Defined by the elegant decadence of the roaring twenties and thirties, Art Deco represents one of the greatest design periods of the 20th century.
Affecting all forms of art from architecture and interior design to fashion and the visual arts, it remains a driving force within the design industry.
Originating in France prior to the 1st World War, this movement’s pivotal moment came at the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts held in Paris in 1925. Organised by La Societe des Artistes Decorateurs, a group primarily composed of French Art Nouveau designers, it is this show from which ‘Art Deco’ derives its name. Interestingly, this term was coined in 1968 by art critic Bevis Hillier in her book ‘Art Deco of the 20s & 30s’ and only then considered as separate to the Modernist movement.
The Art Deco approach was derived from numerous early 20th century art styles, combining Cubism, Constructivism, Modernism and Futurism. It is also considered the unifying conclusion to Art Nouveau, a period which had a similarly wide ranging influence between 1890 and 1915.
Eclectic and ostentatious, Art Deco represented the move away from the forced austerity brought on by the 1st World War. Beginning as a modernist’s reimagining of the more effeminate and organic forms that defined the Art Nouveau era, this fresh, bold approach often showcased the latest in technological advances and scientific progress. New materials such as aluminium, stainless steel and plastics were introduced during this time. Popular high quality materials such as glass, horn and ivory continued to be used with more elaborate items including shagreen, lacquer and inlaid marquetry added to enhance the overall aesthetic.
Architecturally, Art Deco favoured a distinctly mathematical approach, often featuring angular streamlined shapes alongside bold colours and geometric detailing. The resulting buildings are extremely impressive and did much to demonstrate the sense of recuperation felt at the time. This also extended to the types of buildings produced. Predominantly these buildings featured in the entertainment industry, with cinemas and theatres often designed in this style.
London’s architectural skyline was transformed during this period and boasts some of the finest remaining examples of this movement. Now confined to commercial sector buildings, the theme proved popular for newspapers, with the Daily Express and Daily Telegraph headquarters considered two of the best symbols of Art Deco.
Despite being popular over in the USA and most of continental Europe, Britain never truly adopted the Art Deco movement in the residential market. It was only in 1929 that two ambitious architects submitted plans for what was to become the country’s first significant modernist home. Located in Buckinghamshire, a newly popular commuter area, their project ‘High and Over’ was a collaboration between famed New Zealand Architect Amayas Connell and owner Professor Bernard Ashmore (the future director of the British Museum).
The finished house which was Y shaped, constructed in reinforced concrete and rendered in stark white, was met with hostility and uproar. A visit from Country Life in 1931, who produced the first reasonably complimentary review, helped influence the public’s perception for Modernist homes. Although this took many years, High and Over is now Grade II listed and regarded as one of the most important buildings of the first half of the 20th century.
This success led to more residential projects, with the most famous arguably being Florin Court on Charterhouse Square. Built in 1936 by Guy Morgan and Partners (proteges of Edwin Lutyens), it features an impressive curved façade with projecting wings, a roof garden, setbacks on the ninth and tenth floors and a basement swimming pool. It was also used as the home of Agatha Christie’s fictional character Poirot, a popular British television series set in the 30s.
Whilst there are many buildings in London constructed in the Modernist style, true monuments to the Art Deco movement are rare. Here are three of the finest:
1. Daily Express
Arguably London’s most iconic Art Deco building, the Daily Express headquarters remains a landmark structure even amongst its modern surroundings.
Commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook and built in 1932 the project was completed in two stages. The first, designed by Ellis & Clarke formed a steel-framed structure clad in portland stone. This would later prove impractical due to complications arising from the internal layout. The revision was overseen by English architect Sir Evan Williams and saw a complete redesign of the original. Reworking the facade in black Vitrolite panels with chromium strip jointing, giving the building a typically Art Deco streamlined appearance.
The lobby, designed by Robert Atkinson, includes 2 works by British sculpture Eric Aumonier, it is considered one of the finest and most elaborate examples of Art Deco interiors in the UK.
The building was granted Grade II listed status in 1972.
2. Ideal House
Built in 1924, Ideal House sits on the corner of Argyll Street and Great Marlborough Street. Designed by architects Raymond Hood and John Howells for the American National Radiator Company and inspired by the firm’s New York headquarters on Bryant Street.
Constructed using polished black granite blocks, the facade features elaborate enamel friezes and cornices in gold with additional detailing in yellow, orange and green. Now known as Palladian House, it is largely comprised of residential units with a restaurant on the ground floor.
The building was awarded Grade II listing in 1981.
3. BBC Broadcasting House
Designed by George Val Meyer and Watson Hart for the BBC, Broadcasting House was Britain’s first purpose built broadcasting facility. Situated on Portland Place, the steel-framed portland stone clad structure was opened in 1932. Alongside an ornamental clock and decorative latticework, it features sculptures by Eric Gill and Gilbert Baynes to the main entrance and western facade.
It was awarded Grade II listed status in 1981.