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Oh, the glamour

In San Francisco, a traveling exhibition of Art Deco design recalls an era when luxury teetered on the edge of privation and war.

March 10, 2004|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — In 1925, Paris staged a huge show of contemporary design, where French department stores and manufacturers filled pavilion after pavilion with luxurious decorative objects, such as a black lacquer cabinet incised with a geometric depiction of a donkey and a hedgehog. The exhibition was called "L'Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes," although years later the sumptuous style would take a name that was somewhat easier to remember: Art Deco.

While the French dominated the show, 20 other nations also displayed their modern designs, although the U.S. declined to take part.

American design, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover declared, was not modern enough.

But a decade after the Paris show, Art Deco had spread like wildfire, its aesthetic creeping into everything from jewelry to automobiles and marking the American landscape from Manhattan's Rockefeller Center to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

"Art Deco," says Mark Jones, director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, "is a style that took over the world." Fittingly, then, a new exhibition, "Art Deco 1910-1939," has taken over San Francisco's Legion of Honor, the first of two U.S. stops. The show was organized by the V&A, where it was the best-attended exhibition in 117 years, beaten only by a display of the Prince of Wales' wedding gifts in 1887.

The retrospective opened Saturday and will stay in San Francisco until July 4, after which it moves to Boston. It's not the largest Art Deco assemblage ever, which was in Minneapolis in 1971, but it is the first to examine the style as an international sensation. And with 300 objects, the show is big enough to force the Legion to store half of its permanent collection.

"Deco was a global phenomenon," V&A curator Ghislaine Wood says. "This exhibit hopes to reposition Deco as a style that responded to people's needs in an extremely glamorous way. It's one of the most important movements of the century."

The exhibition opens with a 1927 painting, "Girl in Green," by Polish-born artist Tamara de Lempicka, that shows a beautiful young blond in a clingy emerald dress, a white-gloved hand holding a floppy hat in place, hair and fabric blown back as if she were sitting on the prow of a speeding boat.

It's an irresistible metaphor for Art Deco, which more than any set of aesthetic principles was an attitude, a fusing of traditional and modernistic elements with a love of sensual movement and velocity. "Almost uniquely among art historical styles," an essay in the show's catalog observes, "some of Art Deco's most persistent meanings are to be found in fantasy and fun."

Art Deco can be difficult to define since it blended both historical and Machine Age motifs and drew on an eclectic range of exotic sources: ancient Greek pottery, Mayan temple patterns, Japanese lacquer, African masks, Egyptian funerary art. The exhibition, for example, displays a 5th century Attic red-figured hydria whose gowned women playing with a deer wouldn't look out of place as a frieze on a 1930s office tower. Or consider a silver-covered four-poster bed made for an Indian maharajah, which mixes futuristic, industrial lines with a more indigenous tradition of inlaid precious stones. Deco, in that sense, may be less a movement than an impulse.

"People love decoration, ornament and richness in materials," says curator Wood. "You want to touch these objects. Deco doesn't have any dogmatism. You can read into it whatever you want. It's a style of individualism, not collective society."

From tea sets to ships

By the 1920s, the style infected everything from cocktail shakers and tea sets to radios and clocks. Floating Deco palaces such as the French cruise ship Normandie, then the largest and fastest ship in the world, embodied a sense of life as a celebration and design as a reflection of that. "These were luxury items," Wood says, "but this sort of style was copied by manufacturers producing much cheaper items. What's wonderful about Deco is that even as it goes down-market it manages to maintain a sense of glamour."

The show traces these disparate influences in furniture, interior design and fashion, culminating in the 1925 exhibition, after which the aesthetic swept around the world, spread as much as anything by Hollywood movies, which were often shown in Art Deco theaters as far afield as Bombay.

"Deco was created as a commercial style," Wood says. "It was supposed to sell. It was about responding to what people wanted. They were looking for an iconography appropriate to the modern world, but one that was new. You could adapt it around the world without sacrificing your own tradition. It wasn't a great leap into modernity."

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