Art Deco is one of those terms that everyone has heard of, but few find it easy to define what it is. Still fewer know why it is the way it is. The following guide is an attempt to do both.
Table Of Contents:
- Colours & materials
- Patterns and shapes
- Fixtures and accessories
- Artwork & decor
- Maintenance and care
AN INTRODUCTION TO ART DECO STYLE
Art Deco evolved at the beginning of the 20th century during a period of intense aesthetic experimentation. Art movements such as Fauvism, Cubism, Bauhaus, Constructivism, De Stijl, Futurism, Orphism & Surrealism all helped shape the style’s modernist aesthetic. The structure of Art Deco was founded on geometric forms which drew heavily on i) Graeco/Roman Classicism, the faceted architectural forms of Babylon, Assyria, Ancient Egypt, and Aztec/Mayan Mexico – notably their ziggurats & pyramids, & ii) Machine Age streamline designs derived from aviation, telecommunication & oceanliner architecture. Consequently, Art Deco cannot be understood as a single style, but as a collection of different, and sometimes contradictory styles, which is both its strength and its weakness. It is commonly viewed as a hodge-podge of different styles, an eclectic amalgamation of various influences, materials and shapes. This accounts for its being hard to differentiate from other contemporary design movements such as the Bauhaus.
By 1925, the year of the ‘Exposition Internationale des Art Decoratifs et Industriel Moderne’ held in Paris, two different competing schools coexisted within Art Deco: the traditionalists, typically European, and the modernists, typically American, who increasingly rejected the influences of the past and wanted a style based on advances in new technologies, restrained decoration, inexpensive materials and mass production. Their inspiration was not based on ancient cultures but new scientific breakthroughs, industrial machinery, automobiles, trains & the cinema.
American skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building, the Empire State, and the Rockefeller Plaza represented the pinnacle of the Art Deco style. The structures often combined Gothic with modern Deco elements, e.g. the Chrysler, with its stainless steel spire & Deco ‘gargoyles’ in the form of radiator cap decorations. Australian examples include the Grace Building in Sydney and the Manchester Unity Building in Melbourne, with their flying buttresses. But the skyscraper aesthetic influenced more than just the construction of tall buildings. Even those of a far more modest size sought to capture the sensation of great height, emphasising the buildings verticality by employing various architectural illusions. This emphasis on verticality, and a desire to create a “New York skyline” effect was manifested in the surface decoration of individual rooms, including the walls of the bathroom.
In its latter phase, post Great Depression, the Art Deco style changed again and became more sober, though it was not prepared to abandon extravagance altogether. By the mid ‘30s, responding to the effects of the Depression and radical architectural trends from Europe – Bauhaus & De Stijl, etc, a form of Art Deco emerged known as Streamline Moderne, or the Ocean liner Style, which was inspired by luxury ships like the Queen Mary & the S.S. Normandie. Buildings in this style had rounded corners and long horizontal lines, often with nautical features such as porthole windows and balcony railings resembling those on a ship. It was a style that quite naturally became associated with transport, but also with certain geographic locations. In Australia it was especially popular in coastal and harbourside suburbs like Bondi, Manly & St Kilda.
While a version of Art Deco continued to be produced after the world economy rebounded in the early 1930s, it tended to focus on products targeted towards a mass market and mass entertainment – the movies being perhaps the most conspicuous, but also fun fairs (Luna Park in Sydney), and pub architecture. One thinks in particular of the complex tiled facades, but also of the framed paintings affixed to the exterior of pub walls depicting men & women engaged in sporting activities and social functions. These places were intended to create a visual escape from reality.
One of the biggest achievements of the Art Deco movement was the fact that almost everything could be seen as art – from something as simple as clocks & ashtrays to more complex creations like trains and office buildings. This demonstrated Art Deco’s quest to find beauty in all facets of life. It achieved this by focusing on the elegance and mass appeal of objects that already existed around us. Another accomplishment of the Art Deco era was its democratic perspective. Artists attempted to make even the simplest & mundane objects as aesthetically pleasing as possible – an impulse that went all the way back to the mid 19th century English designer William Morris.
ART DECO BATHROOMS DECOR
When we think of Art Deco interiors, and bathrooms in particular, we tend to think in terms of those found in luxury European villas or New York apartments in the sky, but the everyday reality is quite different. In fact, most houses and apartments built during the period between the wars, whether Californian Bungalows or Ocean Liner style cottages, Neo-Georgian or Deco apartment blocks, employed a form of Art Deco interior design, be that early, middle or late phase styling.
COLOURS & MATERIALS
Decoration in the Art Deco period (approx. 1919-1939) went through several distinct phases. In its pre-war ‘proto’ Deco interation, Art Deco exhibited an explosion of colours, featuring bright hues, frequently in floral designs, presented in furniture, carpets, fabrics, etc. Its inspiration had many sources, including the exotic set designs & costumes by Leon Bakst for the Ballets Russes, plus the bright, fresh colour palette of Henri Matisse and the Fauves. Cubism was another art movement that influenced the development of Art Deco, particularly in terms of its geometric interpretation of shapes. In fact Cubism had a profound effect on everything, including the interior designers of the day. This phase of the style is intimately associated with luxury, combining expensive, exotic materials: ivory, mother-of-pearl, ebony, shark skin, silver inlay, and exquisite craftsmanship.
From the latter half of the ‘20s on, new industrial materials began to impact the form of household objects, especially in the bathroom and laundry, where hygiene and ease of maintenance were a priority, e.g. aluminium, chrome, tube steel and bakelite (an early type of plastic). But while shapes became more streamlined, and materials more ‘industrial’, strong colour remained a key element in bathroom decor, perhaps to compensate for the simplification of other aspects.
Apart from white, a rich buttery yellow, pale chartreuse green combined with a deeper jade green were popular, all of which were accented with black. Pewter grey, and a mottled inky blue contrasted with a mottled gold were not uncommon. Deep pink & shades of vermilion were also used, but rarely. Any other colour was provided by the narrow tubeline ‘pencil’ tiles that provided the only other decorative accent to the walls. The predominant colours used were black, vivid orange, deep green, brown, yellow, and occasionally burgundy. Bathroom floors, though not as ornately patterned as in the Victorian or Federation eras, were not devoid of pattern or colour. Terrazzo became a favoured material for not only bathroom floors, but entrances to apartment blocks, verandahs and pathways. Other materials included tapestry mosaics, penny round & octagonal mosaics featuring classical style borders, e.g. Greek Key & Dentil patterns in black & white or blue & white. Simple geometric tessellated patterns also continued to be used throughout this period.
PATTERNS & SHAPES
The early phase of Art Deco combined fine craftsmanship & rich materials with ‘modern’ styling, which was a heady cocktail of diverse motifs from ancient Egypt, Africa, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece & Rome, Asia, Mesoamerica & Oceania. During this period European designers and their products established the look & tone of Art Deco. Patterns such as bouquets & baskets of fruit & flowers, the sinuous forms of animals (gazelles, greyhounds & panthers) and svelte young women striking dramatic attitudes tended to prevail.
The second half of the 1920s witnessed a shift away from this ornate, some would say ‘feminine’, version of Art Deco towards a simpler, sleeker interpretation inspired by science, new materials & technologies including the aerodynamic principles developed for aviation and ballistics, and new machines – airships, automobiles, ocean liners and anything to do with speed, power and electricity. Bullet shapes were applied to a wide range of products, from cars and trains to refrigerators, radios & vacuum cleaners. This latter phase of Art Deco is characterised by trapezoidal, zig-zag & triangular shapes, chevron patterns, stepped forms, sweeping curves & sunburst motifs. In bathrooms, or wherever tiles were used, these geometric shapes were manifested in the thin strip tiles that decorated the walls at about eye level, and in small 10x10cm square tiles featuring stylised flowers or sunburst motifs.
Throughout the period, and especially in the 1930s, the motifs used to decorate the walls of buildings often expressed the function of that building – theatres were decorated featuring images of music, dance, theatre, etc; power companies depicted sunrises; the Chrysler Building sported stylised hood ornaments. At the domestic level, Art Deco bathrooms would feature ‘clam-shell’ soap dishes and dolphin head-shaped bath spouts.
One of the most striking aspects of Art Deco interiors is the huge variety of light fittings. During this period electric lighting was still in its infancy, and designers embraced the challenge of creating light fittings for this new medium with passion and unrestrained originality. Lighting design underwent a dramatic transformation in styling from the beginning to the end of the era.
Characterised by symmetrical patterns & geometric details, Art Deco lighting employed a wide variety of finishes to create a modernist effect: tiered, elongated architectural forms featuring everything from skyscraper & pyramid inspired shades to stepped finials.
As technology advanced, electric light bulbs became much brighter, creating the need for shades with more natural diffused light. All of this contributed to the Art Deco movement in lighting which featured a range of subsets in style & design:
- Glass panels obscuring the light bulb
- Faceted forms with stepped fan details
- Cascading tiered silhouettes
- Slipper-style shades, with ornately cast or etched glass detailing
Most of the light fixtures presented at the 1925 Paris expo were of the type defined by the use of expensive materials & intricate craftsmanship, often featuring geometric and/or botanical motifs. Many of the stereotypical Deco lighting designs, the streamlined ones, emerged in the 1930s. These were characterised by aerodynamic, modern profiles with minimal detailing and clean lines, often with hand-blown glass shades of a milky/opalescent appearance. The glass could also be detailed with floral motifs, sometimes multi-coloured, or accented with thin horizontal bands of silver.
Choosing & using light fittings
The 1st thing to consider when choosing your light fitting is the size & height of the room. Early 20th century homes often have high ceilings but a small-mid sized footprint, so a pendant light with a simple shaped glass shade is recommended, especially considering the amount of steam created (unless you have an extractor fan). This will provide general lighting, but for shaving & make-up special task lighting is necessary. In Art Deco bathrooms, either a single task light mounted above the mirror, or sconces (wall mounted lights) bracketed either side of the mirror were favoured. Both options remain the standard arrangement even to this day.
There are several local suppliers of quality lights (pendants, sconces, lamps) in the Art Deco style. Alternatively, you can seek out original pieces in junk shops and auction houses.
FIXTURES & ACCESSORIES
Early phase Art Deco furniture & fixtures (from 1910 till early 1920s) were, in the hands of its French designers & manufacturers, an update of traditional styles with a nod to Cubism & Fauvism, but the costly & exotic designs of Ruhlmann and other traditionalists infuriated the modernists like Eileen Grey & Le Corbusier. He championed an approach to design using inexpensive, mass produced materials that ordinary people could afford. In the 1930s, furniture & bathroom fixture design morphed again, with smoother surfaces and curved forms that used a mixture of traditional and modern materials, such as stone & chromed tube steel.
In homes & apartments with larger sized bathrooms, the bath &/or the shower were frequently set into a niche framed by solid walls. Occasionally, space permitting, the bath tub would protrude, lengthwise, into the centre of the room. Ceramic pedestal basins topped with a shaving cabinet were favoured. In situations where a double basin was employed, it was supported on a chromed metal frame with elegant legs and rails for towels. In general, towel rails were chromed tube steel rods attached to the wall with diamond shaped, or dolphin head shaped ceramic finials. Most bathroom accessories were ceramic in shades of jade green, black or a creamy yellow. Round and octagonal mirrors were popular during this era.
ARTWORK & DECOR
Art is a very personal aspect of interior design and choosing something for the bathroom poses several practical problems:
- Will the steam damage the artwork &/or the frame?
- If it comes off the wall, will the broken glass injure someone?
- Given the reasons for using it and the time spent, will the artwork be appreciated?
In most cases the desire to provide some visual interest in this room is satisfied by the tiling, but if you want to enhance or supplement the décor of the bathroom there are a few options. Of course, if you have an extractor fan to remove the steam then artworks on paper or canvas will be safe from damage.
Options for art in a bathroom
- Select a ceramic tile or tiles that are highly decorated to include in the tiled surface
- Combine several ceramic plates on a wall using special ‘plate brackets’
- Hang a ceramic, carved stone or terracotta low relief sculpture or plaque
Once the practical concerns have been addressed, the next question is what to choose. As I said, this is very personal, but if you are looking to display something that will complement the styling of your Art Deco bathroom, several options immediately suggest themselves:
- Reproductions of Cubist or Fauve paintings, especially Picasso or Matisse nudes
- Reproductions of paintings by Tamara di Lempicka – the quintessential Art Deco artist
- Reproductions of the art panels that used to decorate the facades of Aussie pubs
Apart from wall art, other décor options are authentic ceramic or glass vases and figurines, or small table lamps from the period, which can still be sourced from antique dealers, junk shops & auction houses.
MAINTENANCE & CARE
Art Deco can be described as the 1st truly 20th century artistic style, due in part to the lack of domestic staff. This was made possible as a result of technological innovations & labour saving devices like vacuum cleaners and electric heaters. Art Deco interiors were designed to be easy to clean & maintain. Today, we are the beneficiaries of that egalitarian drive which saw furniture, fixtures and myriad household items designed in a sleek, streamlined way which ensures they are easy to care for.
Since the renewed interest in Art Deco in the late 1960s, it has remained popular (if niche) ever since. Its elegance & glamour, combined with its utilitarian, symmetrical structure and geometric forms & patterns have enabled it to respond to the constantly changing political, economic and aesthetic conditions of the past 50+ years. Its shapes are distinct and dynamic, its patterns strong, colours bright. It is bold, confident, endlessly innovative and flashy (though rarely kitsch).
Of all the period styles that have been revived over the past half century, it is perhaps Art Deco, born over 100 years ago, that we today have the greatest affinity with in our daily lives. That post war era was the first to experience the widespread use of electric lights, radio, cinema, jazz, record players, telephones, myriad electric powered household appliances, skyscrapers and aeroplanes. It witnessed world war, world economic collapse, a pandemic, political revolution, Einstein, Freud, Stravinsky, Picasso & Cubism, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb – and it embraced them all, turning them into a style that spanned the globe, creating products that could be enjoyed by millionaires & factory workers, movie stars & farmers.
In terms of its impact on interior design, especially bathroom design, it was the style that championed simplicity of form and pattern, streamlined shapes, the use of mass produced, maintenance-friendly products like chromed steel, aluminium, bakelite, and terrazzo. Whether it is the creation of a separate shower space, pedestal basins, or wall mounted lights in concert with mirrors, Art Deco established the template upon which we still design our bathrooms. And despite all of our technological advances in recent years, some of the products designed by the pioneers of Art Deco – Rene Lalique, EJ Ruhlmann, Coco Chanel, & Eileen Grey have never been surpassed. Trends ebb & flow, but the influence of Art Deco is so significant and sustained that it is permanently ingrained into contemporary design.