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Art Deco Style Guide

Bold, brash and elegant. The Art Deco style encompassed furniture, textiles, ceramics, jewellery, sculpture and architecture.

Originally known as ‘Arts Decoratifs’ after the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriel Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts) held in Paris in 1925, the term Art Deco was not coined until the 1960s.

Although the style lent itself well to interior decoration, architecturally there was a strong crossover with Modernism. This can be seen in the use of clean lines and minimal ornamentation, although married with simplified geometric shapes expressed in the form of zig-zags, chevrons and lightning bolts. An elegant style it became associated with glamour seen in buildings such as, hotels, bars, cinemas and luxury apartments. The colour and boldness of Art Deco also epitomised the lifestyle of the raffish set of socialites known as the ‘Bright Young Things’ depicted in Evelyn Waugh’s novel ‘Vile Bodies’.

In Europe, from the late 1920s the stricter tenets of the Modern Movement espoused by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius begin to take hold and dominate the architecture. Moreover, the association with luxury and exclusivity became a frequent criticism amongst Modernists. They argued that excellent design should reach everyone and not be the preserve of the rich. Art Deco’s decorative nature was its undoing and the world events of 1939 were in keeping with a new sober reality, the party was over.

What to look for in a Art Deco building:

  • Streamlining
  • Bold shapes
  • Colour
  • Geometric designs
  • Decoration

Explore these galleries from the RIBA Collections illustrating the main features of Art Deco.

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Design for a living room

RIBA69860
Groult, Andre (1884-1966)
SOURCE: Jean Badovici. Interieurs francais (Paris, 1925), pl. 29 NOTES: Raoul Dufy hand-coloured the majority of the plates in this book.

Strand Palace Hotel, Westminster, London: the entrance foyer and steps

RIBA79347
Bernard, Oliver Percy (1881-1939)
NOTES: The Art Deco foyer shown here was by Oliver Bernard. It was replaced in 1969-1970 by Dennis Lennon & Partners, although some features were salvaged and acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Design for a post office

RIBA111172
Mallet-Stevens, Robert (1886-1945)
SOURCE: Robert Mallet-Stevens. Une cite moderne (London, Benn, 1922), pl. 1

Daimler hire garage, 9 Herbrand Street, Bloomsbury, London

RIBA135515
Wallis Gilbert & Partners
NOTES: Former car garage and showroom with a ramp for cars, seen on the left, Later converted into offices.

Design for the river front of St Olaf House, Hay's Wharf, Tooley Street, Southwark, London

RIBA3086
Goodhart-Rendel, Harry Stuart (1887-1959)
NOTES: This head office building was commissioned by the Proprietors of Hay's Wharf, pioneers of cold storage, who controlled almost all the wharves on the South Bank between Tower Bridge and London Bridge from 1710-1969. The wharves closed in 1969 and the wharf buildings were eventually converted into a multi-purpose complex called the Hay's Galleria which opened in 1987. Goodhart-Rendel's building became the Consulting and Administration rooms for the London Bridge Hospital which opened in 1986.

St Olaf House, Hay's Wharf, Tooley Street, Southwark, London: detail of the staircase and handrail

RIBA24319
Goodhart-Rendel, Harry Stuart (1887-1959)
NOTES: This head office building was commissioned by the Proprietors of Hay's Wharf, pioneers of cold storage, who controlled almost all the wharves on the South Bank between Tower Bridge and London Bridge from 1710-1969. The wharves closed in 1969 and the wharf buildings were eventually converted into a multi-purpose complex called the Hay's Galleria which opened in 1987. Goodhart-Rendel's building became the Consulting and Administration rooms for the London Bridge Hospital which opened in 1986.
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