The Art World

Animal motifs in art deco design: a fusion of elegance and exoticism

Art Deco, a movement that began in the early 20th century and flourished during the 1920s and 1930s, is characterized by its bold geometric patterns, rich colors, and luxurious materials. One of the most distinctive features of Art Deco design is its use of animal motifs. These motifs, drawn from a wide array of creatures both real and mythical, added an element of exoticism and dynamism to the sleek and modern aesthetic of the era.

 Colourful ParrotColourful Parrot. Steve Cuin

Historical context and influences

Art Deco emerged as a response to the elaborate and often cumbersome designs of the Art Nouveau period. It sought to embody the optimism and modernity of the post-World War I era, emphasizing streamlined shapes, symmetry, and opulence. The movement was influenced by a diverse range of sources, including ancient Egyptian and Aztec art, as well as contemporary technological advancements.

The fascination with animals in Art Deco design can be partly attributed to the period's broader cultural trends. The discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, for example, ignited a fascination with Egyptian motifs, including the stylized representation of animals. Additionally, the period's interest in exoticism, fueled by increased global exploration and colonization, brought a variety of animal imagery into the decorative arts.

Types of animal motifs

Animal motifs in Art Deco design were diverse, ranging from the stylized and abstract to the more literal and detailed. These motifs appeared in various forms, including architecture, jewelry, furniture, textiles, and graphic design.

  1. Feline grace and power

    • Leopards and Panthers: These big cats symbolized elegance, power, and mystery. Their sleek forms and striking patterns made them popular subjects in jewelry, sculpture, and textiles. Cartier, for example, famously incorporated panther motifs into their jewelry designs, creating pieces that exuded sophistication and allure.

    • Lions: Often depicted in a more regal and static manner, lions were used to symbolize strength and nobility. They appeared frequently in architectural details, such as the stone lions that guard the entrances of many Art Deco buildings.

  2. Exotic birds

    • Peacocks: Representing beauty and luxury, peacocks were a common motif. Their fan-like tails and iridescent colors lent themselves well to the Art Deco emphasis on opulence and geometric patterns.

    • Eagles: Eagles symbolized power and freedom, often depicted in streamlined, angular forms that complemented the overall aesthetic of the period.

  3. Aquatic life

    • Fish and shells: Reflecting a fascination with the underwater world, motifs of fish and shells appeared in various decorative arts. Their flowing lines and organic shapes provided a counterpoint to the rigid geometry of other Art Deco elements.

    • Sea horses and dolphins: These creatures were often used in jewelry and decorative objects, adding a whimsical and fantastical element to the designs.

  4. Insects

    • Butterflies and dragonflies: Although more commonly associated with Art Nouveau, these motifs persisted into Art Deco, albeit in more stylized and geometric forms. They symbolized transformation and natural beauty.

    • Beetles: Influenced by the Egyptian revival, scarab beetles became popular motifs, often rendered in striking, symmetrical designs.

Implementation in design

Animal motifs were incorporated into Art Deco design through a variety of techniques and materials. In architecture, they appeared as decorative friezes, reliefs, and sculptures. For instance, the Chrysler Building in New York City features eagle gargoyles that project from its fa├žade, exemplifying the integration of animal motifs with modernist architecture.

In jewelry, designers used precious metals and gemstones to create intricate animal-themed pieces. The use of enamel, platinum, and diamonds allowed for detailed and luxurious representations of animal forms. The aforementioned Cartier panther pieces are prime examples of this trend.

Furniture and interior design also embraced animal motifs. Upholstery and wallpaper often featured stylized animal prints and patterns, while sculptural elements such as table legs or cabinet handles took the form of animal figures. These designs added a sense of vitality and movement to the otherwise sleek and geometric interiors typical of the Art Deco style.

Conclusion

Animal motifs in Art Deco design exemplify the movement's blend of modernity, luxury, and exoticism. By drawing on a diverse range of influences and incorporating them into various aspects of decorative arts, Art Deco designers created works that were both visually striking and symbolically rich. These motifs not only enhanced the aesthetic appeal of the period but also reflected the broader cultural fascination with nature, mythology, and the exotic. Today, the enduring legacy of Art Deco continues to inspire designers and artists, showcasing the timeless appeal of its animal motifs.