After waxing and waning in popularity for nearly a century, art deco will soon be 100 years old – and officially classed as ‘antique’.
Art deco is widely referenced as the bold, decorative style that flourished internationally in the 1920s and 30s, between the two world wars, before being swept aside by mid-century modernism and the atomic age.
However, the first hints of the style could be seen as early as the start of the 20th century, and some historians trace art deco’s roots to the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the world’s fair held in Paris to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next.
But it was the 1925 L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris that is most closely linked to art deco and that gave the movement its name, derived by shortening the words ‘Arts Décoratifs’ from the title.
Created by French designers, art deco is characterised by rich colours, bold geometric shapes, sleek machine-age looks, and lavish ornamentation. “It was a reaction to the over-design and embellishment of Victorianism, which was over-decorated, over-carved, very dark, lots of objects and mass-produced,” says Matthew Lucas from Fremantle antique dealer Lauder & Howard.
“With art deco, the slate was wiped clean. It was about simplicity, modernity. It was also a new century, as well as the social and political revolution, in which women became more empowered and houses became smaller. It marked the end of 200 years of a pretty similar society. Everything was reborn.”
The style became a global phenomenon when it was embraced by Hollywood, which showcased amazing sets, costumes and furniture that local designers around the world could copy. The 1934 film Cleopatra, starring Claudette Colbert, was a particularly dazzling showcase of art deco fashion and interior design.
Art deco rejected Victorian timbers, such as mahogany, and introduced rosewood and bur timbers. Porcelain, glass, marble, Bakelite, Vitrolite and leather became widely used, and chroming as a technology was introduced. It was shiny, modern and revolutionary.
“Good art deco is really luxurious,” says Matthew. “It’s simple but beautiful, and looks great with modern architecture. Gucci stores are still very much art deco.”
Art deco has always been popular, though experts agree there has been a particular surge in the last five years. They say its status as an official antique is unlikely to create a boom in popularity. “It’s more about aesthetics,” says Matthew. “I don’t think our generation really cares about it being an ‘antique’ or not.”
Popularity is more likely to be influenced by its recent appearances on screen in The Great Gatsby movie and the Underbelly: Razor series. Sydney high-end art deco specialist DecoDiva supplied many items for both productions, and owner Mark Meredith said it was not only exciting to be involved but also exciting to see the impact on the popularity of the style.
“Art deco was extremely popular last year and this year because of these influences,” says Mark. “I think art deco constantly reinvents itself. Today’s new generation of buyers are looking for specific, dynamic pieces of art. They’re generally not collectors but just looking to furnish their homes with a few art deco accents.”
Mark says lighting, bronzes, decanter sets and different types of porcelain are particularly popular. “Czech art deco sculptures have made a real impact over the last few years and we’ve got a lot of new clients. Some people who wouldn’t have considered art deco in the past are becoming its biggest fans.”
DecoDiva has one of the best collections of art deco in Australia. Decorative items range from original 1930s tea sets and Karl Palda Czech geometric glassware, to bronze and sculptures, ranging in price from $100 to $8000.
Locally, Subiaco Antiques & Fine Jewellery is extremely busy with people seeking art deco jewellery. “It’s the busiest we’ve ever been on this front,” says owner Emma Gryg. “I think art deco translates well for West Australians and Australians who aren’t too prissy. The style is quite modern, strong, bold, streamlined and clean compared with the Victorian period, which was more flowery and gentle.
“Art deco marks a lovely period of time, during which there were a lot of changes, including the introduction of electricity and the car, and society was no longer necessarily doing things to please Queen Victoria [who had died in 1901]. But it was a short period,” says Emma. “Another war came and talented men were displaced or sent to war and the creative juices just stopped flowing.”
Emma says all the art deco pieces she bought on a recent buying trip to France were sold within a week, including small pieces of porcelain, marble statues and deskware. But she says it’s jewellery that is most popular, making up 80 per cent of all her art deco sales.
“There’s particular demand from young ladies wanting a different, unique engagement ring,” says Emma. “And, of course, diamonds still win.” Art deco engagement rings range from around $6000 to $10,000, but you can pay over $20,000, and Emma sold one a few years back for $42,000.
Big names in deco include Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Jean Dunand and Eileen Gray: the best pieces of furniture tend to come from France, and decorative items from France, the Czech Republic and Germany, plus New York and Chicago.
Christie’s 2009 auction of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection of 20th century decorative arts showcased some of the best pieces of the era, and attracted record prices. Eileen Gray’s ‘dragons armchair’ (c1917-1919) fetched €21,905,000 ($32,662,320), a world auction record for 20th century decorative art and design, and Jean Dunand’s ‘two monumental vases’ (1925) went for €3,089,000 ($4,605,976).
Art deco collectors are generally looking for chairs, sideboards, tables, glassware and bronzes. Anything with a plywood component should be avoided – a lot of lower-end Australian, English and New Zealand art deco pieces were a plywood construction with veneer on top. You can find an Australian mass-produced art deco-style sideboard for around $400. Or you can pay up to $35,000 for a top-quality sideboard, or more if it was designed by someone famous, though it’s very rare to find a name on a piece because there were so many manufacturers.
Like anything, you should buy the best quality you can afford. As with any antiques, however, it’s about finding quality pieces you like rather than what you think might be a good investment.