In the court of the boy king
The Twenties are forever associated with youth, luxury and fun. One young man in particular is the epitome of this decade – not Jay Gatsby, not Bertie Wooster, not Evelyn Waugh nor even Cecil Beaton (who was going to be the star of an exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery). The young man wasn’t even alive in the decade. He died three thousand years before, but his style and elegance influenced or touched everyone in the decades after the First World War. That youth was Tut-Ankh-Amun, the boy king. The style he begat was Art Deco.
What is Art Deco?
Or so, one version of the story goes. But what actually is Art Deco? The term was only “invented” in 1968 by the young aesthete and scholar Bevis Hillier. He based the term on the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts) which was a World Fair held in Paris in 1925. Hillier noted 13 previous definitions of the term.
In a new book, the architectural historian Mike Hope lists 56 alternative names from Atmospherical Theatre to Zig-Zag Moderne.
The 1925 Paris Exposition was hugely influential across the world. Most countries were represented and important visitors participated. America was invited to participate but politely turned it down. Herbert Hoover, at the time the Secetary of Commerce, explained there was no modern art in America.
Frank Lloyd Wright, who visited the exhibition, said it was “the most serious and sustained exhibition of bad taste the world has ever seen”.
When was Art Deco?
If Art Deco properly began in 1925, we can see some important precursors in many countries. In France, the style may be said to begin with the Theate des Champs-Elysees designed by Auguste Perret.
The architecture of the 1920s drew on many styles including classicism, Oceaniaic art, African art, Aztec and Mesoamerican, Mesopotamia and of course Egypt. Many buildings and objects, quoted earlier styles, but Egyptian motifs were sometimes wholeheartedly copied. Hillier identified Aztec and Indigenous American as the strongest thread.
Art Deco is sometimes identified with the interwar years, the 1920s and 1930s. Hillier differentiated between the two. He argues that thirties art was Neo-classical and there was a visible “reaction against decadence”. He contrasts the earlier luxurious and fun style with the more sterile style of the 30s. The image of the sunburst, resplendent in the UK of Clarence Cliff and Suburban Front-doors, was also used in facist and Communist iconography.
The Thirties were also the years of the Luxurious Cruise ships, which were inspired by and inspiring architecture. This style is sometimes called Streamline Moderne
Mike Hope does not discuss this difference, but notes that British architecture did not have a uniform style during the 30s.
Where was Art Deco?
Art Deco (in its many forms) was an international style. The reason for this is Colonialism. Britain and France were able to draw on the resources of their colonies, whilst also importing their own styles abroad. One of the best cities to see Art Deco is Asmara in Ertierea. The buildings were built by Italian designers following a brutal colonial war led by Mussolini.
Hope also highlights the 1924 British Empire Expedition as a preempting the 1925 Paris World Fair.
Another reason for the spread of Art Deco around the world was Hollywood. Cinema was massively popular in these years. Each country had its own industry, but Hollywood was preeminent. American soft power was strong in these years
One of the reasons for Art Deco’s world impact was that these were years of growth and recovery. Chicago was still rebuilding following the 1875 Fire, France had been severely damaged in the First World War and the Hawkes Bay Earthquake (and fires) of 1931 destroyed key cities in New Zealand. Cities in America were booming, Chicago and New York are the most obvious examples but Hope also explores Syracuse and Cincinnati.
Was Art Deco Egypt?
Egypt was popular in both London and Paris from the start of the nineteenth century. Both cities are full of buildings with Egyptian styles and furnishings. In Britain this popularity was dented by the influential architectural theorist ANW Pugin who saw the use of Egyptian touches as form of advertisement which cheapened the cityscape.
The sensational discovery of Tutankhamun excited readers across the world, including in Europe and America. The photographs of the excavation were seen widely and ignited a vogue for Egyptian motifs.
The interesting thing to note, as the authors in Imhotep Today say, is that the tomb “contained little in the way of architecture”.
Examples of Art Deco in London
Hope writers that Britain had a patchy relationship with Art Deco. He identifies the main areas were the style was popular as Factories, Cinemas and leisure/travel facilities.
Hoover Factory in Perivale
Today celebrated as an exemplar of the Art Deco Style, it resembles an Egyptian temple. James Steven Curl writes:
In this extraordinarily fine building influences from Ancient Egypt, from the 1925 Paris Exposition […] and from Cubist experiments can be detected in a marvellous synthesis of elements fashionable in the 1920s and 1930s.
The motifs are hinted at, the mere suggestion, architecture as synecdoche.
The Carreras Cigarette Factory
An actual Egyptian temple with statues of black cats and an Egyptian obelisk at the back (disguising the furnace chimney). Pevsner said:
“on the whole atrociously bad, modernism at its showiest and silliest”.
The building acted as advertising for the cigarette company. The association between the luxury of smoking and the luxury of Ancient Egypt would not have been far from the minds of people passing by.
Cinemas were popular. In 1935, the UK’s 3,000 cinemas welcomed 912.3 million visits. This was a new technology which needed new architecture. Unlike a theatre, room was needed behind the audience for the projector and not behind the stage.
In the UK, the name Odeon is synonymous with cinemas and evokes for many British people a classic white washed Art Deco building. The growth of TV has meant that cinemas have declined. Several have closed and been demolished such as the Towers Cinema in Hornchurch (East London) which was sadly knocked down and replaced by a nondescript building. The letters spelling out the name were kept as a mockery. This has been the way with many Art Deco buildings.
Fortunately the Carlton Cinema in Islington (North London( survived, first as a bingo hall and then as a church and conference centre. Designed by Henry Cole, it evokes the luxury and splendour of Egypt. It was once part of a pair of cinemas.
London is full of Egyptian influenced Art Deco buildings. Adelaide House near London Bridge was the first large post war building “to be consciously modelled on a monumental Egyptianising style” according to Curl.
London’s Senate House was built by Charles Holden. It evokes a cool Neo-classicalism. A much loved building, there is something sinister about it. It is said that George Orwell based the Ministry of Truth on the Building in 1984 and that Hitler planned to use it as his palace in London (this last claim is perhaps just an urban legend)
Hillier thought the building was inspired by an Aztec temple, whilst Curl (perhaps in a case of special pleading) says it is like the step pyramid at Saqqara. Hope side steps such harkening back and focuses on Holden’s refined skill as a designer:
In so many ways this is the nearest London ever came to possessing an American Art Deco period skyscraper. Its simple, plain monumentality is highlighted by the Portland stone dressing.
This building looks like it has been dropped into London. It is opposite Liberty, the chichi Department Store (who also stock Egyptian Magic Cream). Hillier thought that the building’s corniche replicated Mesoamerican design, but there is undeniably the hint of an Egyptian column as well. Hope identifies Persian and Moorish precedents. He says
It has startlingly clean lines with a real hint of Moorish, provided by the impressive deep cornice, the whole building being faced in black granite, with enamel on bronze filigree-work decoration adding a splash of colour.
Designed by Thomas Tait, this building is pure Egyptian and yet no single detail is an “accurate” reproduction of the Pharonic style.
Built in 1928, when contrasted with the nearby Daily Express Building designed by Sir Evan Owen Williams in 1936, the two buildings offer an object lesson in the difference between Art Deco and Streamline Moderne.
The design of British housing was not massively impacted by Art Deco. Architects were still influenced by Tudorbethan or Arts and Craft style evoking a prelapsarian idyll. Many houses of the time had little touches – Tudor beaming with perhaps a go faster stripe.
Pure Art Deco domestic architecture in the UK was largely reserved for high end houses. The best examples can be seen in the South of England, by the sea or in the Home Counties.
Essex has a claim to be the most Art Deco county in England. The estates at Silver End and Frinton-on-Sea were built for workers. Silver End was designed by Thomas Tait for workers of the Crittal Window factory. Crittal Windows were the modish fenestration of the period.
For a more high end glimpse of modernity head to Gidea Park. 64 Heath Drive was designed by Lubetkin (probably the finest architect in the UK in twentieth century bar none). A white washed wall acts as a shell to protect a domestic space with big windows looking out over a gorgeous garden.
Art Deco is an unfairly undervalued style of architecture which needs protecting. It promised luxury in a period when luxury was in short supply. Its use of architectural motifs from other cultures both exoticised and domesticated the foreign on the high streets of Britain. Its connections to colonialism and exploitation are not minimal and these need to be stressed.
Mike Hope’s book raises these issues and explores the style across the world in a fascinating and lucid book.
Mike Hope, Art Deco Architecture: the Interwar Period is available from all good bookstore.