A look back at Paris's landmark 1925 Art Deco Expo

Style Moderne

By Stéphane Boudin-Lestienne

Between April and October 1925, in the city of Paris, the French government hosted one of the largest and most instantly impactful events dedicated to design and decorative arts the world has ever seen. Called Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, this world’s-fair-scaled assembly of exhibition pavilions brought together the work of the most talented artisans, architects, and designers working in France at the time—Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, Jacques Adnet, Jean Dunand, to name a few—alongside projects from a handful of international design luminaries, like Victor Horta and Josef Hoffmann. The economic intention was to develop export markets for French luxury goods. But many participants were motivated by something more elusive, more idealistic: Namely the desire for a unifying spirit—a creative movement—that would mark the 20th century as a new era of transcendence for French culture.

For a short time, a new, wholly French style arose around this event—the style now known as Art Deco—and circulated to urban centers around the globe. But like a magician’s flash paper, this opulent aesthetic burned brightly and briefly, and then receded in the face of modernism and more democratic design expressions.


The Ambitions of the Expo

The idea to create a major decorative arts exposition in Paris surfaced as early as 1907. Paris had one of the highest concentrations of professional artisans of any European city, and French craft traditions provided a significant source of national pride. Yet, the country lagged behind in modernization efforts—slow to adopt industrialized models and machine processes—and, as a consequence, was losing its long-held position as the world’s leader in luxury home furnishings. Public and private stakeholders in France’s export markets collaborated to develop the Expo’s program: to encourage cooperation between art and industry, to find modern applications for traditional crafts, and to define a modern, specifically French style that would allow French decorative arts to overshadow foreign competitors.

Paris’s intellectual elites imposed an even greater challenge: to revitalize the decorative arts as the most essential, most important art form of the 20th century, an expression of a new, modern lifestyle within an era of peace (following the years of World War I) and the pinnacle of refinement within an industrial society. With high-minded proclamations about the importance of bringing art into everyday life permeating many publications of the day—Art & Decoration, Art & Industry, The Art of the House, etc.—expectations were high and contentions over the best approach intensified. All agreed, however, that the time was right for a style that reflected a “return to order.”


Expo 1925 and the Art Deco Style

Set within the heart of Paris, the Expo straddled the Seine, on either side of the Pont Alexandre III, and continued along the Esplanade des Invalides. Numerous regional French governments, 18 foreign countries, and scores of manufacturers and private companies installed exhibitions in elaborate pavilions built for the occasion, with the extant Grand Palais serving as the centerpiece. Some designers created special clubhouse spaces, most famously exemplified by Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann’s L’Hôtel du Collectionneur. Ruhlmann—a genius of decorative arts creation and a hero of this interwar generation—designed the Hôtel to attract the interest of silver collectors. More than any other presentation at the Expo, it celebrated the current taste for symmetry and restraint, which simultaneously looked back at the 18th century and forward toward the emerging modernist movement.

The term “Art Deco” was not generally used until the 1960s. In 1925, the style associated with the Expo’s exhibits was coined Style Moderne, thus conveying the idea that these works exemplified modernity even as they embodied French artisanal traditions. While clean, geometric shapes reigned—which conferred a power and monumentality to the perception of Art Deco—ornamentation, far from being forsaken, took on a fresh, sensual force. Exoticist motifs, often borrowed from African, Near and Far East cultures, found new expression in precious materials. And peculiar, even alien, forms emerged, drawing inspiration from Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and other vanguard developments in the fine arts. The resulting eclecticism held together through a shared commitment to excellent craftsmanship and luxurious materials. And dramatic pieces—like the stingray-skin-cloaked commodes of , the expertly lacquered screens of Eileen Gray, horn-inlaid chairs of Pierre Legrain, the hand-painted porcelain vases of Henri Rapin—reached the height of refinement.


Tradition vs. the Avant-Garde

Before the early 20th century, the only way to oppose the conservative French artistic academies—the institutions that monitor cultural production—was through an approach known as Regionalism. This movement became quite powerful in France following World War I and formed the backdrop to many of the Expo’s pavilions. In the French Village, for example, a collection of fifteen provincial pavilions, Regionalism dominated. Yet these exhibits proved unconvincing because they limited the Regionalist approach to a mere regurgitation of local traditions lacking in creativity. These French contributions, apart from one or two—such as those of André Ventre—failed to translate tradition into a modern language.

Josef Hoffmann's sketch for the entrance door of the Austrian Pavilion © MAK / Georg Mayer
Josef Hoffmann managed to avoid this trap in the Austrian Pavilion. His wall of corrugated moldings, which reinterpreted regional woodworking patterns, succeeded in borrowing from the folk tradition of Central and Eastern Europe without parodying them. The heir to the Vienna Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte, Hoffmann imposed an aesthetics consistency between the façade and the objects presented inside, especially in his use of textiles and wallpapers, which attained both commercial and critical success. This approach—intensifying a popular national repertoire in a modern syntax—was also the starting point of Josef Gočár, who designed the highly structured Czechoslovak Pavilion, and Józef Czajkowski, whose Polish Pavilion was topped with a fantastic tower of a crystal.

But it was in the Dutch Pavilion, designed by J. F. Staal, a representative of the Amsterdam School, that Regionalism took a most unexpected form. Staal drew upon many local traditions from the Netherlands—from the use of brick to the lines of the roof—mixing carved decoration and exaggerated proportions. Still this connection to the past did not preclude a modern outcome, influenced by both Expressionism and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright (the Dutch were the first to herald his work in Europe). Notably, the authorities of the Netherlands excluded the avant-garde De Stijl group from their official representation.

It was the Austrian Frederick Kiesler who defended the De Stijl. For the Raumstadt exhibition inside the Austrian Pavilion, he created his famous large structure out of white planks and panels suspended in a dark environment. Close to Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld but belonging to a rival group of the De Stijl, he also managed to be selected in the foreign section at the Grand Palais and to show an extremely radical black and white room.

Despite a prevailing fear of the ultramodern, French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens managed to build his radical Tourism Pavilion at the foot of the Grand Palais. With a severely rectilinear belfry made ​​of two concrete blades that intersected orthogonally, this pavilion served as the rallying symbol of the modernists: those who aimed to marry form to material in novel ways, those who searched for the expressive potential of pure structures. Still, the architect was asked by the Expo’s committee to remove the abstract composition of Fernand Léger that adorned the lobby. Mallet-Stevens managed to keep the Léger in place, but the incident was revealing of the conservative leanings of the Expo’s French organizers.

Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret faced the same kind of censorship. The architects sought to represent the “home of the future” through their Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau. Hidden for several days by a fence, the pavilion was opened to the public only after a difficult negotiation. Indeed, the exhibition committee expressed concern that the radicalism of this architecture, not to mention the “non-existent” décor inside, might be interpreted by the public as a provocation.

Paradoxically, Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov received a favorable reception for his USSR Pavilion, which emphasized the birth of a new state and a break with the past. The vast structure of wood and glass, which used diagonals and colorful rhythms like a Constructivist painting in three dimensions, could be seen as the most subversive object of the entire Expo. Inside, Sergei Eisenstein’s films and Alexander Rodchenko’s installations and posters were on view and also garnered critical and popular honors. Was this French approval meant to encourage the Soviets on a path that would not overshadow their own savoir faire, or was it a desire to promote a country with which France had just opened diplomatic channels? Indeed, the Republic had just recognized the Soviet Union the previous year, to the chagrin of many Russian immigrants living on French soil.

Another success for the modernists was the Jardin d’Eau et de Lumière by Turkish-born, French-based Gabriel Guévrékian. The young architect created his garden as an interpretation of the colorful rhythms of the Simultanéisme movement, associated with his friends Sonia and Robert Delaunay. The partition included a paneled fence of glass and geometric borders. Less attractive but equally radical were the cement trees of the Martel brothers (designed with the help of Mallet- Stevens). It would be the laughingstock of the Expo, yet these two gardens both represent important characteristics of the avant-garde in 1925, namely the new theoretical role given to artists. No longer content merely to affix decorations on furniture or predetermined structures, artists provided architects, urbanists, and designers with plastic principles on which to build. This idea was central to the Bauhaus proponents in Germany, so it is regrettable that they had no representation at the Expo.


The Art Deco Legacy

In 1925, the developed world was in the middle of an important transition to modernity, which included the displacement of the decorative arts with design, the displacement of craft with industry. The history of 20th-century creativity was written in favor of the intellectually and socially driven avant-garde, and the gorgeous but philosophically flat work of the Art Deco movement has not until recently been given the attention it deserves.

Jardin d'Eau et de Lumière in Jardins, Paris 1925 Courtesy of Stéphane Boudin-Lestienne
It is unfortunate that the Expo’s organizers limited the participation of vanguard architects, designers and artists, because in the process, they unintentionally cemented a divide between the new style they aimed to promote—i.e., Art Deco—and the modernist movement that was gaining traction in other European countries. As a result, French furniture became associated with conservative lifestyles for much of the 20th century. Nevertheless, nearly 100 years later, Art Deco furniture is the most highly valued design style on the vintage market. As modernism’s influence has waned and mass-produced furniture has become ubiquitous, a renewed appreciation for skilled craftsmanship, precious materials, and over-the-top refinement makes the once traditional expression appear novel and cutting edge.


  • Text by

    • Stéphane Boudin-Lestienne

      Stéphane Boudin-Lestienne

      With a PhD in Art & Architecture History, Stéphane oversees special projects and co-curates exhibitions at Villa Noailles—the historic architectural site and art space in Hyères, France.

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