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Deans of Deco : America Again Rediscovers Its Decoratif Past

December 21, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

"There must be something in Art Deco that reinvigorates one," says Alastair Duncan, author of the new book "American Art Deco" (Harry N. Abrams Inc.: $49.50). Duncan, who was visiting Los Angeles to talk to the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, was referring to the eminent Art Deco artists and architects he interviewed for the book, some of whom are in their 90s and still as lively as gunpowder.

Donald Deskey, who designed Radio City Music Hall in New York City (1932) and its streamline furniture, is 92. Duncan visited Deskey in Vero Beach, Fla.--"his house is almost inaccessible," Duncan says. "I took a dummy of the book to confirm that the examples I had put in of his work were right, and he was wonderful. He said, 'Who's this by?' I said, 'Frank Lloyd Wright.' And he said, 'Oh, of course; he borrowed a lot of my designs.' "

Duncan also took Deskey to the opening of an exhibition called "The Machine Age" at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. (The show will be at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from Aug. 16 through Oct. 18, 1987.) "They had sent him an invitation but hadn't expected him to come," Duncan says. "So it was a nice surprise to the exhibition organizers when I brought him in the door. I took him early, because he thought he would tire early; but he was about the last to leave. I marched him into the first room, and there was one of his screens and a vitrine with a lamp of his. The poor curator was there, and Deskey said, 'That lamp base has been changed.' I don't think he was right in that case, but he is very alert and has enjoyed being rediscovered after a long period of near-obscurity."

Irwin S. Chanin, who built the exotically decorated Chanin Building in New York City (1928), is 96. "He still goes to his office in the Chanin Building each day," Duncan says. "And he has hardly missed a day since the building went up." Chanin, the son of a Russian immigrant, built a fortune as an architect and real estate developer. "His part in the Chanin Building," Duncan says, "was to provide as much rentable space in a commercial building as was possible, but he had a design studio that worked with him and a sculptor named Rene Chambellan, and between them they put on this wonderful Art Deco lobby-dressing."

Chanin has promised to participate in a symposium on American Art Deco that Alastair Duncan is organizing at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution for April, 1987. Deskey, too, is expected to attend, and Duncan hopes that furniture designer Ed Wormley ("He's only in his 80s") will speak at the symposium and that Viktor Schreckengost, who is in his early 80s and has taught for 55 years at the Cleveland Institute of Art, will participate. "Schreckengost is a must," Duncan says. "He pioneered the Art Deco ceramic movement in America; he made a 'jazz' punch bowl for Eleanor Roosevelt."

While doing the research for "American Art Deco," Duncan visited Los Angeles, which he regards as one of the great Art Deco cities. "I think you have to split the 1920s and 1930s buildings of Los Angeles into two distinct styles," he says. "First, the big movie houses--you've got them here from the Wiltern to the Pantages, restored to their former glory. On that level, Los Angeles is a major center for that highly decorative--what I call 'high Parisian'--style. Then you get the more streamlined buildings, such as the Pan Pacific Auditorium. That building is a classic but obviously distinctly different from the movie houses, architecturally. And, sadly, it has not been restored to its former glory."

Duncan thinks that the Bullocks Wilshire store (1929) on Wilshire Boulevard is "a major gem, not only because of the outside and the tower but also because of the inside, which for some reason has managed to remain intact, from the elevator doors to the ceiling fresco in the porte-cochere. Duncan also visited the Oviatt Building, on Olive Street, which has undergone some renovation. "I went to the penthouse there and to my astonishment found an entire suite of this man George Sakier, a Parisian furniture manufacturer in the 1920s. He designed these famous bar stools, and they are there in the penthouse, though their condition is not good. It is astonishing to find them in California."

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