Someone made the mistake of complimenting my articles on the history of furniture design, so here I am, at it again. This time we’ll explore one my favorite styles, Art Deco.
Emerging from the shadows of WWI, was a new world of jazz, movies and extravagance. Furniture design separated into two movements, the modern emphasizing function, and Art Deco, which kept traditional style but imbued it with luxurious woods, markings and decorative grains. The big showcase for Art Deco was the Paris Exhibition of 1925, where France re-exerted itself as the arbiter of fashion, with French stuff occupying 2/3rds of the 55 acres of the show. Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann was the Big Cheese, renown for his pieces of fine furniture featuring such exotics as tortoiseshell, ebony and walnut burl. Despite, or perhaps because of, their exorbitant prices owning a piece was a status symbol.
America was not immune to the influence and Macey’s and Lord & Taylor put on exhibitions of Art Deco furniture. Radio City Music Hall, built in the late 20’s and nicknamed Showplace of the Nation, was designed by Donald Deskey. Deskey combined the French influence of Art Deco with the growing Bauhaus movement. This led to a “swoopier” look to the pieces and the inspiration of locomotives, ocean liners and automobiles was everywhere. You could even see the effect in the Sear’s refrigerator, designed by Raymond Loewy, incorporating rounded corners. You can see this same influence of transportation in Fiesta ware, with its “speed whiskers”, little lines indicating movement.
Characteristics of Art Deco included geometric textiles, homage to the growing cubism movement in visual art, and such exotic inlays as ivory, birds-eye maple, floral marquetry, rosewood, and even shagreen, an imitation shark skin made from leather (frequently the skin of the searay). Glass, particularly colored glass or backed by silver or gold, was incorporated into furniture. Furniture arms and legs would have low-relief carvings of berries, leaves or flowers. This is a time of Too Many Tassels.
I think one of the more interesting parts of the Deco movement was the idea of suites, a set of matching furniture. The first suites were for the bedroom and in 1928, 10 designers made complete room sets for display. Deskey (remember him?) designed a “Man’s Smoking Room” of rectangles of furniture incorporating chrome, glass and Bakelite. Bakelite, for the un-hip, was the first plastic. It was a heat-set resin usually used with wood dust to hold it together. It was patented in 1909 by Dr. Leo Baekeland.
In my opinion, part of the reason for the growth of the Deco movement was an expanding and integrated world. Ocean liners, for the first time, could sail the world and the exploration of Egyptian tombs brought new influences andEngland’s rule of India brought back exotic woods and styles not seen in the West. In India, over 300 movie theatres were built all in a Deco style.
When I say this is my favorite style, I wasn’t kidding. My wife & I spent a full year visiting Jean Harlow’s bedroom set at an antique store, unable to either afford it or to ignore it.
Deco, all in all, was a luxurious movement. This is not everyman’s furniture, but something for the rich and famous. The director John Waters said “Every movie is worth watching, if you can’t find anything else interesting, look at the lamps.” So for those so inclined, you can re-watch the movie Titanic to see Art Deco at its most extravagant best.