A Celebration of Style
Silvester-Carr, Denise, History Today
THE STREAMLINE DECORATIVE style that influenced a huge variety of objects and buildings in the interwar years is being celebrated in Art Deco 1910-1939, a major exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum from March 27th.
Strangely, the term Art Deco was coined only in 1966, a quarter of a century after it had fallen from fashion. Prior to this it was known as Jazz Moderne, Moderne or even zigzag but Art Deco, the subtitle of the exhibition Les Annees 25 at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1966, was used by The Times in a headline to an article and was picked up shortly afterwards by, among others, Elle magazine and Osbert Lancaster who, writing about the 1930s buildings in Cannes, described them as `an abundance of peach coloured glass sandblasted with vaguely cubist designs'.
Although the style was not confined to France, its popularity had been kick-started by the French at the ground-breaking Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925. The majority of the twenty-two pavilions on the edge of the Seine were devoted to Parisian department stores, though Britain, Czechoslovakia and Russia were among the countries represented. Rene Lalique's glass fountain, which dominated the Perfume Pavilion, became a symbol of the exhibition, and the luxurious, rounded furniture shown by Jean-Emile Ruhlmann remains the apogee of the style to this day. So much so, that the V&A is bringing together a group of works exhibited in Ruhlmann's pavilion, including Jean Dupass's painting `Les Perruches' (The Parrots).
Art Deco was international. It transformed skylines from Shanghai to Johannesburg to New York, where the soaring Chrysler building was surmounted by a stainless steel sunburst, and it affected the design of everything from fashion and furniture to utilitarian domestic objects. Busby Berkeley adopted it in Hollywood musicals and jewellery made in the 1920s and '30s by Cartier, using Mughal and Egyptian sources, epitomises the style. In Britain, the ceramics of Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper became everyday household ware, and tubular steel chairs and chromium-plated tables gained a foothold in English homes. In town centres individual and striking buildings of architectural beauty were designed by Harry Weedon for Oscar Deutsch, founder of the Odeon cinema circuit, though the interiors did not always conform to Weedon's ideas: Mrs Deutsch liked to gauge local conditions, specifying gold colours `in impeccable taste' for Hampstead and Haverstock Hill and half-timbering for old and historic Faversham! …