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Art Deco Decoded

January 11, 1987|BEVIS HILLIER | Hillier is an associate editor-at-large for Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Alastair Duncan's "American Art Deco" (Abrams: $49.50; 288 pp.) is as good a treatment of this subject as one could ever hope for.

It would have been tempting to write a chauvinist book with this title and to claim that America produced the best Art Deco. After all, architecture is the most important of the applied arts; America invented the skyscraper, and 1920s American skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building and the Chanin Building, New York, are surely the grandest monuments of the style. But Duncan avoids the trap. He acknowledges that what impresses us most in the Chrysler and Chanin buildings is their French-inspired decoration.

Inevitably, architecture has to dominate the book. Donald Deskey's fine chairs and lamps for Radio City Music Hall, New York, give substance to the furniture section; but some of the other sections are--through no lack of diligence by Duncan--somewhat thin. Gene Theobald's silver-plated nickel-silver tea service (International Silver Co., 1928) is a feeble piece of design and would not earn a big color plate in a book on Art Deco of the world. Still, Duncan has "rediscovered" some significant practitioners of the other decorative arts, including the potter Viktor Schreckengost, a jazz musician who designed jazzy punch bowls.

Los Angeles is particularly well represented in the book, and so it should be. The green-and-gold Eastern-Columbia Building on Broadway, Bullocks Wilshire store on Wilshire and the Wiltern Theater are among the buildings illustrated in color. So is the preposterous interior of the Avalon Theater, Catalina Island, with its decor combining Hokusai waves and Botticelli's Venus.

Duncan also contributes an introduction to "Erte Sculpture" (Dutton: $75; 208 pp.)--a less-happy production in spite of its imaginative photography and design. Erte's fashion and theatrical drawings are quintessential Art Deco, just as Aubrey Beardsley's, 30 years earlier, were quintessential Art Nouveau. But "Erte Sculptures" is not about works sculpted by the master in the 1920s; most (not all) of the sculptures were made after 1980 and are merely translations of the drawings into three dimensions. I'm afraid they are championship-class kitsch.

Duncan makes a good advocate's case for regarding Erte as instinctually a sculptor, on the plausible grounds that a fashion designer has to keep in mind what his flat drawings will look like when transformed into clothes on a model. But in truth, Erte's genius, like Beardsley's, is purely linear. What looks delicate and exquisite in a drawing looks plain camp when bodied forth in patinated bronze. Asking Erte to make sculptures is like asking Nijinsky to dance "Jailhouse Rock." The volume also contains a biographical essay by Salome Estorick.

Dan Klein, now with Christie's in London, was formerly a London art dealer and wrote an excellent book on Art Deco, in which he was the first to suggest that the "stepped" shape so common in New York skyscrapers was inspired as much by the city's zoning laws as by mimicry of Mayan temples. "Decorative Art 1880-1980" (Salem House/Phaidon: $45; 264 pp.), which Klein has compiled with Margaret Bishop, is part of a Phaidon series intended to range across "the whole field of the fine and decorative arts, from scholarly monographs and reference works to popular collectors' guides." This must be one of the popular collectors' guides. It has many beguiling illustrations and some well-expressed insights ("The syntax of Art Deco was largely created by interior decorators . . . "). But it is disappointingly imbalanced. Only the things that fetch big money at auction are illustrated--so you get no feeling for what ordinary people ate off or sat on (or for what ordinary people today can afford to collect.)

I would treasure Wolf Uecker's "Art Nouveau and Art Deco Lamps and Candlesticks" (Abbeville: $75; 278 pp.), if only for a quoted remark of Otto Erich Hartleben from 1885, the time of gas and oil lamps: "The only acceptable source of light is the candle, everything else is finally only an illuminated smell." The book is mainly pictures and extended captions--a kind of superior catalogue. To my eye, the design is a mite pusillanimous: no blown-up details, no bled-off pictures. Tiffany lamps, which have become hackneyed by modern copies, hog a lot of space, but it is good to see Josef Hoffmann and Dagobert Peche of the Wiener Werkstatte well represented too.

"Art Deco Graphics" (Abrams: $49.50; 320 pp.) by Patricia Frantz Kery is one of the most gloriously designed and produced books that Abrams has issued, and that is saying something. Hats off to Marshall Lee, who edited, designed and produced it. Kery organizes her material with skill, first giving a clear account of the "roots" of Art Deco. The book deals with posters, magazine covers, sheet music covers, wallpapers--even menus and fans. Alone among the books under review, it has a first-class bibliography.

All of these books are of the sort commonly called "gift book" and commonly published during the Christmas season; but one or two of them, perhaps "Art Deco Graphics" most especially, have been produced for true connoisseurs, who will welcome them in any season.

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