05 February 2011

Art Deco objects and Hollywood glamour

People tend to think of Art Deco in the field of architecture and monumental sculpture. Consider, for example, the Deco dominance in American diners, English lidos, blocks of flats in Miami beach and most public buildings in Napier New Zealand. But small decorative objects were also important.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London drew a firm connection between Art Deco and Hollywood. Film, the most powerful medium of the modern age, established Art Deco as a global style. In Hollywood Art Deco reached its full potential for fantasy, glamour and mass popularity. In films such as Our Dancing Daughters, Grand Hotel, 42nd Street and the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Hollywood spun a magical web of luxury, youth, beauty, upward mobility, sexual liberation and rampant consumerism. Stars like Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford played racy, modern heroines who embodied Art Deco chic.

Ashtray and cigarette holder, bakelite roll tops

Waves of European émigré designers, directors, writers, actors and producers brought the Art Deco aesthetic to Hollywood. However, the values and culture their films conveyed were no longer European. The Hollywood dream was played out against a backdrop of fantastic Art Deco hotels, night-clubs, ocean liners and skyscrapers. Offering a heady cocktail of modern themes and high style, the films proved irresistible to millions worldwide.

Starlet Showcase blog has great images from Hollywood’s glamour days of the pre-WW2 era. One photo has many women doing synchronised water ballet in a fabulous Deco set. Even by Hollywood standards, it was over-the-top.

Chrome scent bottle shaped as the SS Normandie, Jean Patou, 1935

I liked that Deco was also known as the “P & O” look because of the charm, glamour and adventure that cruise ships symbolised. Various Deco features such as port-hole windows and hand rails were borrowed from ship design. Even more specifically, a Jean Patou perfume bottle was designed in the form of the SS NORMANDIE. Made in Paris in 1935, you can readily identify where the stylised ocean liner was intersected by a cylindrical bottle, with the centre stack acting as the perfume reservoir.

Every household object could be easily decorated in the Deco style. But it seems to me that some objects were particularly suited - those related glamorous, naughty and luxurious uses: alcohol, smoking, greyhounds, makeup, jewellery, fast cars, fast planes and fast ships.

Greyhound desk set, aluminium and marble

Easy and Elegant Life said people turned to the cinema to raise spirits, and put on a happy face. A whole generation went a little crazy celebrating the end of The War to End All Wars. The Golden Age celebrated glamorous sophistication.

Of course the Great Depression started in most countries in 1929 and lasted throughout most of the 1930s. Not many people did very well out of the Depression, and unemployment was rife. Even those who managed to hold on to decently paid jobs were careful about how they spent their income. So it was assumed that going to the cinema once a week was an indulgence that would make the Depression feel marginally less depressive.

Examine an American Art Deco chrome plated cigarette lighter c1930 where the user had to rotate the propeller clockwise to ignite the lighter. I don’t suppose anyone believed it was a priceless object, but it certainly was fun to own and to use. Same with the matching American ashtray and cigarette holder, with bakelite roll tops photographed at the top of this post.

Drinking cocktails, every now and again, would also made stressed people feel happier and more relaxed. The cocktail and smoking objects may have looked flashy, but they were usually not very expensive. Base metals were often used instead of pure silver or pure gold, and the decorative elements were usually painted or etched, rather than precious or semi precious jewels being used.

With alcoholic objects, there was yet another element. Prohibition in the USA continued throughout the period from 1920-1933, during which the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol for consumption were banned nationally. That made the use of alcohol even more glamorous, even naughtier, but only in the USA.

cigarette lighter (L) and compact (R)

A greyhound desk set (picture above) had two covered ink wells for holding inks. The stately greyhounds and the pen holder were made of polished aluminium, while the ink wells were made of finely faceted crystal and fitted with polished aluminium tops and supports. It all sat elegantly on a cream-colored marble base with polished aluminium disks for feet.

My favourite object was a combination camera powder compact (picture above) with brown and cream enamelling. It has a section for powder, cigarettes and a lipstick holder inserted into the end. Not a very large or important object, but a woman pulling this compact out of her handbag in the 1930s would have felt quite glamorous.

When pure silver was used, it was very glamorous indeed. Black onyx glass cocktail shakers (picture below), each with sterling silver decorative overlays and silver tops, were very expensive when they were made. A large, streamlined silver flask c1930 (picture below) in a masculine design was also indicative of the period. I particularly liked the bold stripes down the front, with a space for monogramming.

Black onyx glass cocktail shakers, USA, at Pullman Gallery

sterling silver flask, c1930, Ralph Lauren 

So Art Deco involved the use of up-to-date materials, emphasising Hollywood glamour and style where possible, providing a simplicity of design. A modern elegance and the use of streamlined geometry were associated with the Deco era, raising rather ordinary household objects to something a bit more impressive.

For the most glitzy, most streamlined, most Hollywood-inspired Deco objects made in the USA, see the book American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age by Stewart J. Johnson. This book, the companion volume to an exhibition that opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, showcased the most influential works. From chairs, dinnerware and textiles to lamps, cocktail sets and clocks, these glamorous objects still bowl the viewer over.

American Modern, by by Stewart J. Johnson

Objects Not Paintings presented a very interesting but slightly less glamorous piece of Deco. Note that the tray and chocolate bowl, made of glass, wood and gilded metal, was from Germany and not from the USA. Clearly European artists, the very people who created Art Deco in the first place, tried hard to emulate the glamour and glitz of American pieces. This very modern cocktail shaker set (picture below) was designed by Jean Després, French master of the streamlined aesthetic of the machine age.

cocktail shaker set, by Jean Depres, c1930


Hermes said...

I often used to see such small objects at auction - and I think you hit the right words, glamour and elegance.

P. M. Doolan said...

Isn't it funny how Art Deco objects retain that ageless sense of elegance. They have never looked dated in the slightest.

andrew1860 said...

This a great post. The Art Deco style is one of my favorite styles of the 20th century.

Billback said...

I liked your lectures on Art Deco a couple of years ago. My parents had a Deco cocktail cabinet. They didnt mix their own cocktails but they loved the glass behind each of the shelves inside. All the ice buckets, glasses, tongs and cherry sticks had their own dedicated spaces.

David Thompson said...

Great article Helen,

Architecture is the most accessible thing for the average person otherwise we have to go to museums or know a rich collector or two.


Hels said...


are you an auction fan too? Do you have an area of collecting that fascinates you?

I love the entire process of checking out objects in advance, doing the research, sitting in the auction house full of excitement and either taking home the object triumphantly or resigning myself to better luck next time.

I collected silver from the William and Mary/George I eras but got priced out of that market. So I moved to early porcelain which still delights me.

Hels said...

PM Doolan
good to hear from you.

In one sense the objects can be dated fairly accurately, just by inspecting them. You can be fairly confident they were made between 1925-39 and sometimes a bit later.

On the other hand, you would still be very proud to own them today. Whereas I look at my parents' 1950s formica table with skinny metal legs and think HOW COULD YOU?

Hels said...

Most people would agree with you that Deco was probably the favourite style of the entire 20th century.

It would be interesting to know why, and if the thinking differs between Europe (where Deco started) and America (where Deco was adapted and expanded).

Hels said...

Have a look at the unbelievably flashy cocktail cabinets in http://www.deco-dence.com/Bars%20-%20Sideboard.htm

Even the smallest objects inside had their own space and looked great.

Hels said...

isn't it interesting that some art movements travel by architecture (eg Deco) and some art movements travel by jewellery/book illustrations/other smalls (eg Art Nouveau).

Hermes said...

I do so enjoy your posts and the fascinting range of iinks you illustrate. Just after I retired I collected a number of things, particularly illustrated books, postcards, ephemera. And to pay for it (or some at least), I was a runner for several big book dealers if I saw something like a good Rackham. I enjoyed it and liked art deco stuff. My wife collected paintings and potrait miniatures.

Heather on her travels said...

The beautiful objects you've shown here do seem to epitomise modernity, luxury and glamour - they must have inspired a generation of modern designers

Hels said...

agreed. Imagine the excitement of fast cars, sleek trains and luxurious ocean liners, as well as Hollywood glamour. I think I was born too late.

Thomas Ryan said...

Indeed, your comments on my Art Deco door detail series (http://modernismtas.blogspot.com/2011/02/stunning-back-alley-deco-detailing.html#comments) does remind of the designs from your blog entry. Architecture, cars, furniture, cutlery, you name it - Modernism has something from the period.

Hels said...

one of the great joys of art and architectural history, and one that never ceases to amaze, is the transfer of cultural tastes from one country to another and from one medium to another.

Just consider how fortunate it is that a Deco shop front designed for the Paris Exhibition of 1925 would influence a cocktail cabinet in a Hollywood film in 1932 which would influence a door detail in Launceston in c1938.

And how fast it all happened in the Deco era! In a much earlier period, I imagine that the gothic taste took 100 years to spread from near Paris to the rest of Europe.

Viola said...

I love that era of glamour and elegance and the lovely Art Deco objects. Some of the architecture is a little bit bleak, though. I prefer Art Nouveau architecture, I think.
Thank you for the interesting post and gorgeous photos. Can I have the greyhound set for my desk, please?

Deana Sidney said...

Aside from the fact that I am now jonesing over most of those fabulous objects... great article about deco ... it has been a favorite of mine since I was a child and introduced to it on film... all those wonderful films of the 20's and 30's. Garbo has a few films that are love songs to deco with sweeping vaulted 40' ceilings and gorgeous lines... it really was gothic without the gewgaws... instead of religion it honored commerce.

I Wonder Wye said...

What gorgeous objects -- love them all and that era

Hels said...

a lot of people say they prefer Art Nouveau, especially women. It was more flowing, organic, female-oriented than Deco which tended to be more geometric, dynamic and more male-oriented. All those fast car influences, I suppose, that keep some men's hearts racing.

But the problem with Art Nouveau architecture is... there wasn't very much of it. Deco architecture, on the other hand, was hugely popular.

Hels said...

you are sooo spot on. I have seen PhD theses written on Garbo in particular eg "Greta Garbo and silent cinema: the actress as Art Deco icon". Wonderful stuff.

Religion? definitely not.
Commerce? not sure.
Speed? yes.

Hels said...

I Wonder Wye
Gorgeous aren't they. But I don't think I would have liked living through the Great Depression and the terrible build up to the 1939 war.

chudexs said...

wowo,,,, so good

Hels said...

welcome :) Deco objects aren't antiques yet, but they are the antiques of the future. Now is the time to buy!

EEH said...

Great post. I think that Art Deco lends itself so well to design, that it seems odd more people don't have pieces around there houses in the style. Beautiful and certainly one of my favorites.

Hels said...

agreed. Other art movements have privileged colour, romance, line, medieval handicraft skills, godliness, feminine charms or artistic cooperation.

But few movements were as clearly focused on good design as Bauhaus and Deco.

student of history said...

In class this morning, we were talking about the Deco's big first public statement in the Paris World Fair of 1925. When did Deco taste take off in America?

Hels said...


quite right. The 1925 World Fair (of Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes) in Paris was a seriously impressive presentation of French Art Deco to the rest of the world.

After the misery of WW1, Art Deco was popular in France because of its glamorous decorative value. And that is probably what endeared it to Hollywood so quickly. Within a short time after the 1925 World Fair, Americans were already keen to buy "smalls" in the glamorous Deco taste - jewellery, clothes, textiles, metalware, decorative art objects for the house.

But architecture, as you might expect, took longer.

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Hels said...

Randy and jacky

Thank you both.

I wonder if Deco design belongs in the 1925-40 era and it cannot be brought back to life today. Or if it can, the style should be called Neo-Deco because our era is so different from the Inter-War era.

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Hels said...


agreed. Art Deco was such a sharp, handsome design! I tend to think of Art Nouveau as feminine and Art Deco as masculine.

I wonder if the word "glamour" was attached to Art Deco before European émigré designers, directors and couturiers brought the Art Deco aesthetic to Hollywood.