Why i love Art Deco?
With his new book on Art Deco on sale now, design legend and Oscar-winning film-maker Arnold Schwartzman tells Samantha David about his love of the 20th-century art movement
Arnold Schwartzman, the author of Art Deco City likes to say that he loves the visual arts, architecture and design style because it was fashionable at the time of his birth, 1936.
“I’m from that era,” he said.
“I was born in a workhouse in Wapping, and my father worked at the Savoy Hotel in London – a beautiful building, incidentally, which still has many Art Deco interior features.
“He served all the great Hollywood stars of the era, including Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Edward G Robinson, Charles Laughton, and Marlene Dietrich.
“I fell in love with Art Deco, Hollywood, everything,” he said.
After the Second World War, when he was 11 years old, Arnold’s parents moved to Margate. “During the summer holidays they would pack me off to stay with my great aunt in Paris, which has a wealth of Art Deco buildings.
“And sometimes I would stay with my cousin on the rue de Rivoli. You had to take your ration cards with you at that time, and get your passport stamped when you changed money.
“You were only allowed to change £5 at that time, and you could only do it in certain places. I remember going to the Galeries Lafayette to change money.”
After finishing school, he trained in design, and started a career which eventually took him to Hollywood – where he won an Oscar for his 1981 documentary Genocide.
“That was an amazing moment, standing on the stage with my statue and looking at the front row.
“All the stars were there, clapping. I completely forgot my speech and didn’t know what to say.”
Along the way, Mr Schwartzman has worked with bands including The Rolling Stones, and The Who; designed advertising campaigns for Coca-Cola, and the 1984 Olympic Games; he worked in broadcast television, magazines, advertising agencies; he illustrated, took photographs and has now produced three books. He is nothing if not energetic.
“At one point, I used to lecture on cruise ships and that allowed me to explore the world – and especially the world of Art Deco, tracking down the best examples has allowed me to explore the whole world.
“In France some of the best examples are in Cannes and Nice.
“The Folies Bergère in Paris is also a fabulous example. I went there as a child and remember being quite embarrassed by the dancers, but most impressed by the decor!”
Although the book, which he compiled with his wife of many years, Isolde, mainly features exteriors, he is also a big fan of Art Deco interiors. “La Samaritaine is a wonderful example,” he said (La Samaritaine was constructed as a department store but has been closed since 2005. It is, however, undergoing renovations and will reopen as a department store and a hotel in late 2019.)
Mr Schwartzman says that France contains some of the best examples of Art Deco in Europe because so much was saved from destruction during the Second World War.
“London was bombed and lost so many fine examples of Art Deco, but France escaped, which is why there’s still so much to be seen.”
He is particularly keen on cinemas and post offices. “If you just look up from street level, where the entrance is very often modern and anonymous, you can see wonderful cinema and post office buildings (see photo below) all over France.
“And many of them are still used for their original purposes.”
Art Deco or nouveau – what’s the difference?
Art Deco? Art Nouveau? Which is which? Essentially, Art Nouveau developed first and features curly lines (new baby curls) and Art Deco came slightly later and features straight lines (straight arty decoration).
Art Nouveau evolved around 1890 as a response to the formal 19th-century Neoclassicism (realistic portraits, for example) which were favoured throughout the Industrial Revolution.
As artists started to turn back towards nature, Art Nouveau developed as a reflection of nature’s power and strength. Lines were drawn in curves reflecting tree trunks, or graceful flower stems, and in order to emphasise the elegance of line, colours were often quite muted.
The overall impression is quite dreamlike and otherworldly and paintings often depicted sensuous women. Examples include many of the iconic Metro entrances in Paris, and the Moulin Rouge posters designed by Jules Chéret during the Belle Epoque. Architecture, interior design and furnishings, fashion, painting, posters and book illustrations were all included in the design ethos.
The Nancy School saw Art Nouveau as a good opportunity to enhance the prestige of Lorraine, which boasted industries like steel as well as crafts using crystals, glass, bronze, ceramics, earthenware and wood, by setting up collaborations to use all these skills in architecture, furniture, and the decorative arts producing everything from stained glass to wallpaper.
In Nancy they also researched how to use glass, iron, steel and wood to make beautiful objects that most people could afford. Designs were often based around plant shapes like water lilies, thistles, and gourds, whilst the dragonfly was also a popular motif.
Art Deco (short for Arts Décoratifs) started evolving from around 1911 and had replaced Art Deco in fashionable circles by the end of the First World War. The ethos of Art Deco is harder, more sleek and glamorous, the straight lines reflecting elements of ancient Egyptian design as well as Cubism, Fauvism and styles from what was then thought of as the ‘exotic east’: China, Japan, India and Persia. The human form is stylised, formalised and colours are clear and bright although not gaudy. Art Deco was characterised by elegant monochrome colour schemes setting off luxurious materials including gold, bronze and ivory.
It was the polar opposite of Art Nouveau, with its echoes of nature. If Art Nouveau offered relaxation, Art Deco was grown up and hell-bent on impressing everyone.
The Art Deco style was used everywhere; architecture, furniture, jewellery, fashion, cars, cinemas, ocean liners, hotel interiors, and even everyday objects like radios and the new smart vacuum cleaners. Gradually, during the 30s, as times got tougher, Art Deco became more subdued and used newer, less luxurious materials like chrome plating, stainless steel and plastic, until it died out altogether with the outbreak of the Second World War.