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With a world war, a depression that gutted its economy, and a global flu pandemic that killed 675,000 Americans, the early 20th century was a dark period in America’s history.
Such is the notion that when you’re engulfed in darkness you tend to chase the light. So when our country’s slump ended, it entered a time of booming economy and prosperity known as the Roaring ’20s. This breath-of-fresh-air decade brought us flappers, jazz, and art deco style—a zany design movement recognized by its geometric shapes, shiny surfaces, and bold colors.
Today, designers and consumers alike are looking at the current climate and trying to navigate what’s on the horizon aesthetically. With our own pandemic (hopefully) on its way out, there are stirrings of a rebirth of the joyful and courageous era of art deco style.
Reyne Hirsch, a 20th century design expert, explains, “The [Spanish flu] pandemic hit in 1918, and then we experienced the Roaring ‘20s,” noting that it would stand to reason we would experience a resurgence of the jubilant trend after COVID-19. “All movements relate to what’s happening in the world at the time.”
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What is art deco, anyway?
Art deco—short for arts décoratifs and seen in everything from home décor to architecture—offered a flamboyance that represented hope back then, and it still does now. Think Fiestaware, a velvet art deco chair, and a geometric art deco chandelier.
A contrast from the previous Art Nouveau era of 1890 to 1910, which was organic and natural, art deco’s iconic sleek geometric shapes and linear symmetry was frequently broken up by curved ornamental elements, such as the signature fan shape.
The period’s patterns were also more rigid in style than free flowing Art Nouveau. “Zigzags, triangles, sun bursts, things with sharp lines,” continues Hirsch. Colors are strong and often paired with metal, like a bright red couch with chrome feet or a yellow chair with chrome arms.
Hirsch comments, “Now that we’re getting past the [COVID-19] pandemic, we’re hopefully moving into a more promising time.”
As this upbeat design genre moves forward, retailers and interior designers are using modern materials and different color palettes to switch up the look and make it new.
Art deco style is for everyone
Hirsch also credits today’s art deco fascination with the modern-day hopes for equality that so many are fighting for.
“The [original design] movement was created ‘equally,’ meaning it was not a movement for the rich,” she continues. “Things were no longer garish and opulent like they were during the Art Nouveau movement. [Instead, art deco] was made for everyone.”
While many items designed in this style were expensive, you also saw art deco patterns in affordable utilitarian items, such as silverware, dishes, fabrics, and art.
Hirsch adds, “As we struggle to make the playing field equal for women, people of color, and gender, of course we look back to a period that was more about things being made for everyone.”
Original art deco interior design pieces are—expensive—options
The best place to enjoy a blast from the past is to actually seek out original pieces. But as the trend grows, so does the cost.
“Lately we’re seeing stronger prices realized on original art deco furniture turning up at auctions like Christies and Sotheby’s,” says Hirsch, who has served on 13 seasons on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow as an appraiser. She recalls a cabinet that surprisingly sold recently at auction for $5 million.
Since your budget is probably not seven zeros strong, art deco furniture is thankfully finding its way into homes through mainstream manufacturers like Anthropologie and Restoration Hardware. These new versions are just as emotional, zesty, and colorful as their inspiration.
Keep it simple, so the design can shine
Houston-based interior designer Rainey Richardson has lots of practice channelling The Great Gatsby.
Whether it’s a sofa of velvet tufts or a geometric cabinet, a piece of furniture in the art deco style will command attention. Richardson says, “Unlike some of the other ways to incorporate a small homage to the style, with furniture, you’re going all in.”
An easily recognized Frankl desk and bookcase combination evokes an instance feeling of the era with the marrying of strong lines and curves.
“A piece like this can be mixed in with an eclectic style, but don’t force it into a transitional or contemporary style,” she warns, “It will most likely be a miss.”
To allow your art deco furniture to shine, keep the living space around it simple. Employ neutral colors that mix well with the high sheen polished wood and lacquered furniture common to that period.
Walls can vibe art deco style, too
Creating an accent wall is the perfect way to introduce art deco into a space.
“We love wallpaper,” says Richardson. “It’s a great way to add an easy art deco splash like geometric fans in colors and metallics inspired by the time period.”
It’s also daring, so if you want to cover a complete room in art deco wallpaper, do it in smaller spaces like a powder room. You can also add patterned tile to any space—a backsplash, fireplace surround, or even the backdrop in a bookshelf. The metallic design in these art deco tiles instantly give you a Gatsby vibe and won’t break the bank.
If you don’t go too bold on the walls, fabric used for drapes (or pillows or upholstery) can take a fairly modern space and transport it to the ’20s and ’30s, according to Richardson. “The repetitive diamond style in all different scales and color ways is an immediate and classic reference to the period,” she adds.
Art deco lighting brightens this design movement
Since this design movement revolves around a brighter outlook, it would make sense that light sources such as lamps and sconces come in many art deco options.
Richardson explains, “Lamps are a quick and inexpensive way to infuse a splash of another design style into a space. For example, the multiple metallic rings and a flat black dome shade can make a lamp both sophisticated and fun.”
Almost a symbol of grandiosity in and of itself, the chandelier is another way to not only brighten a room but a mood. Look for ones that boast metallic swags, hand-cut crystals, or geometric pieces to bring art deco opulence to your space. Retailers like Williams-Sonoma, Etsy, and Wayfair have contemporary art deco chandeliers in-stock.
Don’t forget the details
Much as the ’20s flappers adorned themselves with feathered headbands and miles of beaded necklaces, consider drawer pulls as your kitchen’s, bedrooms’ and bathrooms’ style accessories (sans feathers, of course).
They allow you to quickly and easily change the vibe of your decor—and for little money.
Richardson says, “Like jewelry, drawer pulls can take the design of a space over the top.” Pulls with the pattern and finish reminiscent of the period are an easy and fun way to get creative with your space.
How to get the look
In the kitchen or bathroom
Around the house
For the walls
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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.