Art Deco in the 1920s: A Visual Journey into a Golden Age

Last Updated: October 25th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

Do you love art deco? I’m into art deco in many different forms, including jewelry, clothing, and even home decoration. Architectural style is something I’ve only recently been introduced to, but the whole subject is fascinating.

Art deco in the 1920s

I remember when art deco had a sort of resurgence in the 1980s. At that time, I had no idea just how far back art deco style dates!

If you are into the art deco movement, whether it’s from the 1980s or the 1920s, or you’ve recently discovered the American art deco style, this article is for you.

While art deco made its debut in France just before WWI, I don’t think it has ever really gone out of style. It might get pushed to the side for some new style for a decade or so, but then it returns in all its glory.

In today’s article, let’s talk about art deco, well, everything – from bold geometric shapes to art deco gargoyles, there’s a lot of ground to cover!

When Was the Term Art Deco First Used?

Believe it or not, this term was not actually used until about 1960.

When speaking of what we now call art deco back in the 1920s, it was known as “Le Style Moderne” (the modern style) or sometimes “Jazz Moderne” (modern jazz).

Art Deco 1920s

The term “Art Deco” was used in a positive manner by British art historian and critic Bevis Hillier.

Some believe that the word was first used during the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, where this diverse style was showcased, but this isn’t really true.

Arts Decoratifs (decorative arts) described many different aspects of a style that was new to Americans but which had already been shown in Paris and around Europe for nearly a decade.

For instance, jewelry design that you’d call art deco today was described as modern style or jazz age jewelry in the 1920s.

I believe you will find some items described as “the new art style” or “the new fine arts” or even decorative new art but not the words “art deco”.

Not that all this really matters in the end. Everyone knew what it was, even if it was called by slightly different names.

What Is the Difference Between Art Nouveau and Art Deco?

Art Nouveau and Art Deco are distinct artistic styles that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, each leaving a unique mark on the art world.

Aspect Art Deco Art Nouveau
Time Period 1920-1930s Late 19th Century
Style Geometric, Sleek, Symmetrical Organic, Flowing, Curves
Influence Industrialization, Technology Nature, Mythology, Symbolism
Materials Metal, Glass, Bold Colors Curved Lines, Stained Glass, Pastels
Motifs Zigzags, Sunbursts, Streamlined Forms Flowers, Insects, Flowing Lines
Architecture Skyscrapers, Streamlined Buildings Ornate Facades, Decorative Details
Jewelry Design Luxury, Gemstones, Symmetrical Whiplash Curves, Enamel, Artistic
Emphasis Elegance, Luxury, Glamour Natural Beauty, Artistic Expression
Legacy Influenced infrastructure, building designs, and urban landscapes Bridged historical and modern styles

Art Nouveau, prevalent from the 1890s to the early 1900s, was characterized by its emphasis on nature-inspired motifs, flowing lines, and organic forms, such as leaves. The movement sought to infuse art into everyday life, often seen in architecture, decorative arts, and graphic design.

art nouveau style Stair railing

On the other hand, Art Deco, which rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s, embraced a more streamlined and geometric approach, showcasing sleek lines, bold symmetry, and a penchant for luxurious materials.

Metal ornate art deco door

Art Deco celebrated modernism and the machine age, influencing everything from skyscrapers to jewelry and fashion.

While both styles contributed to the evolution of design, Art Nouveau exuded a romantic and organic sensibility, while Art Deco exuded a dynamic and modernist aesthetic.

Art Nouveau is another style that never really goes out of fashion. Anytime you see intricate patterns and earth tones (think of the 1960s hippie styles), you’ll be looking at art nouveau revisited, so to speak.

What Are the Key Features of Art Deco?

Art Deco architecture - lobby of a building

Art Deco style has several key elements setting it apart from other styles.

One prominent feature is its emphasis on geometric shapes and symmetry, creating a sense of order and modernity.

This would include clean lines, sharp angles, and streamlined forms prevalent in Art Deco architecture, furniture, and visual arts.

Another feature would be the use of luxurious and exotic materials, reflecting the opulence and prosperity of the era. Imagine items (especially in the 1920s) such as chrome, glass, marble, and precious metals. These adorned various creations, exuding a sense of sophistication.

Rockefeller Center entrance the Art Deco sculpture Wisdom by Lee Lawrie

Art Deco also drew on ideas from ancient cultures and imagery, incorporating elements from Egyptian, Aztec, and African art. Art Deco style embraced decorative motifs such as sunbursts, stepped patterns, and stylized flowers and animals.

The mix of bold colors, contrasting combinations and high contrast also contributed to the striking and memorable allure of Art Deco, leaving an unforgettable mark on the world of fashion and design.

What Was Art Deco in the 1920s?

Here’s a question near and dear to my heart!

In the 1920s, Art Deco was a prominent and influential artistic and design movement that emerged as a response to the ornate and intricate styles of the 19th century.

Beautiful couple in art deco style dancing tango

Art Deco is characterized by its sleek, modern, and geometric aesthetic, reflecting the rapid technological advancements and changing societal values of the time. It encompassed various forms of artistic expression, including architecture, interior design, visual arts, fashion, and jewelry.

Let’s look at the various ways that the art deco style defined the 1920s and 1930s.


Pennsylvania Railroad Suburban Station in Philadelphia

Speaking of architecture, Art Deco buildings featured bold geometric shapes, clean lines, and often showcased intricate decorative elements such as sunbursts. Skyscrapers, with their soaring heights and straight lines, became iconic symbols of the Art Deco movement during this era.

Interior Design

typical Luxury living room in the 1920s

When it came to interior design, Art Deco spaces were characterized by a sense of luxury and sophistication. The use of expensive materials like mirrors, glass, and exotic woods, along with lavish decorative elements, contributed to the opulent ambiance of Art Deco interiors.

Imagine wallpaper with velvet images of peacock feathers or a gold-plated metal side table made of circles and rectangular shapes. I adore art deco interior spaces for their clean lines and luxurious looks without looking tacky.

Visual Arts

Atlas Statue at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, New York City, USA

Visual arts, such as paintings and sculptures, were also influenced by the Art Deco style. Artists experimented with geometric shapes, bold colors, and new materials to create works that captured the spirit of the modern age.


a woman dressed in retro flapper style fashion and holding a cigarette

Let’s not forget fashion. Jewelry and clothing embraced the Art Deco design with the rise of the flapper style, featuring loose and shorter dresses, dropped waists, smaller hats, and geometric patterns.

Art Deco jewelry was also hugely popular, incorporating sleek and angular designs with precious stones, pearls, peacock feathers, and metals of all kinds.

For those living in the 1920s, art deco represented a new, more modern look to everything from clothing to buildings, or coffee tables!

During this decade, it was out with the old and in with the new!

What Are Some Examples of Art Deco in the 1920s?

Starting about 1919, Art Deco began to infiltrate every part of American life.

One iconic example of Art Deco architecture from this period is the Chrysler Building in New York City. This shiny, stainless steel skyscraper, marked with a geometric design near the top and a sunburst-inspired crown, is the ultimate example of the art deco movement’s penchant for bold, streamlined forms.

Detail of Chrysler building, Manhattan, New York City

When it comes to interior design, the luxurious ambiance of the Queen Mary ocean liner showcased Art Deco’s allure. The ship’s public spaces boasted polished wood paneling, intricate metalwork, and opulent glass fixtures, creating an atmosphere of grandeur and elegance.

Just a side note, I’ve actually been on the Queen Mary for a wedding. Remember the movie Titanic? the Queen Mary’s interior looks similar and it’s absolutely stunning!

The Art Deco movement would influence the fashion world as well. Everyone recognizes Coco Chanel’s flapper dresses featuring geometric patterns and elaborate beading, epitomizing the spirit of the Roaring Twenties. Everyone knows the look that includes feathered and beaded headbands, pearl necklaces, and fur wraps.

women in their 1920s dress world war times

Let’s not forget the Art Deco movement which inspired stunning jewelry pieces, such as Cartier’s famous “Tutti Frutti” designs, combining diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires in a mesmerizing display of color and form.

No one can forget these images, and many are still in use today (such as the Chrysler building). Art deco artists of the Jazz Age may be gone, but the art deco movement they created continued for two decades and, as I stated earlier, it never really went out of style.

Why Did Art Deco Become So Popular in the 1920s?

The first reason that comes to mind is that people are always attracted to anything new. Whether it’s a new restaurant, a new city, a new shopping mall, or in this case, a new artistic style, people are always on the lookout for things that are different from the same old same old.

By offering a refreshing departure from the ornate and heavy designs of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, art deco aesthetics aligned perfectly with the changing social attitudes and the embrace of modernism.

art deco painting of Men and women partying in an art deco bar

The Roaring Twenties represented a time of economic prosperity, industrial advancements, and cultural change, and art deco mirrored this spirit of optimism and progress.

With its clean lines, geometric forms, and luxurious materials, the traditional art deco style appealed to modern society’s desire for simplicity, elegance, and opulence.

Additionally, the art deco style was versatile, manifesting in various art forms, architecture, fashion, and even everyday objects.

We can’t forget that art deco found favor among the upper class, who sought to display their wealth and sophistication, while also resonating with the masses as it was incorporated into affordable consumer goods.

art deco jewellery

Art deco clothing and jewelry, in particular, were affordable for many. Mirrors and fake pearls, for example, looked expensive but really weren’t. This means that everyday people could afford things that looked expensive and gave them a taste of the upper-class life.

The distinctive and versatile nature of art deco made it a universal symbol of the modern era, cementing its popularity and leaving a lasting legacy in the world of design.

How Did the Art Deco Period Influence Society in the 1920s?

Does art influence society, or is it the other way around?

The truth is that art deco’s influence on society during the 1920s was profound and far-reaching.

three ladies displaying flapper fashion, with a black car behind them

The art deco aesthetic style literally permeated every aspect of everyday life, shaping cultural norms and aspirations. Women were no longer bound by corsets and huge hats but were free to dance, move about, and get rid of heavy, restrictive clothing, as a start.

Art deco architecture, with soaring skyscrapers that were adorned with art deco motifs, quickly became symbols of progress and urban development, reflecting the ambitions of growing cities. It seemed like everyone wanted to see a skyscraper or have at least one of these art deco buildings in their town.

The art deco period put an emphasis on luxury and opulence when it came to interior design, which elevated the concept of stylish living, inspiring people to seek modern and fashionable homes.

Previously, only the “sitting room” (living room) had been considered important when it came to style. The remainder of the home was built and designed for practical purposes. The art deco era forever changed how Americans would decorate their homes.

Art Deco’s influence extended even into the entertainment industry, with its striking geometric patterns and glamorous aesthetics infusing the design of theaters and cinemas, enhancing the overall movie experience.

Group of at a party 1920

Previously, people sat on folding chairs or wooden chairs to watch silent films. Those days were gone forever with the introduction of art deco design.

The art deco period was perhaps best known for leaving an indelible mark on fashion, with its streamlined silhouettes and bold patterns transforming the way people dressed.

The tremendous change in fashion empowered women with the iconic flapper style. Even basic everyday clothing became more practical, allowing women to forget about changing clothes five times a day and focus more on their social lives and free time.

From jewelry to household objects, art deco became a part of daily life, reflecting the desire for a sleek and sophisticated modern lifestyle.

Why Did Art Deco Style Decline After the 1930s?

Art Deco architecture in Casablanca, Morocco

Art Deco artists and style went into decline in the early 1940s due to several factors, the biggest of which was WWII.

This war disrupted economies and diverted resources toward the war effort. People were forced to go without since many manufacturers were forced to use their factories to produce items for the war.

Materials were scarce, and the rationing of goods, even food, during the war further limited the feasibility of producing art deco’s opulent creations.

Let’s not forget that people from all over the country were dying. Flaunting one’s wealth (even if it was a string of fake pearls) seemed out of place and vulgar. Imagine wearing a sexy evening dress to a funeral and you’ll get the idea.

Additionally, the evolving cultural and social landscape after the war saw a gradual move towards a more restrained and functional design, which contrasted with art deco’s elaborate and decorative nature.

mid-century modern house

The rise of modernist movements, such as Mid-Century Modern, with its focus on simplicity and functionality, marked a departure from the ornate and glamorous art deco style.

As the world emerged from the war, new design philosophies came to light that favored the utilitarian aspects of design over decorative excess. These shifts in design preferences contributed to the waning popularity of art deco in the post-WWII era.

Not to be snarky, but can I mention that other than vehicles, you don’t see a lot of nostalgia for 1940s modernism.

Yes, there are some who favor mid-century furniture styles, and there was a very brief resurgence of 1950s dresses (think of the series Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley), but these were limited.

However, art deco style, with it’s bold geometric forms and fine art, still thrives today.

I picked a good era to get obsessed with, didn’t I?

Why Is Something So Old Still Popular Today?

Art Deco living room interiror design

I know, I know. Some people, especially Gen Z, sometimes fail to understand the popularity of things that seem “so old” (well, old to them anyway).

What Gen Z fails to understand is that one day, their grandkids will say the same things about what they grew up with and found fresh and new.

Believe it or not, Gen Z, art deco’s enduring popularity can be attributed to several key factors that resonate with contemporary aesthetics and sensibilities.

First, the timeless elegance and harmonious blend of modernism and luxury have an enduring appeal. I don’t think there’s a person alive who doesn’t appreciate the clean lines, geometric shapes, and symmetry that art deco design offers.

There is a sense of order and sophistication in art deco designs that complement today’s interior spaces and architecture that never seems to grow “old”.

Secondly, people find a natural association between art deco design and the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age. This evokes a nostalgic charm that captures the imagination of (most) people today.

Art Deco style hallway

The glamorous allure of this style continues to inspire fashion designers, with its sleek silhouettes and ornate details influencing everything from runways to red carpets.

Last, I want to mention something that I think is overlooked – the versatility of art deco. This style allows it to adapt and blend seamlessly with other design styles, making it a favorite for those who love the eclectic (like myself) and contemporary interior designs.

For those who think that art deco is past its prime, I want to mention that this style has had a tremendous impact on graphic design, advertising, and branding that you see today.

Decorative art has created a lasting impact on visual communication in the digital age of today. The geometric patterns, bold colors, and iconic motifs of art deco find new life in modern logos and advertisements.

To sum it up, I’ve found that the timeless appeal, glamour, and flexibility of art deco will ensure that its appeal will remain as captivating today as it was in the 1920s.

Is Art Deco Still Relevant Today?

Luxurious art deco style dresser

The short answer here is yes, art deco remains relevant and influential.

I believe that art deco style, whether it’s art deco jewelry or architecture, has a timeless appeal that lies in its ability to combine elegance, modernism, and a touch of opulence, which continues to resonate with people today.

With its clean lines and geometric patterns, this decorative art style from the 1920s has found its way into modern architecture, interior design, and furniture.

You’ll see art deco design if you look for it. Think about bold and striking aesthetics, geometric patterns and shapes, as well as art deco furniture. I’m betting you have at least a few pieces of art deco something (statues in your garden or jewelry) in and around your home.

Lady Art Deco Portrait

Art deco designers have influenced fashion trends, with designers incorporating art deco elements into clothing, accessories, and jewelry. You can also see art deco’s iconic visual language in digital design, graphic arts, and branding.

As a classic and versatile design language, art deco continues to inspire creativity across various fields. Its enduring popularity is a testament to its adaptability and the way it transcends time, making it a beloved and lasting style in the 21st century.

Before You Head Out the Door

The truth remains that the art deco movement of the 1920s stands as a captivating testament to the era’s exuberance and innovation. Its harmonious blend of modernity and timeless elegance defined a new aesthetic, leaving an indelible mark on architecture, design, and art worldwide.

As a style that celebrated geometric precision, luxurious materials, and bold ornamentation, art deco symbolized a society breaking free from the shackles of the past and embracing a promising future.

Today, its enduring legacy continues to inspire and captivate, reminding all of us of the power that art has to transcend time.

I, for one, will forever cherish the art deco era that was the 1920s and beyond.

Art Deco in the 1920s: A Visual Journey into a Golden Age
Art Deco in the 1920s: A Visual Journey into a Golden Age
Discover the allure of Art Deco in the 1920s - a captivating era of opulence, geometric elegance, and modernist creativity. Dive into its timeless legacy and find the appeal here.
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