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A century after art deco’s birth, designers say we’re due for a revival

Furnishings brand Selamat uses unexpected materials, such as rattan, to reinterpret art deco forms. Both the chandelier and the coffee table were inspired by the Empire State Building. (Courtesy of Selamat)
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In June, a circa 1937 French sideboard by Eugène Printz and Jean Dunand came up for auction at Christie’s. Appropriately named the Important Cabinet, it was a collaboration between Printz, a furniture maker, and Dunand, a master metalworker, and its doors featured an intricate form of metal ornamentation known as dinandier. Its presale estimate was between $300,000 and $500,000. By the day’s end, it had fetched $5.496 million, the highest price for its era since Eileen Gray’s Dragon Chair from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé reeled in an astounding $28 million in 2009.

Both pieces were rare masterworks by their creators, but they had something else in common: They’re both examples of the early-20th-century style known as art deco.

A hundred years after the 1920s came roaring in, the era’s signature aesthetic continues to inspire design snobs and regular folks alike. Art deco — that familiar style of art, architecture and design with a sometimes-wacky blend of historic and futuristic influences — is still beloved. And if trend forecasters are to be believed, we are ripe for a full-scale art deco revival.

After all, in some ways 2020 feels a lot like 1920. A century ago, anti-immigration sentiment was high, white nationalism was on the rise and rapid technological advancement changed the world drastically in the span of a generation. Then, art deco design emerged as a hopeful balm for global uncertainty.

Design trends tend to be cyclical, and interior designers and tastemakers have been predicting the style’s resurgence for the past couple of years. With today’s headlines eerily echoing those of the past, it’s not surprising that references to art deco style seem to be everywhere: They’re in the sophisticated interiors and furnishings of designers Ken Fulk, India Mahdavi, Joseph Dirand and Dimore Studio. The period has influenced home furnishings from mass retailers, such as Restoration Hardware, West Elm and Anthropologie. The style has even breached Congress: In January, the Twitterati were agog when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced via Instagram story that she named her French bulldog puppy Deco, after the design style, which she described as one of her favorites. She wrote that the movement is “inspired by the themes of optimism & social and technological progress, and is a fixture in iconic NYC architecture.”

The most famous example of the era’s architecture, the Chrysler Building, is in the midst of a renovation. Last year, the landmark Manhattan skyscraper was bought by RFR Holding and Austrian real estate company Signa Holding, and it’s undergoing an interior revamp to bring it up to date and reimagine its art deco grandeur for a new generation.

Art deco reached its height during the 1920s and 1930s, growing out of the art nouveau style. But where art nouveau featured sinuous curves and stylized flowers, art deco was all about symmetry and geometry. It spread rapidly across multiple disciplines, including art, furniture, fashion, graphic design and industrial design. “Deco isn’t the first design period to do that, but it was the first to do it particularly well, so it’s much more noticeable,” says Steve Knight, president of the Art Deco Society of Washington.

The style got its name from the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern, Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris. Designers drew inspiration from influences including Bauhaus design, cubism, Russian constructivism and Italian futurism, as well as the exoticism of the time; King Tut’s tomb had just been discovered, so Egyptian motifs were all the rage. The designs were daring and dramatic and like nothing people had seen before. “Deco comes at a moment of looking back at traditional motifs while simultaneously searching for a new vocabulary of design,” says Stephen Harrison, curator of decorative art and design at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “After the First World War, people were nostalgic for the past and hopeful for the future.”

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World War I’s hardships had ignited a desire for progress moving forward. Domestically, women had just gotten the right to vote, and a spirit of optimism prevailed. That hopefulness comes across in some of the repeating themes of art deco. Sunbursts signified the dawn of the modern era; scantily clad frolicking nymphs celebrated newly won social freedoms for women; symbols of speed reflected new modes of transportation; and geometric shapes represented the period’s fascination with machinery.

Early art deco grew out of Europe’s fine and decorative arts traditions. Handcrafted from the finest materials — think ivory, onyx and even emerald — these luxurious, bespoke objects were designed for the wealthiest members of society. But after the stock market crash of 1929, a more sober, streamlined version called art moderne grew to have a much bigger following in America because it was accessible to everyone.

In a way, art deco was the original design-within-reach. “It’s definitely the first time in history that trends trickled down from the wealthy to ordinary people in a big way, affecting every genre from fashion to the decorative arts,” says Harrison.

The early 20th century saw major advances in technology. Early plastics and other innovative materials made products cheaper to produce. Chrome-plating technology gave utilitarian objects like toasters and mixers a sleek, mirror-like finish that felt luxurious. Industrial designers Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes became household names, streamlining items from phones to flatware. “They took objects that looked antiquated and downright scary, paid attention to the aesthetics and made something that was visually stunning and appealing,” says Knight.

Mass production made good design more egalitarian. “Suddenly you were able to have the same thing someone else had in silver in a mixed metal that looks like silver and was very cheap to produce,” says Harrison. Factory-made costume jewelry imitated the real thing, and cheaper woods mimicked the look of expensive ones through the use of veneers.

Industrialization wasn’t the only advancement that brought art deco into people’s homes. “The style arrived at a time when there was a great surge in media, including radio, magazines and film, so it was easier to propagate around the world,” says Knight. It was a fast-moving worldwide phenomenon, even without the help of the Internet.

“Because of film it is more easily recognizable; we can see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogersin ‘Top Hat’ and immediately name the period,” says Knight. Film sets were immensely influential in exposing moviegoers to the opulent style, especially the work of art director Cedric Gibbons, who was responsible for the look of films such as “The Kiss” (1929) and “Dinner at Eight” (1933). The idea of how the future should look in film was created during the deco era, too. Elements of the style can be seen years later in sci-fi films such as “Blade Runner,”“Brazil” and even “Star Wars.” Consider how everyone’s favorite fastidious droid, C-3PO, looks as if he wandered off the set of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927).

By 1939, as World War II began and global unrest set in, it became clear that the Machine Age wouldn’t fix society’s problems. Art deco’s gleam started to show a little tarnish, and the look fell out of fashion. It periodically reappeared in the sleek, neon aesthetic of 1950s diners, in the space-age style of the 1960s and in the Memphis design movement of the 1980s, which directly referenced art deco and Bauhaus forms and has experienced its own revival in recent years.

Today, riffs on art deco style fill the pages of design magazines and inspire the interiors of chic restaurants and hotels from San Francisco to Paris. “There’s a timelessness to it that feels terribly romantic and draws you right in,” says interior designer Ken Fulk, who is at work on historically significant art deco projects on the East and West coasts.

Part of the reason art deco is so alluring is that it evokes a chicer, more civilized world. “We were in this era for a really long time where casual living was the name of the game, and now people are interested in glamour and formality again,” says Shannon Davis, creative director for Selamat, who recently released a collection of home furnishings inspired by art deco.

Another possible explanation for the style’s staying power: Art deco furnishings play surprisingly well with those of other periods. “We’ve used deco-influenced pieces in both modern and Old World settings,” says Fulk. “One of the things that makes it universally appealing is that it can live in other environments; it’s not static.” The style works with minimalism, maximalism and everything in between. “The look is fairly adaptable; you can mix and match these things ... and it doesn’t feel like you’re breaking any rules,” Davis says.

The packaging of forward-thinking design in an approachable and easy-to-digest wrapper could be the key to art deco’s enduring popularity. The design equivalent of rosé, the style has been pooh-poohed in the past for having overly broad appeal. “People will accept modern or progressive ideas as long as they’re rooted in a more traditional background, and I think that’s exactly what art deco did: It took older, classical motifs and updated them in a radical way for a bigger audience,” says Harrison. “Art deco endures because it straddles the line between traditional and modern design.”

That the style manages to be old-fashioned and futuristic makes sense since it reflected a world in transition. “The decade leading up to the 1920s created a maelstrom for the rise of deco,” says Megan Martinelli, assistant curator at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, which has been planning an exhibit of the Jazz Age fashions, jewelry and decorative art of Marjorie Merriweather Post. “I think it’s a style we often return to after periods of uncertainty.”

In challenging times, art deco represents the belief that optimism, beauty and creativity can survive and even thrive. “There’s comfort in the geometric lines, and there’s a familiarity in the references to historicism,” says Martinelli. “It creates a sense of happy order, which I think people are drawn to.”

Says Fulk: “Our lives are so often battered by the news, we want to feel uplifted by our surroundings. If ever there was a time for that, it’s now; it’s a deco moment.”

Michelle Brunner writes about design, style and real estate. She lives in Washington.

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