Period Living : The 1920s

What a delight to write about the roaring 1920s for Period Living magazine. With such stylish interiors and fashion, it’s hard to believe it was 100 years ago…

It is testament to the strength of the human spirit that after great turmoil and heartache we somehow find our way back to hope and to light. In the aftermath of the First World War, with Europe reeling from the catastrophic loss of life and the old sense of order, bold and defiant creative ideas emerged, ideas that were to translate into dramatic new styles of art and interior design, and were to show humanity’s innate need to strive forward, against the odds, embracing change and modernity. The 1920s is perhaps one of the most iconic decades of the twentieth century and one whose ethos and innovation was to influence the decorative arts for many years to come. It introduced an array of cutting edge, ambitious design, and one hundred years on, we still look to its originality and its inventiveness for our own interior inspiration.

The roaring 1920s was the decade of jazz, of flappers, of bobbed hair and dark red lips, fast cars, dance halls and that prevailing sense of glamour and decadence that was so unique to this era. It was Coco Chanel and Clara Bow, it was Bertie Wooster and Noel Coward. It was loud and adventurous, a celebration of life and vitality, it was cocktails and clubs and dancing till dawn. ‘The parties were bigger, the pace was faster, the shows were broader and the morals were looser,’ said F Scott Fitzgerald in his era defining novel, The Great Gatsby.

Society wanted to put the austerity and bleakness of the war years well behind them and that not only included fashion and night life, but also art, furniture and interiors, with designers of the day creating broad and distinctive looks that incorporated the whole room or indeed, the whole building. From the tables to the rugs, the tiles and the ornaments, the 1920s aesthetic was as all encompassing as it was original and dynamic. The old, heavy classicised styles of yesteryear were utterly swept away to make room for something far more avant-garde.

Art Deco

Enjoying a healthy resurgence of interest in recent years (with some finger pointing towards the ‘Downton effect’) Art Deco is perhaps the most prominent and easily recognisable look from the period. Taking it’s name from the rather wordy ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes’ (the shorter, catchier moniker not actually coined until the 1960s) its origins lie in Paris, around 1915, although it couldn’t be showcased properly until the 1920s due to the war. The exhibition, staged by the leading artists and designers of the day was to launch Art Deco onto the world stage, and its influence quickly rippled its way across Europe and the Atlantic to America and beyond.

Political and societal repercussions aside, Art Deco is a look that gleans inspiration from a huge number of stylistic influences, from the local and the contemporary to the more exotic and the ancient. In essence, it was a thoroughly modern style, progressive and industrious, and sought to encapsulate the dynamic changes that were happening in design, technology and engineering at the time. Paris was the epicentre of many of the centuries key art movements, with one of the most revolutionary and significant being cubism. Art Deco is perhaps most recognisable for its smooth lines, angular forms and its striking geometric patterns, with many critics of the time referring to the style as ‘cubism tamed’.

Nature motifs are also a key element in Art Deco, the preceding Art Nouveau style playing a large part in this, with flowers, shells, sun beams and leaf patterns all frequently used, albeit in a far more streamlined and stylised way in Art Deco. This organic imagery was often used in repeating patterns to create striking wallpaper, fabric and tile designs, one of the periods key looks. While the use of vivid colour is believed to have come from the recent Fauvist style of painting, there is also the distinct influences of Egyptian, Aztec and African art. Early twentieth century artists often looked to the primitive for inspiration, and with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, the public’s romanticised fascination with Egyptology and its dynamic forms quickly found its way into the Deco aesthetic.

Materials

Like the Egyptians, the Art Deco designers favoured the opulent, particularly at the beginning of the movement when the backlash to austerity and the remnants of Victorian sensibility was at its fiercest. Art Deco was escapism, an expression of life at its most luxurious and decadent, and there was no expense spared when it came to the materials that were used. Silver, jade, tortoiseshell, pearl, and ivory were all frequently used in furniture making, with the emphasis being on the polished and the shiny to help create a sense of a lightness of touch. Pieces were often made with contrasting inlays of wood, or in high gloss lacquer, and often finished with glass and intricate metalwork. The overall effect was certainly striking.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Art Deco is that it’s designers didn’t just make tables or chairs or cabinets – they devised the entire room, from the fabric and wallpaper to the lamps and ornaments. The foremost creative of the age was Frenchman Émile Jacques Ruhlmann, a furniture designer whose commissions included rooms on the luxury ocean liner Ile de France, the Chamber of Commerce, the Palais de l’Elysées and numerous other hotels, restaurants and public buildings. Some of his furniture pieces could take up to eight months to complete due to their hugely intricate nature, yet they remarkably retain Deco’s core aesthetic of sleekness and pared down elegance.

BOX OUT Another notable Art Deco designer was Eileen Gray, Irish born but resident in Paris for most of her life, she was one of only a handful of successful women in a very male dominated field. She is possibly best known for her dramatic lacquered screens and iconic chairs such as the Bibendum.

The Silver Screen

The 1920s was also the decade that saw the rise of Hollywood with the silver screen becoming an important cultural influence in its own right. Historian A J P Taylor called cinema, ‘the essential social habit of the age’, as going to the movies was all part of the glorious escapism of the day. Movie stars such as Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford became household names, and society at large began to feel a sense of aspiration as the glamour and elegance of the film world became something people wanted to recreate in their own lives. Cocktail cabinets, drinks trolleys with ice buckets and silver shakers, cigarette cases and ashtrays all became hugely popular interior items, as did luxurious fabrics and soft furnishings such as animal skins, velvet and large thick rugs. You could, if you had the means, create your own Hollywood inspired interior inside your home.

Lighting was no longer purely functional as electricity became far more widely available by the start of the 1920s. Ceiling lights or wall sconces would often form the centre piece to a room, and were often used in conjunction with mirrors to help reflect more light and shine back into the room and to add that all important sense of drama. Huge, angular glass chandeliers in steel, chrome or polished bronze were often seen in some of the periods most fashionable houses, and as more larger commissions were undertaken in hotels, cinemas and theatres, the lighting became bigger and far more adventurous. Top London hotels like Claridges, The Savoy, and the Park Lane Hotel all incorporated stunning Art Deco lighting into their lobbies, restaurants and ballrooms.

Modernism

Walking side by side with Art Deco is the decades other key look – Modernism. Taking its inspiration from Germany’s Bauhaus movement, the two styles share many of the same principles and forms and were both borne from the same need to push forward towards a brighter future. Their main difference perhaps lies in the Modernists love of the functional, a paring back to the absolute minimum. The ‘deco’ part was superfluous as modernists looked to machines, automobiles and movement as its primary inspiration with furniture and other household objects such as lamps and household appliances all appearing curved, sleek and even aerodynamic.

Funnily enough, what sparked the beginning of the end of pure Art Deco was Modernism’s great triumph. As the decade drew to a close, Art Deco had become more and more exclusive and expensive, so when the devastating stock market crash of 1929 happened, the style could only really survive through the advent of mass production. Deco had to become more muted, less ostentatious, and easier to reproduce on a large, affordable scale, and as a result, it married better with the more streamlined vision of the modernists.