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Art Deco 101 - Materials Matter

After being designed, Art Deco is created in physical form. You have a literal 3D object, such as a building, or 2D object, such as wallpaper or a floor. The architect who creates these designs doesn't design in the abstract, but instead designs for the materials of the day. This creates many practical constraints on the architects and engineers. The design cannot be so fanciful that it falls apart, nor can the design produce an object that can't be constructed. That would be useless. (That doesn't mean that they never pushed technological boundaries. I'm sure that there were words, most of them unfit for children.)

For the most part, most designs lived well within constraints because pushing boundaries takes money. There were some places worth the money, worth the cost. The janitor's closet wasn't one of them.

There are several key limiters provided by materials: what the material is, what materials are available, and who is going to do the work.

Materials have inherent characteristics. Stone is brittle. Brass is bendy. Glass is translucent. You can't get around these facts. You can, if you choose, create an object from them that goes against their basic natures, but there will be words. Instead, most architects and engineers choose materials that work in their favor for any given purpose, using techniques that work for that purpose. You may not want an all glass door (which wasn't possible at the time), but you could put a stainless steel frame around the glass. You can't do scroll work with stone as it's too brittle, but you can inlay brass. Materials are solutions in addition to choices.

The materials available also shape design. You can't design an all-glass door before someone had invented the glass technique that can supply the door. Pushing boundaries, you can sometimes get someone to innovate for you, and sometimes that did happen, but mostly, Art Deco went with commercially available materials, even if securing the materials took considerable logistical work.

Other materials came in certain standard industrialist sizes. Iron workers used whatever stock that the steel mills rolled out. The architect would have certainly been aware of these standards and designed accordingly. That doesn't mean that no custom manufacturing happened, because money certainly gets you what you want, especially for one of a kind pieces, but some customizations aren't worth the price. Especially where heavy industries are involved, such as steel and glass, you will more likely find commercial output dictating the dimensions used.

Finally, there's a matter of skill. You need tradesmen capable of making what you want. That's not as easy as it sounds, especially when you are pushing boundaries and willing to spend for the best. If you want a brand new material, there just might not be anyone who can do the work. Therefore, any physical object will inherently be limited by the skills of the artisan. Therefore, in order to get the work done at a reasonable price on a reasonable schedule, most designs will fit well within the bounds of the common tradesman, with few but important designs pushing the envelope.

Return to: Art Deco 101

Douglas Milewski is a fantasy writer who liked drafting class too much. In his recent artistic struggles to produce art deco for his own covers, he found no internet sites dedicated to the technical underpinnings of the art. Seeing a niche that needed filling, he has documented his hard learned experiences. He doesn't claim that he's right, and would very much appreciate it if someone more competent would save him from his own folly.

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