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Designing the 20th Century: Art Deco and Bauhaus

The industrial development, the liberation that followed the catastrophic First World War, and the transition from the politically aged societies that created it to the political structure of the states that existed after its end, created the need to answer many questions about the type of society itself, as well as every expression of social life. The change of the global map, the strengthening of ideologies that proposed a liberation that humanity had never experienced before, imposed the need to provide answers at a political and social level, about what could be the continuity for the entire human civilization.

The result of this search in design and the arts in general was the emergence of two diametrically opposed styles, with some elements of common inspiration but certainly with completely different goals, Art Deco and Bauhaus. Although the duration of their main development was short, their elements as well as characteristic works that belong to them, are still being created to this day, with periods where their presence is becoming more and more prominent in creation.

Art Deco: The optimism of luxury

Art Deco started in Paris in the 1920s and blossomed internationally, with significant expansion in the United States, until the 1930s. Although its decline started with the great depression of 1929, its production continued until the era of World War II. The style influenced many aspects of design, such as architecture, interior design, industrial design, fashion and jewelry making, as well as visual arts and cinema.

Basic characteristics found in its design include the sunburst motif and the pattern of the broken glass, both of which symbolize the light and dawn of a new era. Many skyscrapers, including notable examples such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in New York, symbols of this new era, feature these basic designs. Patterns that indicate speed, power, and flight reflect the great innovations of the time, while the overall geometry expresses the design of machinery and new technology.

Detail from the top of the Chrysler Building in New York City.

One of the main elements encountered in Art Deco is the new depiction of women, who are now liberated and socialized, participating in the evolution, at least in developed and free societies, after World War I. During the war, in the countries that participated, this was an inevitable development, as many women took positions in production, instead of the men who were absent at war. After the war, this led to an upgraded position, while optimism for the future highlighted a new type of woman in the societies of the era.

Feminine figure in a painting by Tamara de Lempicka.

Human forms generally do not follow their realistic form, they appear more flexible and elastic, inspired by the musical movements of the era, such as jazz, as well as the accompanying dance movements. All the above elements find harmony with geometry borrowed from older civilizations, such as Egypt and the cultures of Central America. Colors are intense with strong contrast, while decoration is often characterized by animal skin patterns that embody these characteristics, with the most characteristic being the leopard and the zebra.

The ideological hallmark of Art Deco was “luxury for everyone.” Forms that reflected eternal youth, dynamism, and above all a society capable of consumption. Its themes were often exotic.

Holidays in Miami – the dream of the consumer society of Art Deco.

One of the most characteristic representatives of Art Deco is considered to be Jean Dunand, a Swiss jeweler, sculptor, and interior designer. Dunand inspired the basic luxury materials that characterize the objects (jewelry, decorative space) of the style, with a strong presence of precious metals such as silver and gold, which were accompanied by the contrast of dark-colored materials that held them together. The designs were usually detailed and reflected the generalized economic boom that followed World War I. The jewelry, despite having simple geometric shapes on them, were symbols of economic prosperity, reflected in the intense chromatic contrasts of their expensive materials.

Ultra-luxury furniture designed by Jean Dunand.

In general, Art Deco is now considered an extension of Art Nouveau, an evolution of it, rather than a contrasting approach. Essentially, what evolved was the heavy and detailed depiction of Art Nouveau, transforming into a more industrial and geometric representation, with bold color contrasts – non-earthly colors in Art Deco.

Art Deco is rediscovered during periods of economic prosperity in many countries, with its most characteristic resurgence being in the 1980s in the Western world, even though expensive materials in these cases are replaced by newer synthetic ones. In the age of the internet, it manages to gain more and more ground, due to the attractiveness of its lines and the optimism it expresses in graphic arts.

Bauhaus: A beautiful world for everyone

Bauhaus was a pre-war movement that combined architecture with fine arts and proposed, essentially through a pure ideological position, a new design philosophy. It developed in Germany from 1919 until the closure of the Bauhaus school by the Nazis in 1932. The movement and the school were the proposal and work of Walter Gropius, who believed that design is not a privilege of a small caste, but should be accessible to everyone.

The building of the Bauhaus School.

The Bauhaus school (which means “building house”) was founded in Weimar and attracted some of the most iconic artists of the era to teach there. Among them were Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer, and Gunta Stoltz. The school was residential (students lived there) and men and women attended. The program started with a basic semester of fundamental elements on shapes and materials before moving on to specialization through workshops in design projects.

The painting “On White II” by Vassily Kandinsky.

The Bauhaus aimed to create art from artists who did not come from a class system, liberated from financial constraints, capable of producing art for the masses. Skillful designs and minimalist designs combined with beautiful techniques to propose something that would be aesthetically pleasing, ergonomic and mass-producible. Its principles were honest design, shape following use, while many times the design result came from collective work. It represented what a new society needed, in the age of machines and industry, combining the modern not so much with its image, but with its practicality.

An exhibition poster of Bauhaus artists.

Bauhaus was open to the use of many materials, keeping minimalism and avoiding unnecessary details in design as its main characteristic. Its line was the pursuit of the evolution of the geometry of objects, without giving particular weight to the internal structure of the object, but to its ergonomics and symbolism.

One of the pioneers of the Bauhaus was Marianne Brandt, a German painter, sculptor, photographer, and designer who attended the Bauhaus School and became the head of the metal objects development department. Her works, which proposed household items such as lamps, ashtrays, and cups, are considered monuments of modern industrial design. In addition, she left a rich body of work in her experiments with photography, which highlighted a symbol of a new powerful and independent New Woman of the Bauhaus.

Objects designed by Marianne Brandt.

Bauhaus has been greatly incorporated into typography, where the practicality of design and the purity of lines are essential, resulting in it being essentially part of our daily life until today. Furthermore, the characteristics that follow the development of the industry exude an innovative sense that is very useful in advertising. However, it gains ground when the middle class discards the need to spend excessive amounts on objects whose utilitarian significance remains the same. A characteristic example of this perception is the German automobile industry.


Bauhaus and Art Deco were developed during the same period, but they are two completely different approaches to design. Art Deco aimed to highlight luxury through geometry, while Bauhaus aimed for simplicity and practicality in its creations. Art Deco works are characterized by high social status, reflected in the use of very expensive materials, with many exaggerations in design complexity, while Bauhaus is a symbol of accessible objects with clean lines that do not overload space, and their construction can be done much faster and in larger numbers. Both are considered genres that inspired and influenced Modernism.

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