Classic Deco is an immediately recognizable style: It’s the Chrysler Building, it’s Depression glass, it’s most of South Beach. Wrong, wrong, and wrong, says J. Stewart Johnson, curator of “Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco,” a retrospective of work by Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann (1879-1933) that opens this week at the Met. “It’s always really bothered me that people don’t know what Art Deco really is,” he says. “Deco is really a high French style” defined by its simple elegance. What followed it—American variations on Deco—was more bombastic (if often just as elegant). Here, a primer on the difference.
Lacquer and gilt-bronze end table (1932). To be auctioned at Christie’s. The Deco period in France is marked by extreme simplicity, as seen with this table. “It’s feminine, it’s elegant, and it’s really quite reduced,” says Nicola Redway, director of Christie’s twentieth-century decorative arts department.
Chaise longue (ca. 1928). “The use of the beautifully chaste metal legs, the thin, graphic quality, and the fact that it is almost impossibly delicate”—all of this makes the piece “very high Deco,” says Johnson. The chaise is extremely elegant, but not ostentatious. “Ruhlmann was really trying to reinterpret the grandeur of the eighteenth century. He transforms it into something new by simplifying it. But it’s a pseudo-simplicity.”
État rectangle cabinet (1926). “So much of Ruhlmann’s work was about reacting against the Victorian and Art Nouveau movements which proceeded Deco,” says Johnson. “Deco is rich, but in a completely restrained way. If you look at the inlay, it’s quite ornate, but it’s still flat. If this piece were Art Nouveau, it would achieve its richness through 3-D ornamentation.”
Silvered-bronze and frosted-glass lamp (1925), at the Met and in the auction. “One of the favorite motifs of Art Deco is the fountain,” says Johnson about this cascading lamp. “I don’t know why. You see it in everything.”
NOT SO CLASSIC DECO
“People think anything with chrome or mirror is Deco,” says Redway. “A cocktail shaker is not Deco.”
Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia (1939). “It’s streamlined, which is often associated with Deco,” says Johnson, “but it really reflects an interest in speed, which is American.” In his designs, Ruhlmann was “re-imagining what came before. The terminal is talking about flight, which is the future.”
Chrysler Building (1930). For Ruhlmann, Deco was, frankly, a rather elitist undertaking. “He designed exclusively for the very, very rich,” Johnson says. “He believed that’s who design was for.” The idea, then, of using automobile motifs, as seen in the Chrysler Building, would have been far too populist for his taste. And the building is much more exuberant than French Deco design. “It’s the Ziegfeld Follies,” says Johnson. With the Chrysler Building, adds Christie’s Redway, “you get an interpretation of Deco, Modernism, the machine age, and the Jazz Age.”