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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Art Deco Explores Material Culture

Material culture is a significant aspect of American culture as a whole, and has its origins in the early 20th century. The 1920s produced a new consumer culture as industrial capitalism flourished. Americans began buying radios and cars, reflecting a new era of communication and transportation. As fast-paced city life emerged into the cultural foreground, Art Deco became a popular accompaniment of a new American lifestyle.

Art Deco: 1910-1939 explores these concepts as the first major exhibition to recognize Art Deco as a global trend and can be found at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The exhibition features more than 240 works including furniture, textiles, ceramics, sculpture, fashion, jewelry, photography, and paintings. Divided into eight thematic sections, Art Deco: 1910-1939 features: The Style and the Age, Sources, The Paris Exhibition of 1925, The Exotic, The Moderne, The Deco World, Travel and Transport, and America.

The 1920s marked a new era of prosperity for many Americans. As times changed, style changed as well–especially for women. Women were a huge target for the consumer market as they began to take on roles traditionally associated with men. Smoking, driving, and working were all part of a new lifestyle for the modern woman. The Moderne section of exhibition captures this new age for women with showcases of fashionable accessories popular among the women of the era.

The concepts of glamour and smoking were combined in a vanity cigarette case, originating in Paris, France between 1920 and 1925. The case was composed of gold, diamonds, onyx, and pearls. The description read, “The oval form of this multi-compartment box, inspired by Japanese prototypes, was especially popular for Cartiers cigarette and vanity cases, which held cigarettes, matches, blotting papers and cosmetics.” The cosmetic and cigarette industries played a huge role in targeting women consumers here.

Unfortunately for the wealthy, the stock market crash of 1929 had a devastating effect on the luxury goods market. However, this devastation resulted in the demand for inexpensive consumer goods. Machine production was the backbone of a rising capitalist society in America. As hand craftsmanship dwindled, new materials like chromium, nickel, aluminum, colored glass, and plastics made it possible for the goods to be produced on a mass scale. Consequently, more women could enjoy these luxury materials.

Much like Art Deco fashion, new modes of international travel were also glamorized. The “Travel and Transport” segment of the exhibition displayed popular posters of the period, celebrating “A fascination with speed…engendered by the pace of social, cultural, and technological change and the modes of travel became potent symbols of modernity.”

Art Deco architecture was also a symbol of luxury and modern life, and was the most popular design for skyscrapers around the globe in the 1920s and 1930s. Several sources of Art Deco style architecture are non-Western, but are also borrowed from European origins, such as national traditions, designed around 1900, and the contemporary avant-garde. Maya and Aztec art heavily influenced Art Deco designers. “The Stepped Pyramid”, or Ziggurat, greatly impacted the style of skyscrapers in New York and other cities.

Works of art representing these sources are displayed together with interpretations by European and American designers in the 1920s and 1930s. Among the works of art in the section are a Cartier Pendant (1913, Art of Cartier Collection, Geneva) composed of diamonds, onyx and platinum, and an African-inspired Stool (about 1923, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond) designed by Pierre Legrain.

Also on view at the exhibition are Rene Paul Chambellan’s Entrance Gates to the Executive Suite of the Chanin Building in New York. The gates are made of wrought iron and bronze, symbolizing industrial success. The description read: “These entrance gates celebrate capitalism with imagery of the city and the machine…” With a closer look, visitors will notice the iron and bronze coins piled at the bottom of the gates.

The 1939 New York World’s Fair marked the conclusion of Art Deco. According to the tail end of the exhibit descriptions, “Post-war austerity and the need for rapid reconstruction in Europe and east Asia resulted in a move toward greater rationalism and functionalism in design and decoration. The splendor and flamboyance of Art Deco fell out of favor.”

Although the exhibition captured the style of the age, it seemed to solely capture the style of the wealthy. The only mention of the Wall Street crash in 1929 was to explain its effect on the luxury goods market, which in turn affected the leading designers and firms-certainly not the rest of the country who struggled in utter poverty.

Art Deco: 1910-1939 will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston until January 9, 2005. For those inspired by the exhibition, the following are additional places to learn about Art Deco style: Art Deco Society of Boston and Boston by Foot.