The 14-inch glass relief vase with silver and black overlay Art Deco designs gives me a perfect opportunity to write about how and where Art Deco was born. From the 19th century to fairly recently, the world saw the “new” at world’s fairs or expositions. We take their existence for granted today, as in our youth we may have attended such a fair, but before 1855 nothing like a world’s fair was convened. And this is where something similar to D.F.’s vase was originally shown, at a French exposition.
D.F. sends me a design by Rene Lalique from his later years; his previous glass designs were in the Art Nouveau style (more about that later.) Lalique defined the early years of the Art Deco movement, as his style evolved from Art Nouveau or “New Art.” By the 1920s Art Deco was the style that was “new,” and unlike Art Nouveau, Art Deco was geometric, functional, with organic motifs, in luxury materials, such as the black and silver enameling on D.F.’s vase.
Although Lalique is famous for Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs in the French taste, other nationalities presented their own take on “new art,” notably Belgium, which produced amazing furniture by Victor Horta, and the new art style called Jugendstil, in designs by Bruno Mohring, as well as the predecessor to the Bauhaus, Vienna Secessionist designs of Otto Wagner.
Art Nouveau began in Belgium and France in the 1880s as the first utterly unique style of design known for 300 years. The U.S. market, although only the wealthy patrons, bought Tiffany glass in Art Nouveau designs. A short-lived style, it is beloved today; it was expensive then and still is today on the auction market.
There is a theory in the history of design that says that most new styles begin in metalwork, and Art Nouveau and Deco is no exception. Rene Lalique was, upon graduation from the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs de Paris, a jewelry designer, and his work was purchased by the wealthy and famous such as actress Sarah Bernhardt. In his later life he focused on glassmaking and was known for surfaces of dramatic relief (raised) designs. After 20 years of glassmaking, he built his own factory at Wingen-sur-Moder in Alsace in 1921.
But Art Nouveau and the seeds of Art Deco were born at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris; Lalique brought his Art Nouveau jewelry to show there from April 14 – Nov. 12, 1900. This cemented his reputation.
The concept of the World’s Fair or Exposition was born in 1851 in London; upon seeing the Crystal Palace, a magnificent marvel of glass and steel greenhouse-style engineering, Napoleon III was impressed with the variety and attendance and brought the idea to France to celebrate everything French (The London Fair was international.) He oversaw the Paris Universal Expositions in 1855, 1867 and another in 1878 to celebrate the historic defeat of the Paris Commune, and another in 1899 celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution. France became known for her fairs, the height being the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925.
The fair attended by Lalique in 1900 was unique in offering some of the ‘firsts’ of technology to the world: a total of 50 million people may have seen one or more of the following: “Galalith,” the first synthetic plastic, Russian nesting dolls, the Ferris wheel, the moving sidewalk, a passenger trolleybus, escalators, diesel engines, electric cars and fire engines, dry cell batteries, the magnetic audio recorder and talking films. Not just decorative art was viewed, but many marvels celebrating French design, putting France at the center of the design world.
Structures built for the Exposition which still stand today are the Grand Palais, Pont Alexandre III, the Gare d’Orsay Railroad station and a few of Hector Guimard’s Paris Metro archways. Many of the structures built in the Beaux Arts style for the exposition were decorated with ironwork and relief features in the Art Nouveau style, and to mention only one of the restaurants that featured Art Nouveau designs, I think of Maxim’s.
If you own a piece of Lalique — be it a bowl, a vase or a perfume bottle — you can picture a piece, although more “Art Nouveau” in style than D.F.’s vase, on show at the exposition of 1900. D.F.’s vase is pure geometric high style Art Deco, but the stylistic dividing line between Art Nouveau and Art Deco is blurred as one style moved into the next. The value is $450.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.