'Celebrating flamboyance, frivolity and forward-thinking, the art-deco period is one of the most exciting eras of design', writes Daniel Allen
From shimmering flapper skirts and cloche hats to sacque suits and straw fedoras, the art-deco movement of the 1920s and '30s was the epitome of style and sophistication. Much more than just a period-clothing trend, however, it came to represent a daring mix of glamour, excess and functionality that radically influenced all aspects of design.
Given its hedonistic nature and connection with the decadent lifestyle, it's little wonder that art deco has enjoyed a timeless appeal. With Baz Luhrmann's blockbuster, The Great Gatsby, hitting cinemas late last year, art deco is now more prevalent than ever, with a growing range of luxury hotels, retailers and designers trying to satisfy a global fascination. If it never really went away, then art deco is now back with a vengeance.
"Celebrating flamboyance, frivolity and forward-thinking, the art-deco period is one of the most exciting eras of design, mixing the natural forms of art nouveau with the modern influences of cubism and futurism," says Thomas Kochs, general manager of Claridge's hotel in London. "For me, the bold lines and sweeping curves of the style make it particularly attractive."
While art deco was born in Paris in the 1920s, it didn't take long for its influence to spread to London. For many, it was simply about letting off steam after the doom and deprivations of the early 20th century. Today, the British capital is littered with examples of iconic period architecture, while sumptuous hotels, such as Claridge's and the recently renovated Savoy, sit at the heart of a growing art-deco trend.
"Afternoon tea in Claridge's art-deco-styled Foyer has always been an institution," says Guy Oliver, a London-based architecture and design specialist.
"With Gatsby fever currently sweeping the nation, the hotel recently introduced Charleston classes and architecture tours have really complemented the whole art-deco experience. When you can finish your day off with a gin sling or two in The Fumoir bar, the roaring '20s really comes alive." After a US$360 million revamp, the reopening of The Savoy hotel in 2010 has given London's love of all things deco a shot in the arm. Highlights include a new crystal fountain by Lalique in the entrance, the Thames Foyer's stunning glass dome, and the glamorous Beaufort Bar, a temple to art-deco excess with its black velvet and huge quantities of gold leaf.
Savoy guests should be sure to dine at Kaspar's, a seafood restaurant which opened in May. "The new eatery is pure art-deco theatre," says aficionado Paul Nicholls-Whiteman. "I was dazzled by the cut glass, chequer-board marble floor and the central circular bar heaped with oysters and shellfish. Enjoy panoramic views of the River Thames while you revel in the sheer opulence."
Nicholls-Whiteman is not surprised by art deco's growing popularity. "Yes, of course, period productions such as The Great Gatsby and Downton Abbey have inspired some people," he says. "But I think it goes deeper than that. Art deco is about liberation - freedom to express emotion and good taste, to have fun, to be optimistic. After the frugal times of the recent global recession, it was only natural that people wanted to put a little pizzazz back into their lives."
On the other side of the world to London, it was the forces of nature which led to the development of another increasingly popular destination for art-deco lovers. After a massive earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed the New Zealand town of Napier in 1931, talented local architects jumped at the chance to rebuild the downtown area in contemporary architectural style.
"It wasn't until 2001 that visiting architectural historians pointed out that instead of the three buildings which survived the earthquake, which we thought constituted our heritage, it was the 140 buildings of the 1920s and 1930s that were the real treasures," explains Sally Jackson, general manager of Napier's Art Deco Trust.
Thousands of people now flock to Napier to take part in the Tremains Art Deco Weekend, held annually in the town on the third weekend in February. The Art Deco Trust organises more than 200 events, including outdoor concerts, vintage car parades, fashions shows, steam train rides and a Gatsby picnic. Next month's event, set to take place from February 19 to 23, will include special aero displays and street parties.
"All nationalities and age groups come here to get involved," Jackson says. "Why do they love art deco? I guess it's a chance to dress up, to lose yourself in the moment, to be stylish without taking everything too seriously. Art deco has its detractors, of course, but it also inspires great enthusiasm in people who appreciate the era's unique qualities."
North of Napier, further along the Pacific Rim, nowhere embodied the decadent, gin-and-jazz culture of the art-deco era more than Shanghai. As the New Zealand town was rising from the ashes, architects in China's booming, colonial-era metropolis were busy tearing down the Beaux-Arts buildings of earlier decades and replacing them with ever more decorative examples of the new movement.
Tea dances were a social highlight of the week in 1930s Shanghai, when the elite of society would twist and twirl to the sounds of big band swing. Today, Shanghai's recently reopened art-deco masterpiece, the Fairmont Peace Hotel, has reinstated the afternoon tradition. Elegantly attired couples once again move across the dance floor under the exquisite art-deco dome of the Jasmine Lounge.
"It's like the roaring 20s never went away," enthuses Shanghai-based architect and luxury concierge Spencer Doddington.
"Art deco reflected a key period in modern cultural history - the age of Greta Garbo and the world's first skyscrapers. These days people want to put a little bit of the fun and optimism of that era back in their lives. Even if it's not here to stay, enjoy the moment. After all, that's part of the art deco philosophy."
The Tremains Art Deco Weekend in the town of Napier has something to offer everyone. For first-timers, there will be a special guided tour to introduce Napier’s art-deco heritage. Meanwhile, car lovers can take a spin on vintage cars (think sedans, convertibles and rumble seats) or, for the more adventurous, get behind the wheels of an old traction engine to experience the machinery’s rattle and the distinctive smell of burning coal. The weekend is a celebration of art deco, jazz, swing dancing and fine food that will whisk you back to the roaring ’20s.