From the early years of the twentieth century until well into the 1930s Paris was the epicentre of a design movement that aimed to redefine the decorative arts in a very modern and particularly French way. The passing of time has done nothing to diminish its allure. Chris Yeo delves deeper.
Now, as we know, the French have a long and proud history in the decorative arts – they virtually invented the idiom – but, more than any other, there’s one style that encapsulates le style Francais. You might know it as Art Deco. The French called it Moderne. Ah, Art Deco. Just mention it and images of sleek ocean liners, peopled by impossibly beautiful characters wearing Cartier jewels and sipping Manhattan cocktails spring to mind. Or maybe it’s the futuristic styling of Max Sterm’s Metropolis or even the gaudy delights of the Odeon cinema – those streamlined and chrome-plated ‘peoples’ palaces’ that brought Hollywood glamour to the depression-ravaged masses of the 1930s. Art Deco emerged as a style for the new century and an ever-changing, fast-paced world of motor cars, air travel, flappers, and syncopated jazz. It’s the style of the Chrysler building, of the Zigfeld Follies and, as it happens, Victoria Coach Station; an intoxicating mix that continues to beguile us as much as it did in the Roaring Twenties.
Has there ever been a style more luxurious, glamorous, more imitated and, perhaps, less understood? Let’s start with the name. ‘Art Deco’ was actually only first coined in the late 1960s as a sort of two-hander to Art Nouveau which had preceded it. Also, far from being a single recognisable style, there were, in fact, many different strands, depending on when and where it popped up.
Italy, Sweden and, of course, America all had their own particular ‘takes’ on it. But nowhere did the style emerge more coherently than in France. Many books will tell you that Art Deco first surfaced at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the world expo held in Paris in 1925. Except that it didn’t. The Moderne style actually began to appear in France much earlier, around 1910 and was well into its stride by the time of the exhibition.
So, having de-bunked a couple of myths, let’s look at what is it that makes French Art Deco, sorry, Moderne, so distinctive. It’s all down to time and place. The French interpretation of the style was extremely luxurious, relying on rare and exotic materials like Macassar, ebony, lacquer, shagreen and mother-of-pearl, to give a sheen of glamour. As the centre of the world’s luxury goods market, Parisian designers were well-placed to take advantage of the readiness of these materials and could also draw on the world-leading expertise that Parisian craftsmen had in working them.
So much for place, as for time, le Style Moderne sought inspiration not from the modern industrial world, instead, it looked back in time to the world of Marie Antoinette and the French aristocracy. For a style so synonymous with the twentieth century, the French Moderne style is firmly rooted in the grand traditions of the 18th Century ancien régime – the political and social system of France before the revolution of 1789 – and its time-honoured traditions of apprenticeship and guild training.
During the 18th Century, France established itself in the forefront of the luxury trades, producing furniture, porcelain, glass, metalwork and textiles of unsurpassed refinement and elegance with Paris becoming the style capital of the western world. The ebenistes of Paris became the acknowledged masters of furniture making in Europe, supplying the homes and chateaux of the French court and aristocracy.
Some of the most beautiful and refined furniture ever made, displaying the highest level of artistic and technical ability, was created in Paris during the eighteenth century. Rather than breaking with tradition, the great designers of the 1920s saw themselves as inheritors of a grand tradition stretching back over two centuries. Tradition, however, was not the only source of inspiration. So too were the exotic, avant-garde trends in the fine arts and fashion. The vogue for exoticism developed following the arrival in Paris of the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his dance troupe, the Ballets Russes, in 1909, with its wildly atmospheric and outré productions. Léon Bakst’s design for Schéhérezade (1910), for example, featured lavish orientalist sets and costumes. The unexpected colour combinations, vivid patterns and louche furnishings – billowing curtains, low-slung divans, piles of tasselled pillows – were immediately imitated in stylish interiors by Paris artist-decorators.
Paris in the 1920s had an abundance of places where objects in the Moderne style were sold and displayed, mostly galleries, showrooms and shops on the more voguish Right Bank of the city centre. What were called Ensemblier showrooms, such as those of Emille-Jacques Ruhlmann, Süe et Mare and Martine, not only displayed individual pieces for sale but presented fully furnished interiors that suggested the range of what the ensemblier could produce on commission. At the more accessible end of the market, the four big Paris department stores established specialised decorating departments and many speciality shops, including Jean Luce, La Crémaillère and Le Grand Dépôt, which sold a wide range of glass, ceramics, linens and other utilitarian and decorative goods. It was as if Moderne had entered the DNA of the French capital.
For those in search of the Moderne style, Paris is, of course, a mere hop and skip over the channel but for a taste of the style that’s a little closer to home, Eltham Palace near Greenwich is a capsule of 1930s Parisian-inspired sophistication. Stephen and Virginia Courtauld of the eponymous textiles dynasty bought Eltham with its semi-ruined medieval Great Hall, moat and bridge, and rebuilt it as a dazzlingly sophisticated semi-rural hideaway. The saloon is a vast Moderne interior, lined with Australian black bean wood panelling, topped with a dome and finished off with a vast, circular, abstract carpet, the effect is like entering the First Class Lounge of a 1930s liner. Not that everyone felt that at the time: one editorial in The Times likened it to a cigarette factory.
The stock market crash of 1929 saw the optimism of the 1920s gradually decline. By the mid-1930s, Art Deco was being derided as a gaudy, false image of luxury. Despite its demise, however, Art Deco made a fundamental impact on subsequent design. Art Deco's widespread application and enduring influence prove that its appeal is based on more than visual allure alone.
Vive la France!
Click here to visit our lookbook 'Iconic Geometry' for our take on an Art Deco inspired interior.
Or click here to shop our full collection of Art Deco pieces.