The glam geometrics of deco have come home again Design: The furniture style that was first popular from the 1920s to the 1940s is reappearing in a big way.

September 27, 1998|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

She, in a sequined evening gown, lounges languidly on a high-backed settee with arms that swoop down into near nothingness. He, tall and refined in white tie and tails, mixes martinis in a chrome container, pouring ingredients from cut-glass decanters on top of a deeply fluted liquor cabinet. The room is seductively lighted with silver table lamps and small sconces; geometric shapes catch the eye on the walls and tables; the figurine of a lithe maiden, draped in a wispy fabric and holding a globe aloft, graces a desktop.

She could be Ginger Rogers, he, Fred Astaire, preparing for a night on the town. The setting for this scene of unrestrained elegance is unmistakably art deco. Of course.

Our love of deco has been like any love affair, full of ups and downs. It burned with the passion of young love from the 1920s and into the 1940s. Then our collective desire for it waned, but it was never far from our hearts. It was always there, waiting to be rediscovered and appreciated once again. That time is now.

The cubist patterns, exaggerated shapes, exotic woods and finishes, fluting, channeling and embellishments - all of the elements that mark the birth of contemporary furniture - are back reinterpreted forms. At the spring furniture market in High Point, N.C., art deco was being romanticized once again.

In addition, some manufacturers, such as William Switzer, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, are producing line-for-line copies originals. The real thing, from picture frames to ashtrays, as well as major, attributed works in elegant woods such as Macassar ebony, rosewood, parchment or the snakeskin called shagreen, are selling briskly in antiques shops and at auction.

The price range for originals is considerable. As little as $20 might buy a small accessory. Marcus Tremonto, a vice president of 20th-century decorative arts at Sotheby's/Chicago, reports that at the high end, prices of some originals have hit $1 million.

"The clothes, jewelry, settings and furniture of such a glamorous period make people more aware," said Chicago art deco antiques dealer and collector Steve Starr. "Plus, the look is still very exciting, very modern," said Starr, author of "Picture Perfect," a book on deco photo frames from 1926 to 1946.

The revived popularity is also consistent with a thirst for something retro (even '70s style, of all things, is being embraced) as we inch closer to the millennium.

Whatever the cause, art deco style is spreading into the mainstream, as seen in its presence in designer show houses. At the May show house of the American Society of Interior Designers in Evanston, Ill., Marlene Rimland created a fantasy ocean-liner suite with distinctly deco overtones. A stainless steel bed draped in sumptuous fabrics, curvy deco-style settee and chairs by Switzer were accented with touches of silver and silver leaf.

What endures from the latest crop of deco depends on the interpretation of the key elements, and ultimately on those features by which we judge all good design: form and craftsmanship.

John Black, vice president of design and development for Baker Furniture in Grand Rapids, Mich., put it in perspective. "There is not so much a resurgence as an appreciation of the time period and of historical design," he said. "Art deco is appreciated today because of a growing respect for the cabinetmaking craft," which started with appreciation of traditional forms from the 18th and 19th centuries.

There are examples as early as 1912, but the style was formally introduced in Paris at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925. It flourished in America, where it was nurtured in architecture, with classic buildings such as Donald Deskey's Radio City Music Hall, and in industrial design with the advent of chrome and plastics.

From kitsch to the sublime, common motifs included Egyptian details (inspired by the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922), stylized panthers, gazelles, garlands and maidens.

Classic art deco shapes are derived from geometry - pure and simple squares, circles, arcs, triangles and asymmetry, punctuated often through repetition. Art deco was reflected in -- nearly every category: furnishings, lighting, art, tableware (think of the elegant silver coffee services, some of which are still reproduced by Christofle), glassware (Lalique and look-alikes), clocks (Cartier), fabrics, jewelry (the advent of plastics), and Bakelite.

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