Art deco made mass production into art. How long before our own age of consumerism is also artified, and the McDonald's "M" winds up in the V&A?by Paul Barker / May 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
The point about art deco is that it was the first mass-production design style. The best-known English ceramicist in the Victoria and Albert’s lavish art deco exhibition is Clarice Cliff. She wasn’t a craft potter. She designed her cups and teapots in bright oranges and greens for a Stoke-on-Trent factory, which sold them in department stores. Vast numbers were manufactured. As fashions changed, vast numbers were thrown away. Those that remain fetch increasing prices.
The identical life cycle, from ornament to dustbin, befell all those bronze, bare-breasted girls, hair blowing in the wind, hands grasping at greyhounds, on hundreds of thousands of suburban mantelpieces. Where are they now? The front-door stained glass of these same semis often displayed another great art deco totem: the sunburst. The sun’s disc shot out into optimistic but oddly geometric rays. This was more durable. Walking the avenues and crescents of outer London, you can still see some of these glitchy fossils from the first great age of mass consumption.
At the V&A show, you are surrounded by work from the 1920s and 1930s which was mostly despised by the cultural elites of the day: streamlined cars, Capone-style; high-street cinema foyers, Odeon-style; Hollywood dreamland musicals, Astaire-style. The glittery Chrysler building may now be the best-loved New York skyscraper, but for years it was mocked as commercialist kitsch. The label “art deco” derives from a 1925 Paris international exhibition of arts d?coratifs et industriels. But New York, Los Angeles and Miami beach are the world capitals of the style. It’s no accident, as Marxists once said, that 1925 was also when Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby’s bootlegger mansion was surely art deco chrome, glass, bakelite and gilt from end to end.
Was the elitist scorn an early example of anti-Americanism? Mass consumption, powered from America, was a subversive form of egalitarianism. Everyone saw the same talkie or bought the same Hoover, just as later they all drank the same Coke or ate the same hamburger.
Art deco was preoccupied with surface, not depth; with speed, not direction. Politically-an issue the V&A dodges-it lent itself easily to fascism, and especially Nazism. This was partly due to the Nazi leaders’ obsession with cinema. The spotlights criss-crossing above the Nuremberg rallies, the flaccid, party-approved sculptures of Arno Breker, Albert Speer’s cinematic designs for a new Berlin, even the SS double-flash insignia and the swirling swastika…