Revision of classic book depicts art deco, Depression-era items


August 04, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

"This time we got it right," said Robert Heide, who, with his partner John Gilman, has updated and corrected their out-of-print art deco collector's bible, "Dime Store Dream Parade," which they wrote in 1979, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Great Depression.

"Popular Art Deco, Depression-Era Style and Design" (Abbeville, is the expanded version of their illustrated survey of popular culture 1925 to 1955, which they have researched for the last quarter century with the fervor of archaeologists.

Among some of the icons from their own collection memorialized in glossy photos in their book are: a Waterman's ink bottle; a patterned necktie; a cobalt blue refrigerator jug made by Hall China; an Evercraft chromium cocktail shaker with chrome glasses by Chase Brass and Copper Co.; a streamlined Sunbeam Automatic Mixer with jadite green bowls; a green-and-red pack of Lucky Strikes (designed by Raymond Loewy); a pair of gunmetal Frankart figures holding aloft a copper fruit bowl; a glass tumbler with black, red and white Scotties on it; Tangee makeup in orange boxes; brightly colored radios of Catalin, a type of cast plastic; a red Mobilgas Flying Horse; an American Flyer streamlined Snowplane sled; and a New York World's Fair license plate attachment with the trylon and perisphere logo.

By putting a dime-store cigarette case next to a 1967 Roy Lichtenstein painting, Mr. Heide and Mr. Gilman demonstrate how pop artists (Lichtenstein, Wesselman and Warhol) made us aware of this new avenue for collecting.

They trace the revival of interest in art deco to a 1966 exhibition at the Paris Museum of Decorative Arts. The following year the film "Bonnie and Clyde" was the first of the big technicolor movies in which vintage deco cars, clothing, locations and settings were used.

Soon '30s films began appearing on late-night television and at revival film houses and Walt Disney rereleased "Fantasia," which was a bigger hit in 1970 than it had been in 1940. "To Disney's embarrassment, it became a hit with the freaked-out drug/acid subculture, who saw in the psychedelic images and cartoon characters the visual counterpoint to getting high," Mr. Heide recalled.

Hippies, rock stars and Andy Warhol were the first connoisseurs of dime store deco, which includes Mickey Mouse, Catalin jewelry, blue-mirrored vanities and chrome furniture, which they found in Salvation Army and Goodwill stores.

Mr. Heide and Mr. Gilman have filled every inch of their tiny Greenwich Village apartment with these mass-consumer items, which they believe are the folk art of our century, ". . . as reflective of our life and times as the ceremonial treasures with which we line our museum walls." They see these objects from the Depression years as forward-looking. "It is an 'over the rainbow' optimistic style which culminated in the World of Tomorrow at the 1939-'40 New York World's Fair," Mr. Heide said.

Now that art deco is regarded as a "classic" 20th century style, and Machine Age objects are collected by museums, some of these objects culled from popular culture have been elevated to the mainstream, and appear in auction catalogs and at major antiques show along with the French art deco J. Ruhlmann exotic wood furniture, Edgar Brant's metal consoles, bronze-and-ivory statuary signed by F. Preiss and D. Chiparus, and examples of designer streamlined moderne.

Books on big-name artists published in the last decade all refer to the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs that gave art deco its name. Mr. Heide and Mr. Gilman also mention it, but they focus on the cheaper copies, made in the years following, which have their own merits.

For example, the base metal "nudies" made by Frankart Inc. in New York from the 1920s to the mid-1940s were inspired by French bronze-and-ivory statuettes. Arthur Von Frankenburg, the president of the company, produced his first "nudie" in 1921 and went on to make bookends, standing and table ashtrays, clocks, lamps and lighting with one or more nude female figures, sometimes holding a crackled glass globe in the air or perched on the rim of a flower vase. In the 1960s Frankart was selling for little more than its original price, $4 to $20, but now good examples sell for hundreds of dollars, with rare lamps fetching up to $2,000.

A Princess Pat duo-tone rouge case in red and black with a zigzag motif which sold for 10 cents in the 1920s might fetch $65 today. A blue glass Spartan radio Mr. Heide bought for $100 in the '60s is $3,000 now that Walter Darwin Teague has been identified as the designer.

"Echo deco" is what Mr. Heide and Mr. Gilman call the wide range of new art deco objects produced in the late 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s. They point out reproduction decorative statuary in the Frankart style and warn about non-vintage Florida flamingos, new Fiestaware and poster reprints, while admitting there are some splendid examples of "Echo deco."

So what are these professional scavengers collecting now? " 'Homefront Images World War II' is the next book we are working on," Mr. Gilman confessed. "We've got Victory hairpins and Rosie the Riveter red, white and blue snoods. We begin by searching in our own collection, then we venture out to find things by chance."

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