In April 1925, the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes introduced French Art Deco to the public at large. Ninety years later, French Art Deco, one of the only books in English focused on this subject, provides a detailed account of this important movement, encapsulating the complex modern sensibilities of the early twentieth century through a selection of objects from the Met's impressive collection. I spoke with Jared Goss, author of the catalogue, about French Art Deco and the effects of the Industrial Revolution on artistic attitudes and production in twentieth-century France.
Rachel High: This month marks the ninetieth anniversary of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. In the book you discuss the importance of this 1925 exhibition to the development of French Art Deco style. Why was that such an important moment?
Jared Goss: I think its importance is twofold: it represents the peak of the style, which had been developing for a decade or more before the exhibition took place, but at the same time it was the first concrete expression of Art Deco presented to the public. Even though Art Deco would come to have many different international variants and individual expressions, the 1925 exhibition presented this style as something unified for the first time. It was a very important moment for France; even though the fair was an international one, the French government was the sponsor, so there was an unspoken understanding that it was promoting French objects above and beyond everything else.
Rachel High: Yours is one of the few books on French Art Deco available in English. Why do you think that this subject hasn't been covered as extensively, and what do you hope this text will illuminate for readers?
Jared Goss: It's one of many publications on the subject of Art Deco in general, but very few publications on Art Deco that focuses specifically on French works. The French story is not only a strong one that deserves its own text, but it also must be recognized as the original movement that then inspired similar efforts elsewhere around the world. It happened first in France.
What is interesting about this book in particular is that it is the first to addresses the subject through objects. Numerous publications tell the stories of the designers or the movement as a whole, but what seems to inevitably get lost is the discussion of the pieces themselves. To me, this is the absolutely fundamental aspect of the style—it was centered on the creation of exquisite objects.
Rachel High: This publication includes over eighty masterpieces by forty-two designers, and each designer has an individual section where their work is discussed in detail. Though their methods, media, and aesthetics differed, what would you say unifies these designers' works and makes them undeniably "French Art Deco"?
Jared Goss: The extraordinariness of the objects is probably the principle quality that unites them—they're all exceptional in one way or another, but what makes them specifically French is the double interest in being both modern and respectful of tradition. French Art Deco was as much forward-looking as it was backwards-looking, and by that I don't mean old-fashioned. Rather, every single one of the makers represented in this book understood his place in the continuum of design, understood the history of design, and built on the expertise of those who came before.
The style is not iconoclastic, it did not try to make a break with the past, but rather it attempted to establish strong bonds with the past by fitting its designs into a long French tradition of creating beautiful objects—a tradition that I think many of the makers felt had been somewhat ruptured in the nineteenth century, when the rise of industrialization meant that there was a moving away from traditional methods of production in favor of machine production. Old-fashioned skills like woodworking, ceramics, glassblowing, and metalworking had begun to fade away, but in the French Art Deco era there was a return to traditional craftsmanship, materials, and aesthetics. The designers weren't trying copy the past—French Art Deco wasn't pastiche—but the objects made a conscious link to what was seen as the golden era of French design: the Ancien Régime. Art Deco represents a return to not only the ideals of craftsmanship but also to the intellectual underpinnings of the relationship between design and craftsmanship that were present before the Industrial Revolution.
France was known as a leader in taste during the Ancien Régime, when the country became famous for its design, fashion, perfumes, cuisine, and jewelry—–many of the same things that they are still known for today. The French Art Deco–era designers and manufacturers were very interested in reviving the level of excellence that had been achieved in the Ancien Régime. This was fundamental to French Art Deco, and that's why craftsmanship and luxurious materials became important again; they wanted to make things that were every bit the equivalent of the masterpieces that had been created in the past.
Rachel High: This book is beautifully produced and illustrated with sumptuous details that show the objects in a way they are not often seen. What did you learn or discover about these objects by studying them closely for this catalogue?
Jared Goss: It was really interesting to see how prescient curators in the 1920s were in buying a lot of these pieces. The Met's collection is an extraordinary one in part because so much of it was acquired directly from the makers in the 1920s.
The objects revealed so much about their creators. By looking, handling, and getting to know these objects intimately, one can really see into the mind-set of the artists who made them. Telling their stories through their objects was a rewarding part of the process.
Many of the designers and makers in this catalogue are well known, but some of them are all but forgotten, and it was marvelous to be able to tell their stories, in some cases for the very first time. One feels a very personal connection with the objects and thus to the people who made them. These objects really are expressions of their makers as much as any painting, sculpture, or other work in the Museum's collection.
Jared Goss will be speaking on the topic of French Art Deco and signing copies of his book on May 19 at 7:00 p.m. at Albertine, 972 Fifth Avenue (at 79th Street).