A Brief Introduction to Art Deco Furniture: Design Icons and Influences

Art Deco Furniture - Featured Image

Rising to prominence between the 1920-30s, the Art Deco aesthetic celebrated the changing modern landscape. As industrialization transformed skylines and technologies transcended people’s expectations for daily conveniences, architects and designers similarly updated their styles to brilliantly emulate the clean lines and sleek sophistication of the machine age. 

Let’s return to those “Roaring ’20s” to catch a glimpse of the essence of the Art Deco Style. Complementing a brief overview of the core aspects and influences, we’ll nod to some of the most splendid examples of Art Deco to showcase how these designs from the early 20th century still pop in the present day. 

The Essence of Art Deco

Equal parts opulence and order, Art Deco design shares several key features. These include: 

Streamlined Geometry

Overall, the form of Art Deco furnishings relied upon simple geometry built from clean lines and balanced details. Shapes could also be used to conjure patterns that enhanced the elegance of a given piece. A hallmark of Art Deco furniture, streamlined geometry finds its architectural and design counterpart in Streamline Moderne. Streamline Moderne, a sleek and aerodynamic design movement popularized in the 1930s, transcended architecture to influence various aspects of design, including furniture, automobiles, household appliances, and fashion.

Opulent Materials

Contrasting the simple shapes of Art Deco designs were the luxurious materials that often augmented these forms. From the rich, dark hues of ebony wood or tortoiseshell to the shiny perfection of lacquer or glass, or the texture of unusual leathers, Art Deco furnishings tended to emphasize the material components, at times using these elements to create visual vibrancy or contrast. 

Artful Ornamentation

Extravagant materials typically joined rich tones and decorative details to contribute to the sumptuous ornamentation of Art Deco designs. These deluxe details enlivened a piece’s core symmetry and geometry while at the same time celebrating the exceptional artistry and craftsmanship that these Art Deco wares demanded.

Iconic Designers of Art Deco

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most essential designers of the Art Deco era along with examples of their work. 

Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933)

Art Deco Furniture - Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann - Lit Soleil.

Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann – Lit Soleil. Sold for $120,000 USD via Sotheby’s (December 2018).

Exposed  to the workings of his father’s construction business in late 19th-century Paris, Émile-Jacques Ruhlman rose to prominence as a furniture designer early in the subsequent century. Originally inspired by the organic emphasis of Art Nouveau, Ruhlmann shifted around 1915 to a more streamlined style. He channeled this new approach into his designs for the 1925 “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes”, which included suits of furniture rendered in this new approach that was at once both modern and classic. Ruhlmann collaborated with other designers to contribute a stand-alone pavilion that housed separate rooms filled with multiple furniture suites. These efforts – seen, for example, in his bedroom suite – impressed audiences so much that Art Deco was born. Today these sets are some of the most coveted by Art Deco furniture collectors, so much so that even Ruhlmann vanity sets alone can crest six figures.

Clarice Cliff (1899-1972)

A leading female figure in Art Deco ceramics, Clarice Cliff trained at the Burslem School of Art in Stoke-on-Trent, England in the early 20th century and by 1920 had set up her own studio. There she developed a penchant for experimenting with marred or imperfect porcelain pieces by painting abstract, geometric patterns upon them in bold colors. She called these her “Bizarre” wares and incorporated the language of Art Deco design from the strikingly geometric to the lusciously organic. Cliff dominated the ceramics market of the 1930s with this brilliant “Bizarre” combination. 

Jean Dunand (1877-1942)

Known for his fluid use of varied materials from lacquered panels to mother of pearl, Swiss designer Jean Dunand initially trained as a sculptor. By the dawn of the 20th century, however, he had evolved to become a leading designer of furnishings for Art Deco interiors. His creations, which ranged from vases designed with geometric precision to gilded panels and lacquered trays that showcased his skills as a dinandier (working in non-precious metals) and elaborate sideboards, became showpieces in interiors around the world and led to both collaborations with Ruhlmann on some designs for the 1925 Exposition and commissioned works for illustrious patrons like the Guggenheims. One of Dunand’s most exceptional creations is his Radio Cabinet, which married his capacities in lacquer (learned from famed Japanese artist Seizo Sugawara) with his abilities to use the forms and lines so indicative of Art Deco design. 

Jules Leleu (1883-1961)

Emerging as one of the leading Art Deco furniture designers following World War I, French artist Jules Émile Leleu earned accolades for his sleek silhouettes often accented with detailed designs or elegant Japanese-inspired lacquer. His creativity was boundless, leading him to conjure cabinets enrobed in shagreen and fainting couches from rich rosewood curves blanketed in luxurious velvet.  At the same time, Leleu’s creations were equally utilitarian and incorporated clever features to ensure the function and form of each of his creations would be timeless. 

Paul T. Frankl (1886-1958)

Art Deco Furniture - Paul T. Frankl - D lounge chairs, c.1927.

Paul T. Frankl – D lounge chairs, c.1927. Auction passed (Est: $3,000 USD – $5,000 USD) via Wright (January 2023).

Though he was initially interested in pursuing a career as an architect, Austrian innovator Paul T. Frankl turned to furniture design in the early 20th century. This decision proved formative, as Frankl would go on to become one of the essential contributors to the aesthetic of American modernism. While Frankl could be credited with bringing the best of Art Deco design to New York upon his arrival in 1914, one could also argue that the city left an indelible impact on him. Frankls’ iconic “Skyscraper” Bookshelf reveals that influence in a design that marries Fankl’s passion for clean lines with an architectural profile that emulates those seen across New York’s skyline. Often featuring lacquered details and Bakelite pulls, Frankl’s bookshelves exuded the sleek modernity of the modern metropolis in the comfort of stylish sitting rooms and libraries everywhere. His Skyscraper designs launched Frankl into acclaim, but he lavished the same attention to sophistication across all of his creations from vanities to day beds.  

Art Deco Furniture - Eileen Gray - Dragon Armchair, c.1917-19.

Eileen Gray – Dragon Armchair, c.1917-19. Sold for €21,905,000 EUR via Christie’s (February 2009).

Eileen Gray (1878-1976)

Eileen Gray’s path to Art Deco deification began during her student days at London’s Slade School of Art in the early 1900s. There she had the good fortune to meet Charles Dean, a furniture conservator who would introduce Gray to the skill of lacquering. This training fueled her interest in modernist furnishings and interiors that blossomed in her collaborative design for a seaside villa, known as “E-1027” thanks to a code developed between her and collaborator Jean Badovici, along the southern French coast. Envisioning both the exterior structure and the furnishings within, Gray conjured some of her most iconic forms including upright chairs and armchairs. These include her E-1027 Adjustable Table, comprising a circular table resting on a C-shaped base and minimalist armature whose height could be adjusted with a pin and nesting tubes akin to a trombone slide. Gray used different media for these tables, from aluminum and steel to glass and chrome, in a celebration of the versatility of both her form and materials. 

Incorporating Art Deco into Your Home

As these examples have illustrated, the influence of these innovators can still be felt in contemporary design, thereby reinforcing the timeless nature of Art Deco design. If this quick survey of Art Deco masters has made you want to incorporate these sleek lines into your interior design scheme, you can follow the movement’s central credo: less is more. Finding one striking side table or armchair that incorporates the streamlined modernity of any of these Art Deco designers is sure to both amplify your space and prove captivating for many years to come.