The Roaring Twenties are here again, and with them comes a timely revival of interest in Art Deco, that gloriously optimistic design movement that came to define the Jazz Age.
Over the past few decades many Art Deco buildings of the Twenties and Thirties have been restored in time for their centenaries, and we can expect to see them shine in anniversary exhibitions, as well as in a burgeoning market for properties sporting the movement’s most recognisable features.
Kicking off the celebrations is Art Deco by the Sea, a major exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich which sets out to explore how the movement revolutionised British holiday resorts.
“The coast was a great place for experimentation in the 1920s,” says Ghislaine Wood, the curator of the exhibition. “The culture of healthy bodies, sun and pleasure lent itself to the new style and it flourished in all our resorts.”
Among the buildings to feature in the show are the curvy De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, completed in 1935, and the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, which Wood describes as “the most important Art Deco building in Britain”.
Designed by Oliver Hill and opened in 1933, the Midland displays all the most alluring features of the movement, with its streamlined white façade, sun terraces, spiral staircase and jaunty seahorse decorations above the entrance.
As Wood points out, Art Deco’s reach spread to all types of buildings, objects and art forms.
The circular reception room at Eltham Palace, a former royal residence in Greenwich, restored by English Heritage (English Heritage Photo Library)
Among the 130 exhibits in the show are photographs of houses, cinemas, piers and lidos, as well as examples of fashion, furniture, paintings, posters and textiles.
Highlights include a complete hoopla stand from an Art Deco fairground, and a Bakelite radio made by Ekco, one of the first British companies to pioneer the use of plastics.
Of course the Art Deco movement didn’t just arrive fully formed.
Some of its imagery, including exotic animals, plants and abstract shapes, can be traced back to the Art Nouveau designs of the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods.
But it was the boom in consumer culture after the First World War that saw the emergence of cleaner lines and brighter colours and their application to mass-produced goods.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 provided a new range of imagery, from geometric patterns and sunburst symbols to the stylised human figures which influenced the flapper silhouette.
But the defining moment for Art Deco was the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925. At this huge outdoor expo, the style was on display in all its glory for the first time.
Among the pavilions were outlets for the major department stores, filled with Art Deco furniture and jewellery, as well as Le Corbusier’s ground-breaking Pavilion of the New Spirit, furnished with tubular steel chairs and Cubist paintings.
Following this pivotal event, the style began to expand across the world, finding expression in everything from the stepped pinnacles of New York skyscrapers to the marble bathrooms of Indian maharajas.
In London the most exuberant manifestations of Art Deco can be seen in landmark buildings such as the Daily Express offices on Fleet Street, the Hoover Building in Perivale — now converted into apartments — and in cinemas such as the Egyptian-themed Carlton on Essex Road, Islington.
The Midland Hotel, a stunning Art Deco icon in Morecambe, Lancashire (English Lakes Hotels Resorts & Venues)
Art Deco’s key elements of curving walls, sunburst designs and large, metal-framed windows then spread to the thousands of flats and houses built in the expanding suburbs.
“It was the Second World War which killed off Art Deco,” explains Wood.
After the conflict, it was the influence of more austere Modernist architects such as Le Corbusier and Ernő Goldfinger that came to dominate rebuilding programmes.
Not until the mid-Sixties was there a revival of interest in the fun-fuelled designs of the inter-war years, with the publication in 1968 of art historian Bevis Hillier’s book, Art Deco of the 20s and 30s, which gave the movement its name.
By this date many of its greatest buildings were already under threat, with cheap holidays abroad leading to the decline of British seaside resorts.
Only after campaigns to save these buildings did they survive, with some of the most splendid Art Deco restoration projects being of Britain’s lidos, including the Jubilee Pool in Penzance.
“I’m really optimistic,” says Wood of the regeneration projects. “The Midland Hotel in Morecambe was derelict and has been restored. It’s a testimony to the quality of so much design of the period.”