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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Art Deco Interiors

In my continuing series dealing with the evolution of American interior design from colonial days through to the present, and perhaps prognosticating a bit to the future, it would be hard to imagine a more jarring change in tastes than that which followed the Victorian era, that which we've come to know as Art Deco. In Europe, the change was not quite so brazen. There was between the two eras the style known as Art Nouveau, which was a rather organic, curvilinear, decorative style both in architecture and interior design--think Antonio Gaudi. As popular as this departure from Victorian overindulgence was in Europe, especially France, Spain, and Italy, it never really caught on in the United States. I guess Americans were too nostalgic for overbearing Victorian design. Our ancestors of just over a hundred years ago maybe considered Art Nouveau rather shallow and superfluous as compared to Victorian fussiness. In any case, when the first generation of the 20th-century began to embrace Modernism and it's standard bearer, Art Deco, their parents likely retreated to the age-old question, "What's this world coming to?"

Not simple, but simplified, as compared to Victorian intricacies.
So, what was it that made the radical Art Deco so attractive to those coming of age during the early decades of the previous century? First of all, it was a welcome relief from conservative, staid, Victorianism. It was Modern. At a time when everything from airplanes to automobiles to buildings, even toasters, were becoming streamline in design, Art Deco was the overriding style uniting it all. It was clean, lean, short, like the young lady (top) glistening and glimmering, it had what we've come to call "bling." Art Deco, like Art Nouveau, was not without its decorative elements (above), but the ideals of "less is more" and "form follows function" were starting to seep into designers' decorative consciousness. Like some earlier design styles, Art Deco was no flash-in-the-pan fad. It began to appear around 1900 and pretty much dominated interior design and architecture up until the post-WW II period. And, as with any style having such lengthy "legs," Art Deco evolved, from a timid accommodation to Modernism, to a wholehearted embrace of the Bauhaus influence as it evolved after migrating to Chicago just before the war. Thus, the evolution of Art Deco, though the changes are subtle, can be broken down into two fairly distinct periods, the pre-WW I period, and interbellum period of the 20st and 30s. The latter period has tended to be more typical of our present day Art Deco image. That being said, I'm not going to burden you with such minutiae. This is going to be a long enough discourse as it is.

On the middle-class domestic front, Art Deco is, first and foremost, about furniture.
I don't know about Europe, but during the Art Deco era, while Americans liked what the saw and bought what they liked, their love of Art Deco began and ended in the furniture store showroom (above). For most Americans during the early years of the 20th century, it would have seemed the height of folly to actually hire someone to advise them as to what furniture to buy and the intricacies of following through in making the rooms complement their furniture. In fact, most of the rooms in which such furniture found a home simply didn't lend themselves very well to such conversions. Ceilings were high, windows were slender, woodwork trim mostly consisted of highly worked wood. Slap on some Art Deco wallpaper and lay some black and white checkerboard tile, and in extreme cases, some new curtains, and that was about as far as most American housewives were willing to go to accommodate the "modern" look of Art Deco. We've always been eclectic sorts.

Stained glass and other elements of the past were mixed and matched along with the sleek and modern allowing an whole new look to every different type of light fixture.
One of the most notable differences between Art Deco and whatever you want to call that which came before it was the advent and popular acceptance of electric lighting. Up until the Art Deco era previous styles were either converted to electric or the electric lights were converted to Victorian tastes. For the first time, Art Deco allowed designers a full range of virtually unfettered possibilities (above). Before the era was over they were going so far as to make light fixture invisible by recessing fluorescent lighting into the ceiling then hiding it with clouded glass or paper, resulting in what we've come to call indirect lighting. Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater has just such lighting. As an interior designer, as well as an architect, Wright was a forerunner in merging his architectural designs with his appreciation of Art Deco interiors.

Only the wealthy could afford truly authentic Art Deco rooms to match their new -found tastes in furniture.
As we have in the past, we're going to start in what may, or may not, be the most important room in the house (depending upon the family's lifestyle). Nowhere in America, perhaps the entire world, was the Art Deco style so warmly and fervidly embraced as in Hollywood and environs. In order to appear modern and display varying degrees of wealth and sophistication, motion picture set designers loaded scene after scene, film after film with the best Art Deco had to offer. Perhaps more than any other single influence, movies were the driving force behind the gradually changing tastes of young people as they furnished their homes and apartments in the latest...anything but Still, even today, Art Deco influences remain in the furniture designer's vernacular, simplified somewhat, sleek, slim, and slender pushed to the limits, but not without paying a certain homage to their design forbearers of the Art Deco persuasion.

The details varied but the stylistic emphasis remained the same, even as the
number of seats at the table subsided over the years.
As in the past, Art Deco dining was formal. Yet it was not stuffy, proper without being prim, and opulent without seeming ostentatious. Although rich wood tones persisted, the trend was away from color in favor of black and white with subtle color accents (sometimes too subtle). Keep in mind as you ogle these interiors that they are, for the most part, designer interpretations of Art Deco. If you notice recessed lighting, wall-to-wall carpeting, glass-top tables, and mirrored ceilings, or any other contemporary compromises, such interiors are not authentic Art Deco but stylized imitations. As with earlier styles, modern-day tastes and comforts often clash with authenticity, which usually loses.

Nowhere else in the house are design compromises to modern convenience more likely than in the kitchen. Few housewives would go so far as to relinquish their modern-day cooktops for a porcelain stove as seen at bottom-right in the montage above.
Today when we bring to mind a kitchen we picture built in cabinets, overhead cupboards, ceramic tile floors, under-cupboard lighting, stainless steel sinks, maybe even granite countertops. At the turn of the century, most kitchens had none of these amenities. A few might have featured ceramic tile floors but most of the workspace in such kitchens were in the for of table tops of cabinets specially designed to provide a minimal amount of counter space. Cupboards, if they were present, likely had glass insets to display dishes (not hide the clutter). Refrigerators weren't unknown but iceboxes were the norm. Once more, the Art Deco kitchen food preparation conveniences had more to do with the price range of the real estate than the designer. State of the art costs money.

Getting up there is half the fun.
Nowhere else in the entire Art Deco home was the designer/architect offered greater freedom of expression than in providing a stylish means of ascending to the second floor (most homes during the early 20th-century were two-storied for various practical and tradition reasons). Whereas much which is indicative of Art Deco design is quite angular and hard-edged, stairways tended to offer a contrast, curving, rotating, and sweeping...up, up, and away (above).

From quite modest to opulent, Art Deco bedroom furnishings tend to feature soft curves juxtaposed against the angular, stylized features of various accessories and decorator items.
If there is a single common denominator as to Art Deco interiors, it is the frequent presence of wood-grain veneers, often featuring angular diagonal inlays of lighter and darker woods. In general Art Deco might be said to have lightened the overall ambiance of bedrooms from this period, freeing them from the heavy, cave like security refuge of earlier styles. Once more the effect is not so much simple but simplified. Windows abound, curtains are usually vertical, seldom tied back or involving swag valances. Wall coverings are subtle, geometric, or simply painted in a neutral shade.

The interior designer became a welcome presence
in the Art Deco bathroom (figuratively speaking).
Whereas the Victorian bathroom was, at best, utilitarian in design; by the early part of the 20th-century bathrooms not only proliferated but also became objects of the designer's good taste. Though the ones above may seem dated, even ugly, to our eyes today, they were a far cry from the cramped, "industrial" looking conveniences of just a few years before, when they were barely an improvement over their colonial ancestors, the malodorous "necessary." Once more, black and white seemed to be the preferred color, which sure beats the hell out of the sickening green (bottom-center).

When "the company" is footing the bill, designers feel free to pull out all the stops in helping their clients project a modern, progressive, efficient executive workspace. Naturally, such executives wanted the same style and features for their homes.
And finally, what might have been the most "private" room in the Art Deco home (bathrooms were sometimes not as private as users may have liked, in that most homes had only one). The domestic "den" was the last bastion of male domination, where the man's home was his castle and the den might as well have been atop a towering turret. Children were seldom welcome and even wives were expected to knock softly before entering. Hardwoods were held in high regard, as were parquet floors and bookshelf space to rival the Library of Congress. Desks were nearly as broad and they were long and swivel chairs that rocked were mandatory for any self-respecting denizen of the den.

Just in case I left out anything).


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