As we approach its centenary, Society Chair and storied ‘Art Deco Traveller’ Genista Davidson looks at the 1925 Paris Exposition and its legacy.
This hugely successful world fair attracted sixteen million visitors over its seven-month run from April to October 1925. It is deemed to be where Modernism and Art Deco were born and transported around the world. However, pre-1925 new eclectic modernist genres of arts, design and architecture were already being explored, especially by the Bauhaus movement. The fair was originally proposed for 1913-14 but abandoned due to the outbreak of World War I. The previous fair held in Paris had been in 1900; and France wanted this new Exposition of 1925 in order to regain world recognition as the cultural arts capital of the world.
The criteria set down by the organising authorities of the exhibition stated: – “It should cover a wide field of contemporary industrial and decorative art. Reproductions or mere copies were excluded and that all exhibits should display genuine originality, fulfil a practical need and express a modern inspiration.”
With twenty different countries participating and 15,000 exhibitors, it was a strict remit to adhere to. The layout of the exhibition covered seventy-two acres and embraced the entirety of the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais, the Cours La Reine, the Pont Alexandre III and the Esplanade des Invalides, as well as utilising both banks of the River Seine. There were over a dozen gateways and entrances positioned around the perimeter – each designed by a different architect. The main entrance was at the Place de la Concorde, designed by Pierre Patout, with a statue of a woman in the centre called ‘Welcome’ by Louis Dejean.
Two-thirds of the exhibits were French, including many from luxury Paris department stores. The pavilions of the major French stores and decorators were located on the main axis within the entrance. Other sections included products from the French colonies and from the French provinces focusing heavily on Nancy and Lyon.
Most of the country pavilions embraced the remit with optimism, enthusiasm and futuristic designs. The Italian Pavilion was considered a little too safe in terms of design as they relied on the tried and tested beauty of the Renaissance architectural style.
The British Pavilion by Easton & Robertson received mixed reviews with some critics praising its bold design while others dismissed it. The French-Swiss architect, designer and artist, Le Corbusier, pseudonym of Charles Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965) took the modernist movement one-step further with his small Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau (new spirit) named after a magazine he had co-founded in 1920. Le Corbusier advocated the functionalist style promulgated by the Bauhaus school and criticised the decorative style of other pavilions. “Decorative art,” Le Corbusier wrote, “as opposed to the machine phenomenon, is the final twitch of the old manual mode, and is a dying thing. Our pavilion will contain only standard things created by industry in factories and mass-produced, truly the objects of today.” When the committee saw his pavilion, they disallowed it and decided to cover it with a hoarding until the Minister of Fine Arts, M. de Monzie, intervened and approved the design.
The Soviet pavilion by Konstantin Melnikov fully grasped the remit and created an undervalued modernist pavilion that was not recognised for its outstanding design until many decades later.
Le Corbusier and the Russians made the running for modernism, given the absence of Germany, not invited for obvious reasons; so the Bauhaus could not not exhibit. Robert Mallet-Stevens’s Tourism Pavilion was another striking modernist structure, setting out French claims to the avant-garde.
The strikingly beautiful water fountain designed by Rene Lalique was one of the centre pieces and was lit during the evenings, thus causing all to endorse Paris as the ‘City of Light’. Along the river Seine were large barges full of the latest creations by the fashion designer Paul Poiret, and everyone wanted to get a glimpse of his showstopping couture.
The rich and famous rubbed shoulders with royalty and it was considered the event to be seen at, while middle and working classes would dress in their Sunday best and promenade around the gardens and pavilions. It was a spectacle beyond words and the success of this world fair firmly put Paris and France back on the map as being at the forefront of the decorative arts again, after the trauma of World War I.
The Paris Exposition left a far-reaching legacy over the following decades. The Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris (1931) and the Exposition Universelle et Internationale in Brussels (1935) emulated the vogue of the Paris 1925 Expo within similar remits covering architecture and design, both receiving high recognition. Two American fairs, the Century of Progress Exposition held in Chicago (1933-34) and the New York World’s Fair (1939-40), followed suit celebrating the period with a newfound optimism.
In 2025 it will be the centenary year of the 1925 Paris Exposition and the Art Deco legacy will be celebrated once again around the world.