Furniture in the Art Deco Era
The Birth of Art Deco Design
In the early 20th century, Art Deco gained popularity as one of the most widespread international design movements of the time. From applications in architecture and furniture to fine art and fashion, the Art Deco style could be seen blossoming nearly everywhere across Europe, the United States, and in parts of the developing world. Art Deco experienced its peak years of popularity between 1925 and 1945. For the movement’s proponents, displaying an idea and vision of modernity was important above all. The style was characterized by streamlined forms, geometric shapes, smooth surfaces, and bright colors. Its aesthetic was elegant and glamorous, yet simple and functional. Art Deco hinted at optimism, sophistication, commerce, technology and speed.
The Art Deco movement held fine decoration as an essential aspect of day to day life. Having a home with clean lines and inspiring décor was viewed by champions of the movement as being central to a person’s psychological well-being. Designers working in the fields of furniture and interior design played a central part in popularizing this notion and in bringing functional and beautiful pieces to the marketplace.
Among those influential designers at the height of the Art Deco movement in the United States was Paul Theodore Frankl (1886-1958). After emigrating from Austria in 1914, and establishing an architectural practice in New York, he switched his focus to making furniture around 1925. Frankl became one of the major influencers who shaped the distinctive look of American modernism in furniture and interior design.
One of his first modern designs was 1925’s “Puzzle” desk (Figure 1), which moved sharply away from the curvilinear, traditional European designs for desks, with their elaborate carvings and heavily varnished wood. His new desk design was made of brightly painted wood, with drawers situated on all sides, seemingly placed at random. The drawers were coated in silver leaf, so that the shiny surfaces against the dark ground created distinctly Art Deco patterns.
Then, starting in 1926, he began producing his trademark furnishings, which he called “Skyscraper Furniture.” They were dubbed “skyscraper” for their resemblance to the new buildings he saw under construction in New York City such as the McGraw-Hill Building, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. These furniture pieces featured stacked rectangular forms that were often asymmetrically arranged. (Figures 2 & 3) The setback contours of the Art Deco skyscrapers cropping up along the skyline were reflected in hundreds of Frankl furniture pieces. Their smooth surfaces and lack of busy ornament exemplified the modernity of New York itself.
Frankl was also an accomplished writer, and his books, including Machine-Made Leisure and New Dimensions: The Decorative Arts of Today were informative to a generation looking to move into the future and live in a more modern way.
He expressed the importance of moving into modernity when interviewed in a 1927 issue of House and Garden magazine. He observed that his new furniture “evolved as an ideal of speed, based on the fact that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points….Surely, we can create a furniture expressive of the modern scheme of life just as we have evolved a modern music.” He had chairs nicknamed the “Speed Chair” and the “Propeller Chair” evoking high speed boats, planes and trains, and mimicking their aerodynamic forms.
Many Art Deco designers, including Frankl, became increasingly enamored by the possibilities of the machine age. In the United States, particularly during the Great Depression, the lower cost of mass produced raw materials made incorporating them into designs a welcome challenge. Designers could take advantage of the availability of new and exciting materials created through chemical research and technological advances, and implement them into their designs.
As Frankl moved into designing during the 1930s, he continued to explore this possibility of making furniture reflective of the ways of modern life. He also looked to use more inexpensive, modern materials to economize during the Depression. His practice evolved to include making very light weight pieces, and experimenting with the following new materials, among others: Weldtex (a newly invented combed wood, plywood laminate), stainless steel, chrome, plastics, aluminum, structural glass, and synthetic textiles.
In 1934, Frankl designed a room for the Newark Museum specifically highlighting the possibilities of new materials. His goal was to design pieces for the room that showed how new surfaces could create more interesting visual effects than the old, while also offering increased practicality in use and cleaning. In the exhibit was a Formica (molded plastic) table with stainless steel supports, a chair with synthetic fabric upholstery, a leather sofa treated with a cellulose varnish to make it washable, and rayon curtains. The smooth, uniform shine made possible with many of these materials was attractive both from an aesthetic viewpoint and for its association with the essence of modernity. The sleek new surfaces could also encourage designers to think outside the box and find new applications and styles.
After moving to Los Angeles, California in 1934, in an effort to boost the sales and reach of his designs, Frankl began partnering with various companies to mass produce his furniture. He formed partnerships with both Brown-Saltman and the Johnson Furniture Company to make his cutting edge, modern design affordable to the middle class. They created full dining room sets, chairs, bookcases, chests, and side tables, all pared down to be mass produced and priced for affordability. Many of these pieces were very texture-rich, using materials such as Weldtex, rattan, and cork with a beeswax finish. He eventually also had his originally wooden skyscraper pieces mass produced in metal.
Though Art Deco began to lose favor during the Second World War because it was seen as too gaudy, bright and ostentatious for wartime austerity, the style had a resurgence that began in the 1960s and continues today, when Frankl’s pieces can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction. The enduring spirit and style of Frankl’s Art Deco work is timeless, and will be appreciated for years to come.
Figure 1, “Puzzle” desk
Figure 2, Skyscraper cabinet, c. 1927, in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago
Figure 3, Skyscraper bookcase