Art Deco: Back to the Future 

By Karen Parr-Moody


Art Deco furniture makes a bold statement, and no wonder. These opulent, yet streamlined, designs belonged to exuberant time period in world history. Luckily, such historic pieces are found throughout GasLamp’s halls.


It was during the “between the wars” years of the Roaring ‘20s that Art Deco was born. It was a time of decadence and luxury, a golden age during which carefree flappers boarded huge ocean liners and the hum of jazz bands permeated many a parlor. It was a time for industry and innovation – particularly in aviation, and ship and train travel. Art Deco represented modernity.


Simultaneously, Art Deco drew from the past. Many global excavations took place that inspired its design. In particular, the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt was an influence. While Tut was not buried under a step pyramid, or any pyramid for that matter, this discovery increased the visibility of Egyptian antiquities and caused such structures to become hallmarks of Art Deco design.


Along with step pyramid silhouettes, other designs typical of Art Deco include sweeping curves, the sunburst motif, and chevron patterns. In the wonderful humidor/smoking stand, above right, one sees the chevron pattern in the door (copper-lined stand; $95, Booth B-310). Other Art Deco traits are also seen in this stand: The streamlined feet were typical of the period, along with the use of bakelite in the knob, as man-made materials were used to celebrate the “Machine Age.” Glass and stainless steel were other common materials of the period.


GasLamp vendor Ed McLaurin, who operates Booth B-310, has been collecting Art Deco wares for 50 years. “I like Art Deco for its simple elegance,” he says, noting that the first category of collecting was American Primitives. He suggests pairing Art Deco furniture with mid century modern works.


Scholars attribute the lavishness of Art Deco designs, in part, to a reaction to the austerity imposed by World War I. France is credited as being the birthplace of Art Deco; its roots were in a collective of French artists known as La Société des artistes décorateurs (The Society of the Decorator Artists). They organized the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Art) in Paris. Terms such as Style Moderne and Art Deco are derivative of the event’s title.


The sleek and sophisticated vitrine, photographed at left, is an Art Deco piece from France.  It is a transitional piece, with hints of Louis XV roots; the legs are done in the cabriole style. Decorating in highly stylized patterns was part of the Art Deco style, as seen here in the graceful designs painted on the glass door (French vitrine, circa 1930; $495, Booth B-310).


Repeating patterns, particularly when geometric, are another trademark of Art Deco design. This table lamp in the photo, right, has just such a geometric design. Square, clear crystal blocks are stacked to form the base.  Such geometric shapes favored by industrial designers echo the fine art movements of the era, particularly Cubism (table lamp; $49, Booth B-310). Other influence art movements included Futurism, Bauhaus, and Abstract.


Strong vertical bands are also typical of Art Deco, and are borrowed from antiquity. In the nightstand in the photo at left, more than one design element is at play ($135; Booth B-315). There are the modernist, semi-circle, integrated drawer pulls, which are Art Deco hallmarks. The carved, banded design that wraps around the table is also common. It references architectural discoveries of the era. These include the step pyramids of Egypt and the ziggurat of Nanna in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur (which was excavated between the years of 1922 and 1934). This banded design is used to create a sense of line or division.


The English wardrobe in the photo, right, features more of the repeating patterns known to Art Deco. These influences are seen in the stepped and scalloped design details at the top of the piece (1930s wardrobe; $495, Booth B-310). Not only did inlaid wood feature prominently in Art Deco, but burl was also a popular wood used, as seen here in the middle, horizontal panel. Artisans also used stains on the wood that would bring out the darker tones of the grain. This gave the wood visual texture, as is seen in this wardrobe. One more Deco characteristic is the "cathedraling" of the wood grain, seen at the bottom of the piece. Usually these "cathedral" shapes to the wood grain are oriented in a right-side up fashion, but here, some of the patterns are upside down. 


Aerodynamic streamlining is typical of later Art Deco details. This is seen in the feet of this buffet ($265, Booth B-317). They look like the incredible streamlined trains being designed at the time, and are representative of a late Deco movement called Streamline Moderne, or simply Streamline. It was inspired by the aerodynamic designs of fast-moving machines, from planes to automobiles (some experts consider Streamline part of Art Deco, while others say it was a separate movement). Many, but not all, Streamline designs were striped of the stylized flora or fauna that decorated earlier Art Deco works. This buffet retains ornate designs that surround its handles.

Just as the austerities of World War I were partly responsible for bringing Art Deco to the fore, the looming austerities of World War II had a hand in brining it to a close. Some began to deride Art Deco for being gaudy and presenting a faux image of luxury. However, today many collectors love the style for its marriage of elegance, functionality, and modernity. Collectors at the highest end look for furniture designer names such as Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, Jules LeLeu, Donald Deskey, Tommi Parzinger, Jean Dupas, Gilbert Rohde, Walter von Nessen and Jean Dunand. However, finds can still be had at all levels of Art Deco collecting.

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