French 1930s sideboard in Macassar ebony, from
Modernism Gallery, Coral Gables, Florida.

by Adam and Rebecca Silverstein
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1996

For those of us who live in Florida, when we think of Art Deco, Miami Beach immediately comes to mind. A walk down Ocean Drive and the theme is clear; pastel, streamlined, ornamental buildings representing that distinctive era of the 1920s and 1930s. Five minutes of window shopping on Lincoln Road and you will see everything from toasters and hairdriers to elaborate lighting fixtures and unique pieces of furniture, all of which will be labeled "Art Deco". Although we have a treasure in preserved architecture in Miami, understanding the Art Deco movement or style takes us back to the 1920s in France.

To trace the development or emergence of Art Deco, one must start at the 1925 Paris World's Fair. The Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes was the origin of this controversial, new style. The style, in its day, was referred to as "moderne" or "contemporarian"; and only in the 1960s, was the term "Art Deco" used.

Defining this style is not easy because it is a combination of many diverse and conflicting influences. Best known among these are African tribal art, Central American (Aztec and Mayan) architecture and Egyptian art, as well as the bold designs and the bright colors of the Ballets Russes, the glazes and lacquerwork of the Far East and the imagery and metalwork of classical Greece and Rome. French furniture forms such as Louis XV and Louis XVI also contributed. Contemporary fine arts such as Fauvism, Cubism, Constructivism and Italian Futurism played a part as well. Along with its other attributes, Art Deco became a middle range between the conservative and radical design.

A charming variety of French perfume bottles, c 1900-30 from Bizarre Bazaar, New York.

Some of the most famous designs of the twentieth century have a Deco signature style; Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State building, the oceanside hotels of Miami Beach, the Golden Gate Bridge, Broadcasting House in London, neighborhood cinema houses, gas stations, bus stations and diners, the S.S. Normandie, Greyhound buses, Air-King radios and the Electrolux vacuum cleaner. This list is endless and as one can see, Art Deco influenced everything from architectural landmarks to everyday household products.

Designers of Art Deco furniture embellished and sometimes entirely covered their pieces in exotic materials such as mother-of-pearl, sharkskin, snakeskin, gold and silver leaf, crushed egg shell lacquer and ivory. These materials usually formed some type of pattern such as flowers or a geometric motif. The shapes of these pieces of furniture ranged from the very traditional to the strikingly modern.

An eye-catching bar cabinet.
Courtesy of the author.
Emile-Jacques Ruhlman, a prominent French designer, was a master craftsman whose pieces occupied an entire pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exposition. Other important designers of this style included: Paul T. Frankel, known for his terraced bookcases which resembled the massive skyscrapers of the time; and Donald Deskey, who produced hundreds of modern designs using new industrial materials such as bakelite and stainless steel. Norman Bel Geddes was hired by the Simmons Company to produce those currently popular bedroom sets; and Russel Wright was retained by Heywood Wakefield. It was the English manufacturer, Ambrose Heal who took this new streamline design and made it affordable for everyday use. This list is long and distinguished, but these are a few that should be mentioned.

As a dealer, specializing in English Art Deco, it gives me endless pleasure when someone walks into my store who loves this period. I guess that it's the beautiful, matched grain, walnut bars that seem to attract the most attention. The craftsmanship never seems to end when one stands in front of one of these pieces. Some open by pulling the front down, automatically opening the top. The center slides forward and a light goes on. I am not sure what fascinates people the most. Is it the original bakelite handles or the fascinating burl walnut veneer? Maybe it's the mere fact that they are looking at a piece of history that allows them to slip back into time when people used this furniture as a center piece in their home.

A wonderful round china cabinet. Courtesy of the author.

Another captivating piece is the round china cabinet. Each one is distinctively different. Some stand on tall, slender legs and others are floor level. Some have leaded glass doors, mirrored in the back; while others have astrical glazed doors which are hand pieced together. Some people are most fascinated by the beautiful armoires. These stunning pieces are made from walnut, birdseye maple and oak. Many are accented with intricate carvings and original bakelite handles. Others enjoy the stylized vanities with large round mirrors. Whatever one's tastes may be, everyone is sure to find these special pieces intriguing.

As quoted in "Antique Fair News", many collectors are as much in love with Art Deco furniture now as people were in the 1920s when this exciting new style created a sensation at the 1925 Paris Exposition. Casting off heavy Edwardian lines, Art Deco was fun. It caught the mood of the early years between the two world wars. Now Art Deco is very much back in fashion and rapidly rising in price.

This could be the best buy of the nineties. Anyone who appreciates Art Deco furniture would do well to buy now while reasonably priced pieces are still available.

About the Authors:
Adam and Rebecca Silverstein specialize in European Art Deco furniture.



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