Art Moderne: An American Design
Art Moderne is an influential design style that thrived during the 1930s and 1940s. There is overlap between Art Moderne and Art Deco, so much so that people often confuse the former for the latter or use the two terms interchangeably. In fact, historians themselves often do not agree on the relationship between Art Moderne and Art Deco, with some describing Art Moderne as a phase of Art Deco, some regarding it as a spin-off, and some seeing it as a completely different movement. Though recognizably vintage, Art Moderne continues to influence interior design in subtle ways to this day.
Origins of Art Moderne
Art Moderne was born in the United States and is so identified with the country that an alternative name for the style is American Moderne. However, like many aspects of life that came to full fruition in America, its roots stretch overseas. Many of the designers who developed the Art Moderne style were immigrants from Europe, including Josef Urban, K.E.M. Weber, and Paul Frankl. Art Deco, which developed approximately 20 years earlier in France, was also a clear influence. Art Moderne designers took good ideas from Art Deco and incorporated them into a new style to fit the realities of American life in the 1930s.
History of Art Moderne Design
Art Moderne design grew out of the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Money was no longer available to finance huge, soaring building projects, so Art Moderne began to favor shorter buildings that emphasized horizontal lines. Designers and builders no longer had access to the luxurious building materials commonly in use in previous decades, so they started using less expensive, more readily available materials, gravitating specifically toward those that were man-made.
Manufacturing became very important to American life during the ’30s and ’40s, particularly during the years of World War II. Therefore, while earlier design styles emphasized natural materials and individual craftsmanship, Art Moderne started celebrating mass production in its design scheme, such that even original pieces had a look about them to suggest that they may have been assembled in a factory.
During this time period, scientists were also developing a new theory of aerodynamics called streamlining. The theory held that sharp, angular edges and solid, blocky shapes on vehicles such as automobiles and airplanes caused wind resistance and slowed them down. In response, engineers started designing trains, cars, boats, and planes with smooth, rounded edges that would reduce the resistance, making them faster and more efficient.
Art Moderne Design Characteristics
The concept of streamlining had a significant influence on Art Moderne style in general, to the point that some also refer to it as Streamline Moderne. It even started showing up in the design of objects intended to remain stationary. As a result, buildings and furniture designed and built during this period are often recognizable by their round, smooth, curvaceous shapes that give the impression of fluid motion frozen in time. In France, Art Moderne design was known as Paquebot, which means “ocean liner.” Indeed, there is an iconic Art Moderne hotel in Puerto Rico that was expressly engineered to mimic the design of an ocean liner of the time, even bearing its name: the Normandie.
Art Moderne style is streamlined in a figurative sense as well as a literal one. Earlier styles made liberal use of decorative embellishments that often served no functional purpose. Art Moderne largely did away with these, which again was a reflection of the economic reality of the Great Depression that required Americans to eschew most nonessentials. What decorative elements do remain as part of Art Moderne often look like they could serve a specific function even if they do not. With their precision of line, regularity, and repetition, Art Moderne pieces give an impression of cool efficiency and functionality.
During this time period, cars and other machines started to play a more prominent role in the everyday lives of the average American, and people wanted their home décor to reflect the devices on which they increasingly relied. Therefore, Art Moderne style favors sleek furniture designs made of shiny, man-made materials such as plastics, metal, and chrome. For example, Bakelite, the first plastic made from synthetic components, was popular in home appliances like radios and phones in the ’30s and ’40s.
Generally speaking, Art Moderne design emphasizes low, horizontal lines rather than verticality. There is an exception, however; Art Moderne designers would often incorporate a series of escalating levels into their designs. This allowed the incorporation of both horizontal lines and verticality into a single design. An example of this is Paul Frankl’s skyscraper furniture, especially the bookshelves.
Art Moderne Inspiration in Interior Design
The streamlining characteristic of Art Moderne design never really fell out of fashion. To this day, many home fashions and appliances reflect its influence. If you have an Art Moderne-inspired interior design scheme, one of our artful, mod, vintage rugs from the Nazmiyal Collection can really tie it all together.