Saturday, February 9, 2008

Style Guide: Art Deco

The quintessential 1920s and 1930s style for skyscrapers, homes, cinemas, even cruise ships, Art Deco is glamorous, modern and dramatic. French designers mixed classical and contemporary elements, including the passionate colors of Fauvist paintings, sensuous fabrics, exotic artifacts of Egypt, Mexico, and the Middle and Far East, and Cubist painters geometric shapes in round mirrors, floor treatments and barrel-shaped chairs. American designers streamlined the style with modular and built-in chrome and aluminum furniture, while British designers contributed sleek materials like Bakelite and commercialized motifs like zigzags and chevrons.


Accessories are plentiful, vibrantly colored and briskly designed.

Anything shiny or metallic adds allure, such as silver-painted coffee tables or silver dressing table sets.

Pieces of pottery are plentiful, especially those by Clarice Cliff, whose prized, "Bizarre" crockery collection is distinguished by angular, almost Cubist shapes with bright reds, oranges, yellows, greens and black.

Mirrors sport circular shapes, ziggurat tops or other engravings, and are especially striking over fireplace mantels.

Modern Variations

  • One elaborate treatment: Sheathe an entire fireplace and chimney with mirror-glass.

Other Accessories

  • Oriental-style screens – richly lacquered
  • Glassware – vases, fruit bowls, perfume bottles and lamp bases made from affordable opaque-pressed glass or exclusive Lalique-like crystal
  • Wall ornaments – sunburst-decorated stained-glass windows or plaques shaped like faces, fans and feathers
  • Exotic touches – large palms, lacquered boxes or trays and African tribal masks or other artifacts
  • Final touches – silk tassels and fringing on lampshades, seats backs and cushions


Main Colors
High, contrasting color fuels the glamorous, theatrical Art Deco style. Pale main colors of cream, beige and eau de nil, offer sedate, peaceful backgrounds for passionate accent colors.

Accent Colors
Vibrancy predominates in orange, lime green, mauve, crimson and yellow.

These dramatic colors were inspired by contemporary Fauvist paintings and the exuberant, joyful costumes and sets of Sergei Diaghilev's exotic Ballets Russes, the rage in Paris during the period.

Drama is heightened with black and metallic shades in glass, mirrors and metals.


Flooring is streamlined and striking.

In living areas, pale wood is preferred as a base – boards, block or parquet – though wall-to-wall carpeting works if colors are light, like cream or taupe.

In halls, kitchens and bathrooms, linoleum reigns supreme. Entire areas are simply done in one solid color, such as green, beige or brown.

The patterned floor is more representative of the Art Deco style. Inlaid linoleums can be made to order.

Modern Variations

  • Create your own design, including fake marble, a trendy material for the period.
  • Try checked patterns or go wild with bold designs – large circles intersected by straight lines, for instance.

Rugs with vibrant geometric patterns, like checks, are popular. Or try rugs with one overall color and contrasting borders or circular area rugs with target striping.

Modern Variations

  • For dramatic contrast, throw down animal-skin rugs. Zebras are a good choice. Try polar bears and leopards, too.


Materials and Designers
Chromium-plated metal and bakelite were featured in Gilbert Rhode-designed tables of the 1920s. Later, he tried tubular metal and wicker furniture.

Russel Wright designed modular furniture, introducing the three-piece sofa that could be arranged in any number of ways.

Paul T. Frankl created "skyscraper" bookcases and cabinets with stepped silhouettes echoing New York City's ever-rising buildings. Kem Weber adapted the style for fireplaces, bed headboards and built-in side tables.

John Duncan Miller designed veneered furniture with rounded edges, as did Betty Joel, whose pieces were marketed as being ideal for working women because there were fewer corners to dust.
Photo courtesy of Karl Kemp.

Built-in Furniture
Fitted furniture came into vogue during this period.

The built-in, private bar was a new domestic interior element. Desk units with cupboards and shelving are tucked into walls. Sometimes L-shaped designs fit into a corner and span two walls.

Laminated wood allows for fitting walls with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, display shelves and hidden cupboards.

In bedrooms, false walling disguises two wardrobes, with a built-in vanity unit between them.

Kitchens sport built-in breakfast niches with benches and fixed table.

Modern Variations

  • For a truly authentic Art Deco interior, take the time to shop for original furniture or have it built.

All these options can be pricey. Alternative designs made for the middle class sport geometric outlines and rounded corners.

Try chairs shaped like barrels or boxes, upholstered in fabrics or leathers. Round sided tables and drink trolleys with circular sides befit the Art Deco spirit.

Look for period, mass-produced tubular steel chairs.
Photo courtesy of Karl Kemp.

Other Pieces

  • Coffee tables and cocktail cabinets – oak, walnut, ash, sycamore or other pale woods
  • Other materials – same designs in wood also in chrome, aluminum, steel, glass or mirrors – or coupled with these materials
  • Bathrooms – black-white-pastel color schemes done in checkered tiles and linens, plus splashy chrome towel rails, taps and sink legs
  • Mirrors – beveled-edge mirrors common in bathrooms
  • Boxed tubs – emerged in the 1930s to replace baths with cast-iron legs


Materials and Characteristics
As electricity filtered into the mainstream in the 1920s, Art Deco designers produced fittings with gentle glows. They reveled in newly available materials – aluminum, tubular steel, plastic, pressed glass and plywood.

Starkly angular fittings also define Art Deco style.

Pendant Lights
A common fixture, the pendant light features a marble glass bowl hung upside down by three chains. The bowl is often round, though occasionally hexagonal, stepped or cone-shaped and is sometimes patterned with animal, flower, fruit or geometric designs.

Figure Lamps
A classic Art Deco style, the figure lamp portrays a coquettishly draped glass female figure holding a globe. Reproductions of original Parisian and Viennese models are plentiful today.

Modern Variations

  • For extra elegance, construct wall-to-wall ceiling light panels with geometric designs. Even more dramatic are corniced lights at wall tops, casting indirect light.

Other Fixtures

  • Ceiling lights – sandblasted, glass-diffusing rings with clear borders
  • Wall lights – glass-and-chrome with ziggurat, shell, step or fan shapes
  • Table lamps – on columnar bases with above shapes in shades of plastic, silk, parchment or molded-glass
  • Wall and table lights – dressed up with sunray, gazelle or borzoi dog motifs


Treatments and Colors

  • Wall treatments are simple or bold – or boldly simple. Both are fashionable and sophisticated.
  • Walls in a plain white, off-white or beige set off vibrantly colored furniture and accessories.

Wallpaper and Mirrors
Borders or corners are adorned with stencils or paper with sunray, ziggurat, lotus blossom or scarab designs influenced by pharonic times.

The look also favors wallpaper filled entirely with embossed geometric or botanical patterns, or paper that captures the effect of wood.

Modern Variations

  • Cover entire walls with metallic paper (glazed silver was popular) or mirrors, two highly dramatic looks in vogue in the late 1920s.

Luxurious paneling abounds in lacquer or wood, stripped and waxed or possibly stained.

Mural paintings made a comeback during the period.

Modern Variations

  • Display cut-out sections from wallpapers with trompe-l'oeil or abstract designs by Art Deco artists or paint murals yourself.

Step designs are popular and provide shelving at different levels – mantle, mid-level at the side and base.

Or the steps might climb along the top of a one-dimensional face made of mottled tiles framed by wood.

Modern Variations

  • If your pocketbook can take it, create a wall design by renovating fireplace faces.

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