The Art Deco Look
The Art Deco period was a thoroughly glamorous style epitomising the opulence of the inter war period. Known as the ‘Jazz Age’ or the ‘Cocktail Age’ it was renowned for its modern, sleek looks and luxurious use of materials. New York’s Chrylser Building, The Savoy, Sybil Colefax and Rene Lalique are icons of this era and are all still admired and much emulated today.
Art Deco was a noticeable reaction to the austerity of the First World War. Luxury and decadence are clearly evident in the use of rare and exotic woods and materials such as ivory, shagreen (imitation sharkskin) or mother of pearl. Excessive use of mirror, satins and pale leathers also made the look highly impractical and therefore only affordable to the elite who had staff to take care of such things. Hollywood adored the style as it worked perfectly for the black and white scene sets of the time and as a result elevated the look to one for the A-listers of the day (Marlene Dietrich for example.)
Global influences were also notable. The Art Deco use of lacquer as a finish on furniture came from China, the colours of the period were clearly those of the Russian Ballet, the stepped shapes of the pyramids of the Aztec can be seen in cocktail cabinets and clocks and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s burial site in 1922 brought about a Neo-Egyptian vogue that was translated through the use of sun bursts and columns.
Advancement in technology was also a key influence that presented itself in a ‘streamlined’ look. Aerodynamic shapes taken from ocean liners and Zeppelins can be seen in everyday objects of the period – from cigarette lighters and radios to cocktail cabinets.
Technology brought about new materials fashioned into original and modern styles. Marcel Breuer and Mies van Der Rohhe developed cantilevered chairs using tubular steel. The skeleton was shifted from the inside to the out and this gave the seats an industrial feel that was both sleek and stunning to look at. The Barcelona Chair was designed in 1929 but is still contemporary today and furnishes many a modern home or office.
However, technology was also the downfall of the style as the ability to mass-produce made the ‘elite’ style far too available. Imitation products made from cheap materials made the look vulgar and by the end of the 30s the style had died in both Europe and America not to reappear again until the 1980s when graphic design helped bring about its resurgence.
Art Deco can be incorporated into today’s schemes without the need to be an overwhelming total ‘look’. Use fitted furniture, fringed lighting, rugs of wild geometrical shapes or a spectrum of bold colours, Eileen Gray’s tubular steel table is perfect for a hint of Deco as are Corbusier and Aalto chairs in metal or bent wood for a softer look. Thankfully it is now imitation but zebra and other wild animals skins are also widely available, predominantly in fabrics but also in flocked wallpaper for the bold and the brave.
There is stunning Art Deco architecture to visit in Havana, Cuba, Copacobana in Rio, Brazil and South Beach, Miami. A visit to La Maison de Verre in Paris might also be in order and next time you are in London, stay in The Park Lane Hotel and dine at Claridges. Purely for research purposes, of course.