Originating in the 1920s, the Art Deco movement was a break away from tradition in the use of materials and pattern. In contrast to the flowing lines of the Art Nouveau period, Art Deco designers began to work with more straight lines and geometric patterns, and the materials they chose for their work had to be able to mimic those lines in form and “feel.” The overt sense of luxury and wealth exuded by Art Deco design was conceived as an escape from the harsh reality of life during the Great Depression.
Furniture designers took advantage of modern transportation technology to import exotic woods like teak and ebony for use in their designs. Although expensive, the woods are very hard and durable and convey a definite sense of luxury. The use of harder exotic woods also allowed designers to hone straight, sharp edges in keeping with the Art Deco motif. Traditional furniture woods like pine are very soft, and edges tend to be a bit rounded because sharp edges tend to splinter.
Marble had been used in buildings for centuries, and Art Deco architects paid homage to antiquity with marble columns and pilasters, though the modern design was simpler and less ostentatious. During the Art Deco period, marble was the king of flooring, and many new buildings had a marble floor polished to a mirror-like shine. The huge slabs of flawless stone required for these floors was expensive, so terrazzo floors once again became popular. Terrazzo is simply cement mixed with marble chips, which despite being less expensive, can still be polished to a high shine and make a beautiful floor.
Metals were everywhere, as improvements in steel-making made skyscrapers possible. The constant building represented growth, and designers began to echo that feeling in other ways. Furniture was built on visible steel frames, cars had large amounts of chrome, and buildings featured tubular metal railings. Even large terrazzo floor tiles were framed with tiny strips of bronze. The glitter of polished metal was much sought after, even in fashion. A woman’s outfit for a formal night out might include a woven metal purse, long, dainty silver chains and a filigree barrette.
The advent of plastic took industrial designers by storm. The lightness and cheapness of materials like Bakelite and Lucite meant that products like radios, telephones and clocks could be produced much more cheaply, making them affordable to many more homes. Even jewellery designers took advantage, designing large cocktail rings, necklaces and bracelets out of plastic beads or even moulded plastic.
People who couldn’t afford an ebony living room set would buy furniture made out of cheaper wood that was lacquered. The deep, opaque, highly polished lacquered surfaces offered the same warmth and shine as higher-priced pieces at a much lower price. The popularity of Japanese lacquer, renown for its beauty and durability, led to an explosion of popularity in Asian decor. Even European and American designers borrowed elements of Asian design, including geometric borders and square knot motifs.
Previously for the rich, animal skins rose in popularity as the cost of importing decreased. Furniture was upholstered in shark skin and cheetah skin, and people carried alligator-skin purses and briefcases. Fur coats became popular, and animal-skin wall hangings added adventure and luxury to a room.