King Tut and the Desert Roots of Art Deco

An introduction to Egyptian and Oriental themes in Art Deco design

In November of 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter entered the tomb of an ancient Egyptian king. Carter’s first glance left him confounded, for inside the walls of this long-forgotten crypt lay a cinematic display of glittering jewels. The mystery and exoticism of King Tut's tomb reverberated throughout the Western world, becoming one of the biggest cultural events of the 20th century.

Apart from Tutankhamun’s tomb, 1922 was not a watershed year. The pivot points in the history of design -- like The 1925 Paris exposition that christened Art Deco -- were still a few years off. The fiery tensions following the First World War had been supplanted by bureaucratic strategizing. Yet the forces that would shape Western thought were simmering, finding ideas and voices that ultimately defined art and culture.

Artistic Influences

Before the 1920s, exotic subjects long filled the works of Western artists. Due to the influence of Paris-based art dealer Siegfriend Bing, Japan had increasingly played a part in the late 19th century Art Nouveau oeuvre. The ornamental and curvilinear Art Nouveau style found a fitting mate in the exotic animals and motifs of the Oriental world.

For luxury designers, rare materials and unconventional themes served a nuanced purpose. In France, for example, wealthy benefactors commissioned many of the now famous Art Deco works. (See Ruhlmann's commissions for the Maharaja of Indore & Henri de Rothschild, among others. ) This patronage system created a few interesting incentives. First, designers loved to display the majesty of their creations by building with materials garnered from the far corners of the world. Second, the patrons of these pieces undoubtedly found satisfaction in the rarity, uniqueness, and expense of their collections. All should be considered alongside Ruhlmann's snobbish but true words,

“Only the very rich can pay for what is new and they alone can make it fashionable.”

And in turn, the presence of the exotic in haute design helped set the stage for a mass Egypt-craze.

Cultural changes were also afoot in the early 1920s. Advancing technology impacted the way people saw travel and the globalized world. From personal automobiles to airplanes, the travel-as-leisure idea imbued the upper ranks of society with a newfound wanderlust. Noted French artist Fernand Léger summed this shift up nicely when explaining the modern condition in 1912,

“The daily life of modern creative artists is much more condensed and more complex than that of people in earlier centuries.”

In this context, the Egyptian king entombed in mountains of gold provided perfect cultural kindling. Details of Carter’s discovery were relayed back to England and the Western world, and the news traveled far and wide. From clothing to decoration, unmistakably Egyptian patterns and motifs abounded. What started in the world of high art and high fashion permeated through all cultural bastions, unleashing a bona fide Egypt-craze.

In early 1923, Pierre Cartier stated that “the discover of the tomb will bring some sweeping changes in fashion in jewelry.” Luxury jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels followed suit, introducing Egypt-theme jewelry pieces. 

High fashion embraced this Egypt craze, drawing commentary from both the New York Times & Vogue Magazine, as well as many highbrow designers. Egypt inspired frocks, bathing suits and Cleopatra-style earrings were all very fashionable. (For a more thorough description of fashion inspired by this craze, see this article.) 

The budding American and international film industry employed the Egypt trend most dramatically. Examples include Fritz Lang's Metropolis & Cecil B. De Mille's Cleopatra. Both films played on the romanticism and majesty inherent to the Egyptian narrative.

Why It Worked

King Tut's story piqued the public's interest in 1922. The allure of this narrative is gripping enough to captivate regardless of the era. (This story has captivated for years. Consider the 1963 adaptation of Cleopatra, among countless other examples.) Yet the deep and thorough integration of the Egyptian themes into cultural trends of the 1920s leaves a little more room for explanation.

This period was a moment when technological change emboldened even the average person to dream of faraway shores and an exotic life. With the discovery of King Tut's tomb, this wanderlust found a romantic vehicle that neatly captured the hope and intrigue of exotic adventure. Tut’s discovery carried with it a beautiful color palette, also. Who knows what would've happened had the tomb been looted centuries earlier, leaving only items of archaeological interest. But as it was, the glittering gold, deep ochre and ziggurat geometry served as a mouthwatering opportunity for the haute fashion & design world. Indeed, these bold colors and their exotic birthplace fit so perfectly within the contours of the bold, vibrant, and flamboyant period that was Art Deco.

- J. Hornbrooke

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