Art Deco: A Renewed Clamor for Glamour

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By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2005

Old-fashioned glamour gave way to grunge in the declining years of the 20th century. But now, from Hollywood to the high seas to Boardwalk, the most sultry and sophisticated design movement of modern times is back.

Art deco, which flourished during the 1920s and 1930s, is resplendent on the silver screen, thanks to "The Aviator" and its Oscar-winning sets. It's cruising lavishly on the Queen Mary 2, where interiors replicate those of its namesake, an icon of 1930s luxe. And next month, a 70th-anniversary edition of Monopoly will debut with glitzy tokens -- buildings, shoes, cars and trains -- restyled to recall the game's creation at the height of the art deco movement.

"It was one of the most significant decades for design in the 20th century," says Jim Bremer, associate vice president of graphic arts for Hasbro Games, the parent company for Parker Bros.' Monopoly. "Art deco was everywhere. It really permeated everything."

No era defined high-glam better than art deco, the heady current of art and culture between the two world wars. Deco was modern, but not modernist. It was colorful and graphic, as were works from the radical de Stijl and Bauhaus schools, but deco avoided any moral undertone. Amid the zigzags, chrome and frosted glass, there was always a whiff of the avant-garde. At heart, art deco was dramatic and frivolous.

New interest in the period has been generated by museum shows. "Art Deco: 1910-1939," which debuted at London's Victoria & Albert Museum two years ago, sparked excitement in Europe before sending a broad sampling of art, architecture, design and fashion to San Francisco, Toronto and Boston (where the show closed in January). Last June, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art presented a special exhibition of furniture and interior designs by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann (1879-1933) called "Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco." The Fashion Institute of Technology staged exhibits of perfume bottles, and period apparel by Chanel, Schiaparelli, Lanvin, artist Sonia Delaunay and others.

The Met also offered a small show focusing on art deco in Paris during the 1920s. The movement eventually acquired its name from the International Exposition of Decorative Arts, which took place there in 1925.

Scholars debate whether art deco was coherent enough to be a style or existed merely as a spirit. But no one can deny the avalanche of objects, interiors, fashions, jewels, graphics, sculptures, furnishings and architecture that it inspired.

The names of Lalique and Cartier still sparkle. A new breed of industrial designers -- Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss, Raymond Loewy and Walter Teague -- enlivened consumer products, from Bakelite radios to Kodak's Beau Brownie box cameras. Architects such as William Van Alen, mastermind behind the Chrysler Building, propelled Manhattan skyward.

In "The Aviator," art deco trappings perfectly reflect the glamour and dynamism of the emerging film and civil aviation industries. Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes surrounded himself with Spanish Revival furniture at home, but his screening room was a model of modern chic with seating upholstered in patterned cut velvet and lamps that could stand alone as sculptures.

Art director Dante Ferretti's finest effort emerges in the office of Pan Am Airlines chief Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin). An image of the steel-tipped Chrysler Building, the apex of art deco architecture, flashes on the screen. It's a cue card for an interior built in Montreal, with angular windows and peaked ceiling at the pinnacle of a skyscraper that was briefly the tallest in the world. Abstract motifs on the walls resemble spikes and armor. Sunbursts and stars explode across the blue ceiling. Publicists could not say whether the highly polished furniture and lighting fixtures were vintage or copies.

Art deco was both forward-looking and respectful of the past, which may explain how it spread around the globe and from high-class to mass culture. People everywhere seemed comfortable with the jazzy geometries, naturalistic leaves and antelope or references to ancient Egypt and Mexico. "Streamlined" forms associated with fast cars, locomotives and planes still signify modernity and speed.

But from the vantage point of the 21st century, it's important to understand art deco as a last gasp. World War II put an end to certain prewar lifestyles and the remnants of fine 18th-century craftsmanship. It proved too elitist to survive the social upheavals of the 1950s. Rebuilding Europe was a task for Bauhaus modernists, who wasted no time on decoration. In this country, a baby boom brought demands for everyday housewares that were functional and affordable.

One of the themes of the Victoria & Albert show was that art deco and capitalism went hand in hand. Companies hired designers to restyle objects so that consumers would "lust" after them and open their wallets. In the 1930s, materialism was good for the economy. Today, trade is brisk. Philippe Garner, head of 20th-century decorative art and design at Christie's auction house, describes the top end of the market as a "chase for the masterworks," which means French furniture by Eileen Gray, Pierre Legrain and Ruhlmann, among others. An early (1914) pink marble bas-relief "Musicians and Antelopes" by Leon Indenbaum sold at Christie's in October for $4.6 million, a record price for a 20th-century work of decorative art.

At the populist end, there is Monopoly. But even the new edition boasts "better houses, bigger hotels and more luxury." Houses are green plastic, but no longer basic cubes. The standard-issue hotels have been replaced by skyscrapers. The silvery race car has acquired the panache of a 1935 Duesenberg roadster.

What difference does the design of a token make? The company estimates that 750 million people have played with more than 250 million copies of Monopoly. More than 8.25 billion boxy green houses and ungainly hotels have made their way onto Connecticut, Oriental and Baltic avenues. But their design did little to enhance Monopoly communities, or educate the eyes of players.

The art deco edition takes a Chance on glamour and passes Go.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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