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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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Daily Express Building, 120-129 Fleet Street, City of London: preliminary sketch for the interior decoration of the entrance hall

Atkinson, Robert (1883-1952)
NOTES: Atkinson's scheme for the interior decoration of the entrance hall incorporates plaster reliefs of 'Industry' by the sculptor Eric Aumonier.

Stair carpet design for a housing scheme, Berlin-Lankwitz: orange colourway

Herrmann, Frederick Henry (1898-1983)
NOTES: This design dates from 1928-1931.

Savoy Hotel, Strand, London: detail of the electric fireplace and mantelpiece of two toned mirrors with bracket supporting 'Kaspar the Cat' in the Pinafore Room

Ionides, Basil (1884-1950)
NOTES: This was the ladies' reading room and redecoration by Ionides incorporated electric lighting from pink-tinted bowls and silver and steel furniture contrasting with the pinkish hue of the floor and ceiling.

Lerryn, Convent Road, North Foreland, Kingsgate, Kent: close-up of the curved stone staircase

Hill, Oliver (1887-1968)
NOTES: This house has been demolished.

Henly's car showroom and service station, Great West Road, Brentford, London

Wallis Gilbert & Partners
NOTES: Henly's, a car showroom for Studebaker and Jaguar cars, opened on the east side of the Smith's Crisps factory in 1937 and later became a warehouse for Martini. After a fire in 1989, it was redeveloped into offices and the distinctive tower was retained.

Eltham Palace, London: the dining room

Seely & Paget
NOTES: This royal palace was restored and extended from 1933 to 1936 by Seely & Paget.

Odeon cinema, Leicester Square, London: the auditorium seem the right of the proscenium

Mather, Andrew (1891-1938)
NOTES: Built on the site of the Moorish-style Alhambra Theatre, demolished in 1936, this was the London flagship cinema of the Odeon group, opening on 2nd November 1937.

Design for an entrance hall

Mallet-Stevens, Robert (1886-1945)
SOURCE: Jean Badovici. Interieurs francais (Paris, 1925), pl. 2

Design for an entrance hall in an embassy

Mallet-Stevens, Robert (1886-1945)
SOURCE: Jean Badovici. Interieurs francais (Paris, 1925), pl. 9