Putting on the Glitz: celebrating Art Deco

Philippa Stockley says we killed Art Deco because we couldn't bear its beauty
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Foyer of Daily Express Building
© Morley von Sternberg
The glorious foyer of the Daily Express Building, Fleet Street, 1932; designed by Owen Williams and recently fully restored
Elegant, sophisticated, streamlined, shiny and sexy... Art Deco is oh, so sexy, compared with clunky Postmodernism. Yet, one led to the other.

Postmodernism took many motifs from Art Deco and messed with them. In the years before the Second World War the bright hope of Art Deco was crushed, and replaced by something cruder and more brutal.

'These rooms and sweeping buildings were made for a brave new world of hope, delight, light and beauty'

How could something so lovely ever last? What the RIBA's fascinating exhibition of 100 photos of interiors and architecture (most in London) shows is that, after 1918, these rooms and sweeping, fluid white buildings were made for a brave new world of hope, delight, light and beauty. Nothing horrible could happen in such perfect places.

Here are the Odeon picture palaces with their soaring, rippling coffered ceilings, like the vast salons of transatlantic ships; the dance clubs and restaurants with sweeping stairs for that grand Hollywood-style entrance in black tie and gardenia; those bedrooms with polished steel, mirrors and incredibly crisp whiteness, in which romance was a certainty; the all-modern bathrooms of shiny surfaces, chromium and steel, in which youth and beauty would be reflected for ever… or the blocks of flats that Hercule Poirot might sail out of in a panther-like coupé. What stands out is their beauty. But, just years later, the dream was smashed.

The term Art Deco was only invented in the 1960s. Originally, it was called "Moderne". It started in Paris, as an early design for a bar shows: a style America would later claim for diners and speakeasies.

In London, domestic interiors began to dazzle as with the amazing bedroom at Gayfere House in Smith Square, from 1931, while Lord and Lady Mount Temple's new house was straight out of Brideshead Revisited, done with designer Oliver Hill and immediately nicknamed Lady Mount Temple's Crystal Palace. The entrance hall had peach-tinted mirrors and a staircase of black-and-white marble; but it is the mirrored recess that the bed sits in that screams hedonistic luxury, and the way the walls chamfer invisibly into the ceiling, keeping all eyes on the bed.

Seek out, too, the bathroom that the husband of famous dancer Tilly Losch had designed for her by painter Paul Nash with the smoothest chrome fixtures and fittings. Nash lined the wall with stippled white glass with silver alloy behind, creating a purplish effect, like Lalique.

Design for a French bar
© RIBA Library Photographs Collection
A design for a French bar (below) shows how Paris gave birth to a look America would later claim for its diners
Not least among many delights is the astonishing entrance hall to the Daily Express building in Fleet Street, done in 1932. The glass-box and black exterior, designed by Owen Williams, could not prepare visitors for the inside, in which the steel is so highly polished it looks like a melting limb from the film Terminator. Evelyn Waugh ridiculed it in Scoop as a "Byzantine vestibule". Nevertheless, this shamelessly glamorous foyer, once at risk of destruction, has now been restored.

Putting on the Glitz: a free exhibition until November 26

Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, W1 (architecture.com)

High-quality prints can be made of any of the images on show from only £20 for A4 to £75 for A2. There are order slips at the show.

A talk, Puttin' on the Glitz, is on November 15, at 6.30pm, tickets £5 each. Call 020 7307 3699, or book at architecture.com/programmes.

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