Art deco began as fine art in France, ended up in mass production in the U.S.


The fact that art deco has followed a long, circuitous course from its lofty beginnings in Paris in 1925 to its ubiquitous mass-produced manifestations in this country over the succeeding decades was brought home to me recently by the publication of two very different books. One is a study of the work of an influential figure in the inception of the movement, Jean Dunand, the other an examination of its distillation and effect on American design style.

Jean Dunand, a participant in the momentous 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs (soon shortened to art deco), is the subject of a handsome and comprehensive study by the French authority Felix Marcilhac in "Jean Dunand: His Life and Works" (Harry N. Abrams).

Dunand, born near Geneva in 1877, manifested his artistic talents early; at the age of 14 he was enrolled in Geneva's School of Industrial Art. In 1897, thanks to a scholarship awarded by the city fathers of Geneva, he was on his way to Paris, where he studied sculpture, then gradually began to turn his attention to the decorative arts, particularly in metal.

As a mature artist, Dunand was astonishingly prodigious. Mr. Marcilhac presents us with a panoply of objects in a wide variety of materials.

There were decorative lacquer screens and panels, ranging from geometric abstracts to depictions of exotic women, landscapes and birds. There was furniture: cupboards and cabinets -- much of it faced with designs of a hammered metal -- tables, beds, cocktail bars and carpets, not to mention an assortment of striking jewelry, boxes, trays and household objects. One of Dunand's greatest fortes was dinanderie -- hand-beaten copper and brassware. Of particular interest are the lacquer murals he executed for the Normandie and other deluxe ocean liners of the '30s.

The present volume, clearly a labor of love, contains an extended biographical essay, a balanced evaluation of the artist's work and -- most informative of all -- more than 1,000 illustrations, 170 of them in full color.

The deco aesthetic quickly crossed the Atlantic and spread across the United States, and was soon accessible to the public at outlets ranging from Tiffany's to Woolworth's.

If trains and cars were streamlined, so were belt buckles and the toaster in the kitchen. Magazine advertisements were as modern as the new pink hotels rising in Miami Beach. The team of Robert Heide and John Gilman -- authors of "Starstruck," "Box-Office Buckaroos" and "Cartoon Collectibles" -- have taken a fresh look at how art deco entered everyday American life in their appealing and informative "Popular Art Deco" (Abbeville Press).

Early chapters document the European orgins of deco, its arrival in this country and the '60s revival. Following this is a close look at deco in the home -- furniture, fabrics, rugs, kitchen appliances, etc. -- then the quintessential plastic radios and jewelry.

Considerable attention is also paid to graphics, the 1939 World's Fair, the Empire State building and the influence of Hollywood in this delightful overview of style moderne in America.

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