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How Japonisme Forever Changed the Course of Western Design

Such impulses were put on hold in Europe as World War I escalated, and by the time the conflict was over, the organic flexion and utopian trippiness of Art Nouveau had waned, subsumed in France (and, soon after, the rest of the world) by Art Deco, a sobriquet derived after Paris’s 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The style’s futuristic geometry, expressed in the 1930 Chrysler Building and the domed radios that sat in every European home’s parlor, was a tacit acceptance that machines and the unembellished finishes they excelled in creating could no longer be fended off, nor should they be. While the best Art Deco pieces were still crafted by hand, the mark of the maker and all imperfections were eschewed, replaced by glassy surfaces, often in lacquer or chrome. There were still many Asian references, but they tended to be Chinese — dragons, pagodas, foo dogs — rather than Japanese; after the 1911 revolution that demolished imperial rule and created the Republic of China, there was renewed global interest in the culture. A number of French museum shows, including at the Musée Guimet, which opened in 1889 to showcase works from Asia, allowed artisans to see real Chinese art and objects instead of relying on their own idealized Orientalist concoctions. Ocean travel had become far easier than it was following the opening of Japan, and designers, including Louis Cartier, began sending representatives to Asian countries.

But there remained an unspoken sense among such creators that refined, naturalistic elegance was still the province of the Japanese. The early 20th-century dressmaker and costumer Paul Poiret made kimono coats, controversial for their shapelessness, for wealthy bohemians, and couturiers in the 1920s were intrigued with the potential of draped fabrics and looser silhouettes. (Back when Japonisme had swept Paris, women were still stuck in Victorian-era corsetry.) In 1925, the designer Jacques Worth embroidered a dress and cape with a Japanese motif by the Swiss-French artist Jean Dunand, who often worked in lacquer; two years later, Coco Chanel showed her own version, fashioned from lengths of silk crepe knotted at the neck, with a gold chrysanthemum pattern and sleeves that ended in a padded hem, evocative of the fuki, the bottom edge of a kimono. As Western women increasingly entered the public sphere, a market developed for accessories to be worn with these new clothes: lipstick holders, cigarette boxes, powder compacts and tiny jeweled vanity cases that could be worn around the wrist. At Van Cleef & Arpels, some of these were modeled on inro, the small boxes of wood, leather, metal, ivory or paper that Japanese men hung from their obi (kimonos have no pockets) to carry tobacco or medicinal herbs. A 1924 version made of gold, jade and diamonds featured a stylized plant motif on black enamel.

The global spread of Art Deco also provided a coda to the long history of Japanese influence: Now, for the first time, a Western aesthetic — albeit one with roots in the East — ricocheted back to Asia. Just as notable as the Japanese elements that continued to infuse Art Deco was how thoroughly the movement captured Japan; it was regarded not as yet another Western lens on the archipelago but as the truest incarnation of the West itself. Like the flappers (les garçonnes, in France), young Japanese women, called moga, bobbed their hair, smoked cigarettes and listened to jazz, defying the image of the idealized courtesans of early ukiyo-e; around this time, Japan was also closing the circle by increasingly adopting Western-style military practices to realize its own imperial ambitions.

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