
In addition to modern shapes came modern materials, such as steel, glass and chrome and in later years also plastic.
In architecture, windows using rectangular panes of glass of different sizes represent another typical feature of Art Deco, as well as walls made of glass bricks. Glass panes were often metal framed and could thus be rounded at the corners. Small, circular portholes were another prominent feature of Modernism.
The discovery of the Tutankhamun tombs in Egypt in 1922 quickly became world news and greatly influenced the Art Deco style, as did discoveries and travels in Africa and Latin America.
Interiors in the 1920’s were rich and glamorous, often using contrasting colours. The combination of black and silver or black and gold were en vogue and typical features of 20th century design. Walls often featured geometric patterns or metallic finishes. Trompe l’oeil wall murals as well as mirrored walls were also popular. Coloured ceilings, either matching or contrasting the walls, were yet another typical feature.
Art Deco, probably one of the most known styles of 20th century design, is considered an eclectic style and thus combines traditional craft motifs with Machine Age imagery and materials. Furniture was predominantly made from wood, leather, lacquer and metal. Most furniture was symmetric and streamlined, often lavishly decorated and sometimes featuring the iconic sunburst. There was a craze for shiny surfaces, beautiful female figures either dancing or playing sports.
The Great Depression, Bauhaus and Modernism
In later years architecture, design and interiors became plainer and by the 1930’s the ‘all-white’ room, an entirely new phenomena of 20th century design, grew very popular.
Le Corbusier, a follower of the Cubist movement, promoted standardization and functional linear design. He was also known for using bold primary colours.
His style was then picked up by the Bauhaus (literally: House of construction) school in Germany and developed into the style later known as Bauhaus. The school was founded by architect and designer Walter Gropius and became the symbol of modern design. Sadly, the school was shut down by the Nazi regime in 1933, because it was considered a threat to their ideology.
Gropius alongside architects and designers like Mies Van der Rohe, Eileen Gray, Marcel Breuer, Frank Lloyd Wright and of course Le Corbusier, were the key players of the revolutionary Modernist architecture and Bauhaus design. Le Corbusier established the five leading principles of modern architecture: supporting columns (stilts), long strips of windows, roof gardens, open plan living and a free facade. These were mostly made possible by the use of reinforced concrete. He incorporated all five principles in his master work, the Villa Savoye, which he nicknamed a ‚machine for living‘.
Bauhaus is an integral part of 20th century design and associated with radically simplified forms, rationality and functionality and mass-production, which became reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit. Modernist and Bauhaus furniture was sleek using revolutionary methods, such as tubular steel and chrome. Due to the growing population and houses becoming smaller, space-saving built-in furniture, initially designed for practical reasons, became a very chic feature of the time also in large houses and became an important element of 20th century design.
Furniture, which was designed during the Bauhaus period has become timeless. In fact many of the pieces are still in production today. We refer to them as «design classics», yet they are still as modern as they were back then and perfectly fit contemporary interiors of today. Design classics are produced under a licence and distributed by the license holder and their distributors.
The Wall Street crash in 1929, known as Black Tuesday, was the beginning of the Great Depression, which quickly spread globally and lasted for about 10 years. The economic crisis greatly affected all aspects of life, whereas the beginning of World War II in 1939 ended the glamorous era once and for all.
If you are like me, you got carried away and drifted into a dream-like state of mind, imagining life in the 1920’s… With Art Deco on my mind, I was thrilled to walk past a poster advertising a ‘Great Gatsby Party’ at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel! So if you live nearby and would like to be transported back in time for one evening instead of just dreaming about it…. well, you know where to go! Maybe I see you there? If only I knew what to wear….
P.S. If you enjoyed reading this post, you may also like my article about vintage versus retro design: The Past en vogue: vintage and retro
P.P.S. Would you like to get the look? Get in touch and I’ll be happy to assist you in sourcing some fabulous design classics!
Places to visit to explore 20th century design:
Casa Batllo, Barcelona, Spain
The Victoria & Albert Museum London
Centre Le Corbusier, Zurich, Switzerland
Villa Savoye, Poissy, France
Bauhaus Museum, Berlin, Germany
Yves Macaux Gallery
Books on 20th century design:
Essential Art Deco Hardcover
The V&A Guide to Period Styles
Georg Aerni Photography
Benjamin A. Peterson Photography
Note: Wherever possible, I credit the source of my images. If you recognise any of the above images as your own, please advise and I will be more than happy to credit you.