The Art Deco period approximately covered the era between the two great World Wars, but inspiration had been building from the turn of the 20th century and has continued until the present day. It gained momentum after the First World War as the world attempted to “return to order””. In the early phases, it was must often referred to as Art Moderne, and the term Art Deco was not popularized until the mid-1960s. It covered two contrasting periods. Art Deco during the Roaring Twenties was sumptuous with luxury goods for wealthy connoisseurs.
The style was elegant, opulent and ultra modern and became embodied in the Jazz Age. Its rich, festive character fitted in with the “modern” context, including cinema theaters, ocean liners and skyscrapers. This was replaced by austerity during the Great Depression of the 1930s and Art Deco began to wane and was cut short by the Second World War. A resurgence of interest in Art Deco came with graphic design in the 1980s where its association with film noir and advertisements for jewelry and fashion. Its designs appear in modern architecture, entertainment and media when a “classic retro” look is sought.
The Origins of Art Deco
The name Art Deco owes its origins to the 1925 Paris ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes’. The Exposition went from April to October and attracted an estimated 16 million
visitors. The site straddled the River Seine across two main bridges covering an area of 53 ha. All nations were to be represented but French artists held sway.
Originally proposed at the turn of the century by the Societe des Artistes Decorateurs and approved by the French Chamber of Deputies in 1912 to be held in 1915, the Exposition was postponed to 1925 on account of the First World War. It gained final approval when the French realized that German artists were gaining an ascendency, commencing with an Art Exhibition in Munich in 1908. Art Deco became further established following an exhibition entitled ‘Les Années 25’ held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1926. Perhaps the last great Art Deco exhibition was at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
The style had been evolving for a good while. Its two foremost early proponents were Charles Rennie Mackintosh of Scotland and Josef Hoffmann of Vienna and their works in 1900 indicated the direction for the next 20 years. They rejected the excesses of the Art Nouveau style.
After the Universal Exposition of 1900, various French artists formed La Société des Artistes Décorateurs and they were responsible for the theme of the 1925 Exposition. Further concepts were introduced in Paris in 1910 with an exhibition of decorative arts at the Louvre. The Ballets Russes presented Scheherazade in Paris in 1910, with costumes in dazzling Art Deco colors and designs that greatly affected the fashion industry.
By the 1920s, Art Deco cubist painting was seen in advertising and product designs and Coco Chanel used colors and cubist forms to create Art Deco jewelry. The Tutankamun Exhibition held in Paris in 1922 also had a major impact.
Art Deco developed from many different styles of the early 20th century, including Cubism, Expressionism and Futurism as well as adaptations of Art Nouveau. It was influenced by the “primitive” arts of Africa, Egypt and the Middle East, Central and South America, and the American Indians, as well as the arts of Japan.
Design used trapezoidal, zigzag, sweeping curved geometric or jumbled shapes, and sunburst motifs. These contrasted to the sinuous natural curves of Art Nouveau. The style gained fame through the works of the glassmaker Rene Lalique, bronze figures by Dimitri Chiparus and jewelry by Cartier. Many English ceramic firms turned to bold Art Deco designs. It affected architecture, furniture and interior design, as well as the visual arts such as fashion, painting, the graphic arts, ballet and film. Art Deco featured mew materials such as aluminium, stainless steel, lacquer, inlaid wood, ebony and shark skin (shagreen).
The 1925 Exposition had a major influence on decorative arts in the United States. The Metropolitan Museum of Art held a retrospective exhibition in 1926. The American contribution to Art Deco is Streamlining, characterised by clean lines and strong curves influenced by modern aerodynamic designs from advancing technologies in aviation. Manufacturers simplified Art Deco styles for mass-produced goods such as cars, refrigerators, radios, electric lighting, refrigerators and cameras, using machine age materials such as bakelite and chrome. There was a strong influence in architecture and furniture.
Art Deco and British Ceramics
By the 1930s, the major porcelain manufacturers had embraced Art Deco within the patterns and shapes, particularly led by Shelley, Royal Doulton, Carlton Ware, Crown Devon and Wedgwood. However, it was three women artists who came to embody the movement.
Clarice Cliff (official website) was born one of 7 children in Tunstall, Staffordshire in 1899. Her father Harry worked at a local iron foundry and her mother Ann took in washing to supplement the family income. She and her four sisters shared an early passion for dress-making.
The family were not well off and she was required to start work at the age of 13 at ‘The Potteries’. Her first job was as a gilder adding gold lines to wares and she then moved on to learn freehand painting at another site, at the same time studying art and sculpture at the Burslem School of Art in the evenings.
She was very ambitious and moved to the pottery firm of AJ Wilkinson’s in 1916 even though this required much further travel to work and a reduced income. She was to stay with the firm until she retired.
Initially, she worked as a paintress, but later she became involved in all aspects of making china. This brought her to the attention of one of the factory owners, Colley Shorter. In 1922, he arranged for an apprenticeship working as a modeller and decorator for prestigious art works being made for exhibitions. She acquired skills in modelling figurines and vases, as well as gilding, keeping pattern books and hand painting. Shorter moved her to the Design Studio in 1925.
Clarice had two brief periods of study at the Royal College of Art in London in 1927 and from that time on she was credited for the shapes and patterns she designed. In 1930, she was appointed Art Director of the adjoining Newport Pottery which Shorter had bought in 1920. She was the first woman to achieve such a position. Having little formal artistic training but understanding the use of color and form, she pioneered modern design through the time of the Great Depression.
Her most famous pattern is ‘Bizarre’, launched in 1928 which sold more than 8 million pieces. Another extremely popular pattern was ‘Crocus’ and in short time 20 women were employed painting nothing else, and it stayed in production until 1968. She was responsible for an enormous range of daring designs and patterns.
Virtually all Cliff’s pieces have a back stamp with her name and the pattern as well as the manufacturer, and many have an impressed mark with the month and year of manufacture. Her signature continued on pieces long after her retirement.
After a long professional association, she married Colley Shorter in 1940 when his first wife died and they moved to Chetwynd House with its wonderful gardens where she lived until her death in 1972. After the Second World War, she played a far lesser role at the factory, knowing that she could not recapture thee heady days of the 1930s. The factory continued to produce pottery bearing Clarice Cliff’s name until 1964, but she sold the factory to Midwinter’s after Colley Shorter’s death. Clarice Cliff is today regarded as one of the most influential Art Deco ceramics artists of the 20th Century.
Susie Cooper was born near Burslem, Staffordshire in 1902. She obtained a scholarship to the Burslem School of Art with a view to a career in fashion and she then applied to the Royal College of Art in London but was rejected as she was not working in a related industry. To meet the College requirements, she obtained a position with the potters AE Gray in 1922. She was to train as a paintress but was soon promoted to resident designer. She rapidly produced a range of bright hand-painted wares.
She wished to design shapes as well as patterns so that she left Gray’s to establish the ‘Susie Cooper Pottery’ in 1929. She took a small space at the George Street Pottery in Tunstall but was soon forced to change premises in 1930 to the Chelsea Works pottery in Burslem. Initially she acquired china for decorating from various manufacturers, particularly Wood & Sons of Burslem. She would cover their factory marks and add her own – Susie Cooper Productions enclosed in a triangle.
Demand for her goods grew, making it necessary to move to larger premises at her famous ‘Crown Works’ adjacent to Wood’s factory in 1931. Her work was with bright florals, geometric and modernist designs in bold hand-painted colours. The triangle mark was replaced by her Leaping Deer mark. Lithograph patterns were developed allowing her to move away from predominately hand-painted wares.
The Second World War led to constraints and production became impossible when a fire destroyed the Crown Works in 1942, and it was 1945 before the factory re-opened. Materials were still restricted so that she returned to pre-war hand painting decorating techniques to increase production. Colours were more subdued and organic or plant forms inspired her work. Until 1950, her work had been restricted to earthenware but she then moved to manufacture bone china with fresh curvaceous designs. However, a second fire at Crown Works in 1957 led to further loss of production.
A merger with RH & SL Plant in 1958 gave her access to a tunnel oven and this made mass production of flatware possible. All bone china production was moved to the Plants’ factory and her own bone china works was sold off but Crown Works remained the centre of Susie Cooper Productions. The Plant family’s financial position forced them to accept a takeover from Wedgwood together with Susie Cooper Productions in 1966. Wedgwood continued to produce her designs and she was freed from the responsibility of managing a factory allowing more time for designing. She worked with Wedgwood into the 1970s with new daring designs but she struggled with the restrictions from the corporate structure of Wedgwood. After the death of her husband in 1972 she resigned her position as a director and operated solely as a designer.
A recession in 1979 led to Wedgwood closing her Crown Works and she moved her design studio to Adams & Sons, part of the Wedgwood Group. She moved to the Isle of Man in 1986 where she worked as a free-lance designer. Susie Cooper died in 1995 aged 93. She has left a vast array of early Art Deco hand-painted ware from the Gray’s period, her early independent productions, fresh floral lithographs from the mid 1930s, post-war bone china, and her fine work while with Wedgwood.
Charlotte Antoinette Adolphine Rhead was born in Burslem, Staffordshire in 1885. She was the fourth child to Frederick Alfred Rhead and Adolphine Rhead. Her father had been an apprentice at Mintons and later had a pottery business of his own. Her mother had been an actress and singer.
Charlotte and her sister Dollie studied at Fenton School of Art. Her elder brother Frederick Hurten Rhead was appointed as Art Director at the firm Wardle and Co, a pottery in Hanley, Staffordshire and Charlotte joined him but he left in 1902 and she moved in 1905 to work as an enameller at Keeling & Co of Burslem.
She moved from there to work as a tile-maker with T & R Boote. Her father was appointed art director of Wood and Sons in 1912 and she moved once more to work with him as a designer. She joined Burgess and Leigh of Middleport (the Burleigh Pottery) as a designer in 1926 and worked there until 1931. She then moved to the firm of AG Richardson (Crown Ducal) in Tunstall.
Charlotte Rhead is noted for her cheerful designs, more traditional than that of her contemporaries Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper. Her pieces are usually marked with her name (sometimes L Rhead – Lottie) and with the manufacturers mark. She died in 1947.