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COLLECTING

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By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2000; Page H06

Washington's first Art Deco Expo in 1983 was, as advertised, a teeming bazaar long on streamlined and curvilinear furniture, not to mention lamps, vases, rugs, textiles, art and jewelry made between the 1920s and '40s.

Chrome cocktail shakers and ashtrays gleamed on blue-mirrored tabletops. Wool mohair sofas and cut-velvet armchairs looked as if they'd once graced the grand salon of the S.S. Normandie. Paintings, posters and sculpture featured chic women and elegant gents, plus pink flamingos, swaying palms and the signature Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. Bakelite, in all hues, appeared on everything from drawer pulls to napkin rings to earrings.

By the end of the show, hundreds of buyers had snapped up thousands of dollars worth of Jazz Age goodies. Voila! An annual event was launched. (Full disclosure alert: The Art Deco Society of Washington, a nonprofit group created to preserve and celebrate the architecture and artifacts of the era, was born in my deco living room in 1982. Though no longer an active member, I still cheer on its noble efforts.)

Fast forward to Sunday, when the society presents its 17th expo, at Northern Virginia Community College's Ernst Community Cultural Center. About half of what's being offered by 52 dealers from the East Coast and Midwest at this year's event will be art deco. The rest will be of more recent vintage, from the '50s through the '70s or newly minted reproductions, said Expo Chairman Don Selkirk, who owns Past Pleasures Moderne, an Annandale shop specializing in 20th-century furniture and accessories. "There is a definite trend toward mid-century modern because deco is more difficult to find," said Selkirk, citing a design aesthetic that has been coveted and collected for more than a quarter-century. Selkirk's offerings at the show will represent both eras: a black-and-cream art deco bedroom set by Norman Bel Geddes ($3,500) and a chrome-framed, eight-cushion sofa, designer unknown, from the '60s or '70s ($1,800).

Other dealers agree that deco pickings are getting slimmer. "I haven't seen a World's Fair enamel-top table since I sold one in '86," said Ira Raskin, who deals in old radios, pens and other small objects at Try to Remember at antiques malls in Rehoboth and Selbyville, Del., and Hagerstown, Md.

Some dealers insist that it's not so much a shortage of goods as a shift in the design Zeitgeist itself from deco to what is generically called mid-century modern.

"Right now, it's so hot that it would be foolish not to include it," said Ken Rower, whose Boomerang Modern shop in West Palm Beach, Fla., specializes in the iconic blond Heywood-Wakefield furniture made from the '30s through the '60s, which he'll be selling this weekend along with period lamps and accessories. "Today's generation of furniture buyers has grown up with this, and they want to recapture that more than they want deco," Rower said.

In addition to problems of quantity, art deco collectors also face the issue of quality. A 1930s credenza of ebony, sharkskin and ivory by French master Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann can easily cost six figures (though it's unlikely such a jewel will be at this sale because there are far larger markets for museum-quality furniture in New York, Los Angeles and Europe). But a mass-produced American breakfront, desk or dining table made of less expensive wood veneers can still be had for several hundred dollars. Similarly, while a mid-centurian may easily spend five figures for an original George Nelson "marshmallow" sofa made from 1956 to 1965, Herman Miller reintroduced them last December to retail for $3,200 to $4,200, depending on upholstery.

The trouble is, some eager collectors don't know where one era ends and another begins, in part because a number of the 20th-century's best designers began producing masterworks in the teens and '20s and continued through the 1960s and '70s.

So how can the average collector tell the difference? There are a few visual cues regarding shape and materials, said Travis Smith, owner of Good Eye 20th Century Interiors in Tenleytown, who will have a booth at the expo. "Art deco is geometric, machine age, opulent, characterized by dark wood, chrome and blue mirrors. Mid-century is free-form, often Scandinavian, simple, atomic, Formica and blond wood," said Smith.

Terms such as deco, modern, moderne and mid-century are not easily placed on a time line, said Richard Striner, an ADSW co-founder and first president, and an associate professor of American history at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. " 'Mid-century' is a shorthand abbreviation for a cluster of related design trends, and these terms are just approximations for very fluid evolving movements that changed constantly into something else," he said.

Art deco was a wide-ranging design idiom whose name derived from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. The term itself wasn't coined until 1968, when Bevis Hillier wrote the book "The World of Art Deco." Until then, the startling new style that emerged between the World Wars was called art moderne in France, and moderne or modernistic in this country, wrote Alastair Duncan in "American Art Deco."

Striner credits the 1925 Paris show with bringing together artists and designers from the early part of the century whose work had been interrupted by World War I. "Things were jazzy and angular in some ways, curvilinear in others. Deco motifs simultaneously paid homage to ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt and the futurism of Bauhaus and Le Corbusier, and Buck Rogers comics. You see such motifs as sunbursts, thunderbolts, fountains, leaping greyhounds, which all became part of the vocabulary."

During the '20s and '30s, designers streamlined everything from locomotives to clocks (Raymond Loewy's 1933 prototype teardrop-shaped pencil sharpener is estimated to fetch up to $140,000 at Christie's "Masterworks 1900-2000" auction today.). At the same time, designers like Paul Theodore Frankl brought the soaring geometry of skyscrapers to furniture, with his zigzag bookcases and bureaus.

The most popular pieces by dozens of designers were modified and mass-produced, and they ultimately morphed into '50s and '60s jet-age forms, said Striner.

Kem Weber's 1930s art deco clock made of copper, brass and plastic appears streamlined and sleek, while Nelson's 1947 metal and wood "Ball Clock" seems less about the machine age than the exploding atomic age.

Design purism aside, this weekend's deco expo is about lifestyle and ambiance, with swing music piped in to quicken the pulse. If you yearn for June Cleaver's kitchen, dealers will be happy to sell you a glass pitcher and matching tumblers decorated with flowers and fruits, crisp organza aprons, funky cookie cutters and shiny toasters. If you prefer Nick and Nora Charles's well-stocked bar for today's martini revival, go for the spiffy cocktail shakers (including, if you're lucky, an original 1920s chrome penguin that's now a Restoration Hardware repro).

"The furniture goes in and out of the expo so quickly you can't believe it," said Corky Davidov, author of "The Bakelite Jewelry Book" and veteran deco expo dealer. This is "a medium-quality show," she said. "It's not that cheap, it's not that expensive, and occasionally you can find that rare piece from a dealer who doesn't know what he's got, or that odd piece you want for your kitchen or bathroom."

Art Deco Expo, Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Ernst Community Cultural Center, Northern Virginia Community College, 8333 Little River Turnpike, Annandale. General admission, $8; Art Deco Society members, $6 (memberships sold at the door). Free parking; van shuttle from Vienna Metro (Orange Line) to expo. Web site: www.adsw.org.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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