How Art Deco became a reference point for design
The first thing one notices are the curves, which seem to wrap around every corner of these town houses. Then there’s the colour scheme: black and white, stark, direct. The windows are huge, floor to ceiling, the open-plan interior consequently bathed in natural light. These homes, as anyone who knows their design history would note, are pure Art Deco. And in normal circumstances - in Paris, where the radical style of the 1920s and 1930s originated, or in London or New York, where it was enthusiastically taken up - these would be listed buildings. But these townhouses were only built last year, and are on Pine Avenue, in Melbourne.
“The Pine Avenue development was really different for that kind of town house product, and it’s sold really well,” says Domenic Cerantonio, the managing principal of architects Cera Stribley. “Relative to a lot of contemporary architecture, Art Deco has a lot of detail, repetition of forms and, of course, those curves, which we love. Yet its appeal today isn’t just about nostalgia. It’s a reflection of the fact that Art Deco’s influence on style was just so profound - on interior design, graphics, fashion, film - and still resonates.”
A classic art deco vanity screen.
Just look at the many names that have entered the canon of design history, and the diversity of their disciplines too, yet all moulded by the ethos of Art Deco: in fashion advertising the likes of Erte, and in advertising the likes of Cassandre; Ruhlmann and Lalique in glassware, Kem Weber in set design; in fine art Jean Dupas, Tamara de Lempika and Paul Manship; in architecture William Van Alen, Oskar Hansen and Ralph Walker; in product design Henry Dreyfuss, Russel Wright, Raymond Loewy, and Norman Bel Geddes, among others. Art Deco became a vernacular through which all could create.
The Pine Avenue development.
Indeed, the reach of Art Deco - a term applied to the style only in the 1960s, when it underwent its first major revival - was also global, from Morocco to Mumbai to Miami, in part perhaps because it reflected a society in the balance. It sat between the times’ rush of new Flash Gordon technology, and the promise that came with it, and see-saw social upheaval. There was the flourishing of consumerism - with products now styled to unflinchingly advertise themselves - the dawn of the age of travel and increased liberation for women, all sitting uncomfortably next to, say, Roosevelt’s rescuing of a nation struggling with depression and the rise of Nazi Germany.
Yet Art Deco - first given full vent at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, but coming into view in the years proceeding - offered a vision of the world that was progressive, confident, luxurious, expansive, familiar and yet simultaneously futuristic. What it didn’t do - as so many design movements before had done - was come with a demanding manifesto.
Raymond Loewy's PRR S1 train, quintessential of the Art Deco style
Rather, it maintained some continuity with the past: the florid exuberance of Art Nouveau or the ornamentation of Victoriana, for instance, even nods to Ancient Greece or Egypt. But with its directness of forms, its monolithic, stepped buildings, its geometry and streamlining, its readiness to use both the elaborate, high craft of bespoke, as well as new mass-manufactured materials the likes of tubular steel, chrome and new plastics, Art Deco managed to look simultaneously forward.
But it was also, as Fiona Orsini, curator of the Royal Institute of British Architects, has it, the tip of the spear of Bauhaus and the modernism that has come to define the industrial, rational, predictably puritanical and perhaps just a little boring design aesthetic of the post-World War Two years.
A pavilion from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925.
“Modernism often tends to scare people because there’s an intellectual, an academic element to it, whereas Art Deco is quirky and classy but also fun - such that while it cycles around and people come back to it, it never really goes away,” she explains. “It’s visually very pleasing, even if you just see it as a way into modernism.”
Of which, perhaps, we’ve had enough, especially given its adherents’ insistence that it’s the last, definitive word in design - disdaining all that came before, most notably sensuous Art Deco - and after which nothing new need follow.
“But I think maybe Art Deco today could be an answer to minimalism,” argues Clara Fernandez, co-founder of Argentinian design agency Asis, which has applied an Art Deco feel to recent designs for the Snob Hotel in Paris and the La Taniere restaurant near Mont Blanc. “Over the past few decades, we’ve celebrated function, technology, simplicity. It’s been the kingdom of Apple products - that very neat aesthetic. But now there is a search to find expression, to embrace what makes us human.
A chrome-plated cocktail set by Norman Bel Geddes.
“Look through social media, especially Instagram, and you see people tending to create a sense of wealth that could be related to the Art Deco spirit - [all those] pictures in luxury places, spectacular drinks, hotel rooms, restaurant interiors... I think there’s a connection between this impulse to show these kinds of experiences in life and what Art Deco means in terms of pleasure and extravagance,” she adds.
Small wonder then that the last couple of years have seen some architects, for example, step away from ubiquitous and anonymous big glass boxes and nod towards Art Deco - in the form of Ilmiodesign’s design for the Paradiso Ibiza Art Hotel; of architecture firm DDG’s design for a tower block at 180 East 88th Street in New York, with its chevron-patterned concrete, grey brickwork and vaulted openings; or CetraRuddy’s proposed bronze-striated, 80-storey skyscraper at 45 Broad Street, sitting as it will among other New York Art Deco landmarks dating back to the 1920s.
And so with interiors too: there’s a 21st-century take on Art Deco - sometimes dubbed Neo Deco - afoot. Just look at the Lantern collection of pendant and floor lamps from Gabriel Hendifar at Apparatus, or the Toadstool furniture line from Spanish design firm Masquespacio.
A couple of posters in the art deco style for the 1920s.
“For us it’s not about trying to copy a style that’s still popular, but more about seeking for the inspiration that can be found in some [Deco] element. And Art Deco is just much more adaptable and re-interpretable than other [period] styles,” argues Christophe Penasse, of Masquespacio, which has also applied Art Deco touches to restaurant design projects the likes of Piada in Lyon, and Kento in Valencia. “[What works about Art Deco is that it’s] an emotional movement that gets away from the reason. It’s all about what the eye observes as something beautiful, with its always surprising details. In fact, we’re convinced that Art Deco is only going to become even more relevant.”
Especially, perhaps, given recent events. RIBA’s Orsini contends that one further reason Art Deco goes through periodic reassessments, helping it remain of influence a century on, is that it serves as the perfect, upbeat antidote to periods of austerity. Not for nothing did Art Deco enjoy a notable bounce after the First World War, again after the Great Depression, after the Second World War and will do, perhaps, after the Covid Depression to come. Art Deco has a catchy optimism to it. “Let us keep ourselves, our community, our city government, our ideals, as clean as our new, windswept roofs,” as design curator Mary Cleave put it in 1937.
How the Chrysler building could have looked according to William Van Alen's design options.
“Many people talk about Art Deco as a very superficial movement, because it’s hard to find political or philosophical intentions behind Art Deco. They say it is a bourgeois movement which just cares about form, style, and beauty,” notes Asis’ Fernandez. “But although it can’t be denied that Art Deco can be ostentatious, and that it’s very focused on material things - there’s the germ of capitalism that underlies it and [sometimes] a feeling of pretension that I don't really like - what I do like in this movement is the use of beauty as a means to transform people's lives. Art Deco represents enthusiasm, liberation and joy. It’s the expression of a society with a deep desire to live.”
Is that what we’re experiencing now, or about to - a reaffirmation through the Deco spirit that we’re still here, still surviving in these new Roaring Twenties, in the face of grave economic and cultural uncertainty? Or, as Jeroen Markies suggests, maybe it’s just down to all those remakes and repeats, the Great Gatsbys and Downton Abbeys and the Poirots, the Sunday afternoon couch time with golden age Hollywood flicks, first seen, of course, in so many Art Deco picture palaces. Or, perhaps, the likes of ‘Blade Runner’.
“The fact is that the movies took Art Deco on so enthusiastically and then helped spread it around the world, and popular culture still loves Art Deco,” reckons Markies, one of the UK’s leading dealers in Art Deco furniture and decorative pieces. Initially more of a general antiques dealer, he first noticed a growing demand for Art Deco through the 1980s, when he decided to specialise. That demand hasn’t let up since.
The height of Art Deco luxuriousness, a jewelled rock crystal cigarette case, likely made by Cartier in 1925. Courtesy of Sotheby's.
“Art Deco is already considered ‘antique’ and consequently it now has that gravitas, but at the time I started out dealing in it the original movement wasn’t actually that long ago. I didn’t expect demand to last then, but it did. And every time I think the market for Art Deco is dipping, it just takes off in another place - in Australia, or in Los Angeles.
“Some of my customers are just obsessed with Art Deco - it seems to inspire that kind of fascination,” he adds. “Others just want one statement piece, which they mix in with their other decor. And that’s really the amazing thing about Art Deco. You can mix it in. It still looks right. It’s a century-old and yet it still looks contemporary.”