You could learn all about the history of art deco furniture in the United States if you were to take a crash course in American nationalism of the early twentieth century. American art deco was actually first inspired by a 1925 exposition at Le Musee des Art Decoratifs in France. The point of the exposition was to display nouveau design from all around the world, but U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover banned Americans from entering. He explained that no contemporary architecture was new enough for America. Then he sent American experts into the exposition to crib ideas and translate them into American architectural projects. These experts included members of the American Institute of Architecture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The New York Times, as well as several prominent American architects.
The American art deco style that followed this exhibition focused on geometry, machinery, botany and color. Nationalist ideals were incorporated into European art deco designs by way of American Indian motifs and inspiration borrowed from Pre-Columbian structures. These influences resulted in buildings, furniture and household items that were not particularly unique in design, but instead in ornament. For example, art deco furniture might include intricately carved decorative motifs in wood or frosted glass with floral imagery.
American art deco furniture was designed to inspire citizens by evoking elegance and fortitude in a time when the Great Depression left most of the country unemployed and broke. Throughout the 1930s, public buildings were often constructed or decorated in art deco style. Pride in the United States was conveyed through enormous, brightly colored buildings full of inspirational murals, sculpture and furnishings evocative of Roman republicanism. This style persisted in the United States until the country became involved in World War II and rejected ornamentation in favor of more somber styles.
American art deco furniture is often polychromatic, which means that it features many colors. For example, an art deco armoire might be painted with bright and glossy floral designs or a lamp might feature a pastel sculpture of an elongated woman in a flowing dress. Lots of American art deco features nationalist designs, such as carved eagle arms on a sofa. You are likely to see imagery of machinery and especially of cars on art deco furniture. Many of the people who actually originally owned art deco furniture were industrialists who made their fortunes with machines. You can also see the influence of machinery in art deco furniture via the streamlined and geometric patterns often favored. On the other hand, American art deco also has a lot of floral or botanical motifs. Usually, though these flowers are abstracted into geometric elements. This abstraction makes even plants look mechanical. Floral motifs were one way for art deco furniture makers to express regional pride; they often incorporated images of local plants into their designs.
There are several reoccurring motifs you can spot on American art deco furniture. Art deco artisans favored Pre-Columbian and American Indian designs in order to distinguish their work from the work of their European counterparts. They also loved to incorporate images of pioneers, another way of marking furniture as particularly American. Since most art deco furniture was crafted during the Depression, a lot of it romanticizes labor. For example, you might find imagery of farmers or factory workers on your art deco furniture. These workers will often be both men and women, extremely idealized. Finally, American art deco furniture makers loved imagery of mythological figures, particularly from ancient Egypt. Sometimes, furniture makers would combine their love for ancient Egyptians and their love for idealized labor and depict laboring Egyptians. Just like the floral motifs, though, all of these figures are highly abstracted and stylized. The people on art deco furniture look geometric and mechanical, just like machines.
Art deco furniture also makes use of new technologies. Your art deco furniture probably has a lot of relief carving on it. Relief carving creates three dimensional pictures on the surface of a two dimensional space. Relief sculpture is a way for furniture makers to add ornament to flat surfaces. They would also add ornament by sometimes painting mural type pictures. Your art deco coffee table might have a huge picture of pioneers painted on the surface, for example. Very fine art deco furniture might feature elegant metalwork reliefs. Furniture makers were able to create these pieces after industrial processes made alloys economical to use on a large scale. These metals aren't functional though, but purely decorative. Metals like aluminum are easily workable and relatively light weight, so may be fashioned into radiator covers or lamps.