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Art Deco design in buttons

Molded red glass, silver luster
Black and silver celluloid, very Josephine Baker
British Bakelite with white metal jazz drummer, acrylic lens
Stenciled zebra stripes under glass, gold and silver luster
Japoniste celluloid, fans and epigrams
Black and white celluloid, rhinestone embellishment
Gold-painted polymer head
In the years before the first World War, the cool blues and greens, the organic forms, and the whiplash curves of Art Nouveau dominated the design world. The war years, however, changed everything. One of every five men who fought in the war was killed, and the sensuality of Art Nouveau seemed inappropriate to an exhausted world in mourning.

The production of consumer goods didn't cease, however, and as societies slowly staggered back toward normalcy, a new design style began to emerge. The new style couldn't have been more different from Art Nouveau: cool blues and greens gave way to warm colors, and whiplash curves were replaced by geometric forms and zigzag lines.

The popularity of the emerging style exploded in 1925, and the Paris International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Industries lit the fuse. When the call for entries to the exposition went out, designers were told: "Works admitted to the Exposition must show new inspiration and real originality. They must be executed and presented by artisans, artists, and manufacturers who have created the models ... Reproductions, imitations and counterfeits of ancient styles will be strictly prohibited."

The call was taken seriously. Magazines and newspapers were full of stories about the new style and, before long, included ads for products designed in the new style. Designers and manufacturers of everything from ashtrays to automobiles to buttons adopted the new geometric style, which at the time was called jazz modern or zigzag design. An art historian writing about the style in 1966, long after it had passed into obsolescence, coined the term Art Deco.

International phenomenon

Art Deco was an instant hit and its popularity was global. No previous art movement had been so multicultural and multinational. Because of inexpensive mass-production techniques, objects designed in the new style were available to every economic class. Art Deco was the first art movement in history to be truly international and democratic right from its birth.

Clothing fashions reflected the style, of course, and buttons were ideal little canvasses for experiments in Art Deco design. Glass manufacturers in central and eastern Europe embraced Art Deco wholeheartedly, and countless millions of glass buttons in a variety of Art Deco designs could soon be found everywhere from Woolworth & Co. to Saks.

Celluloid was another material utilized in the production of millions of Art Deco buttons. The combination of black and white became popular during the era, and button collectors can find a seemingly endless variety of black and white celluloid buttons. Other Art Deco celluloid buttons include tight tops (lithographed sheet celluloid wrapped tightly around a metal form) and one-piece pictorial buttons made of sheet celluloid.

Millions of buttons made of Bakelite and its more colorful cousin Catalin were produced during the "Deco" era. Embellished with rhinestones or aluminum or glass jewels, many of these buttons were cheaply fabulous and fabulously cheap echoes of luxury designs produced by Cartier and other high-end firms.

Everything goes

Although Art Deco quickly became the dominant style internationally, there actually is no single all-encompassing definition for it because every designer had his or her own take on it and the imagery of many different cultures was incorporated into it. Japanese motifs, for example, were popular in Art Deco design, as were motifs of ancient Egypt. Buttons that reflected stereotypical Western views of both of those cultures and others were popular dime-store items and are very collectible today.

Traditional cultural motifs were one source of inspiration for Art Deco designers; the fine arts of the 1920s were another. Artists of those years were exploring form, line, and color in ways that had never been seen before. Commercial designers and manufacturers followed the lead of modernist artists and embraced abstraction. Buttons with Deco interpretations of the work of Picasso, Klee, and other artists who were active during the 1920s and 1930s can be found in a variety of materials.

Art Deco remained the dominant style in consumer goods until America's entry into World War II. In the 1930s, war once again broke out in Europe, and on December 7, 1941, the Japanese forced America into the conflict. The vibrant colors and shapes of Art Deco were replaced by khaki and camouflage. The heyday of Art Deco had ended.

This article was provided by the National Button Society, Gary Brockman currently serves on the boards of directors of the National Button Society and the Wisconsin State Button Society. He can be contacted at

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