the stunning interior of the lobby of the Crysler building in New York

The Golden Age of Design

22nd February 2019

Announced as one of the key interiors trends for 2019, Art Deco is an iconic and enduringly popular design movement.
What are its roots and what makes it quite so captivating, asks Lisa Botwright…

It’s called the ‘Agatha Christie effect’: while we may be bewitched by Poirot’s unerring ability to sniff out a killer, we’re just as likely to be enchanted by the 1920s and 30s living rooms he inhabits. Those sleek sideboards, the finely wrought lamps, the cut glass decanters on the embellished lacquer trays – the period oozes luxury and sophistication in a way that makes our present day Ikea-filled rooms feel so underwhelming.

“Having reached the height of its popularity in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the Art Deco style still appears glamorous and on-trend today,” agrees Pritesh Lad, the founder of London-based St James Interiors. “The quality associated with the style is definitely a driving factor. With designs that use expensive, rarefied materials with lavish veneers and finishes, they stand the test of time and are always ready to come back into fashion.”

Early twentieth century Art Deco originally grew out of an eclectic mix of styles, led by the rise in status of decorative artists, or artisans, within a movement known as ‘arts décoratifs’. They championed hand-crafted detail over the new rise in mass-produced goods, and incorporated luxurious and exotic materials such as ebony, and ivory and silk, into their designs, while celebrating bright colours and stylised floral motifs.

Influences were increasingly absorbed from all over the world, and it became the first truly international style. Discoveries in Egyptology, a growing interest in the Orient and in African art, and the excitement for modernism and cubism within the art world all went into the Art Deco melting pot and resulted in a ‘golden age’ of design, synonymous with elegance, opulent detail and luxury; it was sorely needed after the devastation of the First World War. The geometric shapes, symmetrical patterns, straight lines and rich colours remain instantly recognisable today.

There was an energy and momentum in the 1920s that rejected the stuffiness of the past and was all about ‘progress’; the passion for new inventions: airships, automobiles and ocean liners inspired Streamline Moderne – the iconic architectural style that blended long horizontal lines with rounded corners. Buildings were made of reinforced concrete, often painted white; and embellished with nautical features, such as railings resembling those on a ship (think the Hoover Building on the Western Avenue in Perivale, which was opened in 1933 and has recently been redeveloped – possibly the most stylish manufacturing plant the UK has ever known). Meanwhile, the skyline of New York was undergoing a striking transformation and Art Deco interior design was seen as the perfect complement to the lavishness of the brand new Empire State and Chrysler skyscrapers.

“The success of Art Deco is related to the glamour, art, fashion and design of the time,” explains Paul O’Neill, a director at internationally renowned architects Bryden Wood. “In architecture, it used the post war advances in technology and materiality, and combined this with the style seen and developed in print, fashion and ‘Hollywood’. When one thinks about Art Deco architecture, Miami’s South Beach or the Chrysler Building often spring to mind… however, there are many great examples in the UK, including my favourite, the 1935 De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.”

Just like any movement, Art Deco, had its critics; it was, after all, a style for the wealthy, and with the Great Depression and the threat of another World War, it began to be seen as inappropriately lavish. Simplicity, a lack of decoration, inexpensive materials, and mass production were increasingly seen as the way forward – an idea that wasn’t fully redressed until long after WWII, a time when the pace of social change and new-found affluence echoed the values of its original heyday.

Art Deco, is, in fact a retrospective term, coined in the 1960s when there was a huge revival – and is named after the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs that was held in Paris in 1925. Ever since then, Art Deco has remained one of the most enduring influences in interior design – reflected in the fact that it has been highlighted as one of the key trends for 2019.

Art Deco is all over the high street this season, which makes it wonderfully accessible for modern-day fans, but perhaps a touch ironic for a movement that rejected mass production over unique, carefully constructed pieces. It’s better still, if budget and inclination allow, to visit auctions, antique shops and pop-up vintage fairs to seek out original pieces.

Pritesh Lad, who is often contacted to make bespoke Art Deco-inspired commissions, explains how to bring a touch of Art Decor glamour into our own living spaces. “To incorporate the style into your home, decorate a space with geometric wallpaper, use sleek materials and find furniture pieces with strong lines and patterns.”

This maximalist approach is all about prioritising luxury and detail over simplicity and function, and it’s a reflection of the debate that continues today, within the wider design world, of form versus function. Is it acceptable to prize how well something looks, over how something works, or does the beauty of an object or building simply reside in whether it perfectly fulfils its function?

This latter viewpoint; one, as we know, that was levelled at the flamboyant design movement pre-WWII, may be contentious, but it’s one to which celebrated 1930s Art Deco interior designer Paul Follot had the perfect response: “We know that the ‘necessary’ alone is not sufficient for man and that the superfluous is indispensable for him – otherwise let us also suppress music, flowers and perfume.”

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