Art Deco is a mongrel! Now I’ve said it, I will have to justify what I mean. As a style, the name ‘Art Deco’ conjures up a period in history synonymous with the decorative and technological expression of style, luxury, speed and glamour. Although we mainly associate it with the 1920s and 30s, it began life before the First World War. It is a style that captured an epoch in history and made it its own by pervading the visual arts and design across the globe – its influence further reaching perhaps, than any other previous style.
Art Deco was and will forever be deemed a French invention. Most pundits generally accept that the movement was named after the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels held in Paris in 1925, albeit slightly abbreviated! Yet the phrase itself was not in common usage until the 1960s, and is broadly quoted in most sources as being accepted after the publication in 1968 of Bevis Hillier’s book – Art Deco of the 20s and 30s.
Describing the movement as a ‘mongrel’ is in no way deprecating. Its influence filtered down to the man on the street in many aspects of domestic design, yet at its purest, Art Deco is a style that defines the idea of streamlining, aerodynamics, symmetry, geometry and modernity. We see this in all aspects of its influence.
Yet, the style is a potpourri of ideas and decorative influences borrowed from many different cultures and fused into a clever mosaic conveniently covered by the umbrella heading of ‘modernity’. South American culture, Japanese, Chinese and Egyptian influences all play their part; so too do historical references from French history, even elements of Art Nouveau and importantly, the Ballets Russes – all of these fused with different takes on colour theory and avant-garde Cubist structure.
A distinctive style
Despite this varied blend, it is visually very difficult to confuse Art Deco with other styles. Of course, as in any artistic or design movement, there are the well-known protagonists who drive the main narrative, and the big names in Art Deco design are generally male. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as society in that period was still generally a male dominated arena, particularly in areas such as design.
This naturally made it more difficult for women to achieve success in such fields. Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) – now defined as one of the pre-eminent 20th-century designers – is a perfect example of how her initial role was subjugated by the inequalities of the time. Famously, she went to the studio of Le Corbusier and was apparently rejected with the words ‘we don’t embroider cushions here’.
Using her initiative, she cleverly renovated her own apartment using metal and glass elements, later recreating it for the exhibition Salon d’Automne. Her innovative use of materials is now famous, but Le Corbusier and his partner Pierre Jeanneret were forced to reassess their initial apprehension and employ her, a position from which she became instrumental in designing and collaborating on some of the most iconic Art Deco pieces of 20th-century furniture. The 1928 B306 chaise longue or LC4 is perhaps one of the most famous; this chaise or ‘relaxing machine’ – almost clichéd in its popularity – has become synonymous with the idea of good design.
The B301 or LC1 sling chair is also a classic and the ‘Grand conforts’ cube-shaped armchair – both large and small models – are beautiful pieces of pared-down excess, their gleaming chromium exoskeletons worn on the outside as an expression of Art Deco and Modernism’s overt challenge to convention. The markets have – of course – been flooded with copies over the decades but Cassina has held the official licence since 1965. Official versions cost around £3,500.
Another leading light in the female design firmament was Eileen Gray (1878-1976). Regarded as both an icon and pioneer in 20th-century furniture design, her legacy captured the headlines in 2009 when her ‘Fauteuil aux Dragons’ sold for a staggering £19.4million. It formed part of the collection of the late Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, so the sale was bound to attract unprecedented interest, but it more than superseded the anticipated £3 million and became the highest price ever paid for a piece of 20th-century design.
So why did it make so much money? Created between 1917-1919, it was in fact unique and was also an important precursor to some of her better-known designs such as the 1926 Bibendum chair, and her 1935 Bonaparte chair, both Art Deco classics. The worldwide licenses for these are held exclusively by Aram Designs and they cost around £2,500 and £2,000 respectively.
Yet the British designer Betty Joel (1894-1985) – born in Hong Kong – is someone for whom I have a strong admiration. Her path in designing furniture, in particular, was unconventional. Although lacking in formal training, she set up workshops along with her husband, and retailed from impressive premises in Knightsbridge, supplying innovative Art Deco furniture designs and interiors to the likes of Coutts Bank and Claridge’s Hotel, as well as private clients.
The diversity of Joel’s workshop meant that she designed everything from beds to dining room suites with trademark fine detailing and selected materials that were typically used in stylish and understated ways. As a result, her Art Deco products – being less iconic than those of Perriand, for instance – are not copied and are therefore, by default, more exclusive and, ironically, better value. Prices at auction tend to be in the £1,000-£2,000 bracket and sometimes in the lower hundreds for single pieces, such as chairs and parts of bedroom suites. Well worth investing in!
Personally, I am an admirer of the Swedish designer Greta Magnusson. Born in Helsingborg in 1906, she came from a family of cabinetmakers and trained as an apprentice. Being the only female in the workshop at a local furniture company was no doubt challenging but she went on to form her own company in Stockholm in the early 1930s called ‘Studio’. Having married the British jazz musician Billy Grossman, Greta Magnusson-Grossman worked with great individual resolve to create some timeless classics; examples of her iconic circular Sofa Table (above) now realise several thousand at auction.
She’s now justly renowned as one of the most important female pre- and post-war designers in America. Unfortunately, however, you may have missed the boat if you are looking for an Art Deco bargain!