Over the past 45 years, there have been two distinct and divergent approaches to Art Deco. One of them — which was mine when I wrote the first little book on the subject in 1968 — was to treat the subject as a sociological, as well as artistic, phenomenon. As I wrote then, it was ‘the last of the total styles’, affecting almost everything, from letter-boxes and powder compacts to luxury liners and hotels. With that approach, one shows the dross as well as the gold, and asks such questions as ‘Why did the style become so universal?’ ‘How far did it succeed (with mass production) in coming to terms with the machine age’?
The other approach — particularly in favour with such writers as the late Martin Battersby and Philippe Garner — is to concentrate only on the top-quality artists and craftsmen: people like Jean Puiforcat in silver, Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann in furniture and René Lalique in glass. That approach naturally commends itself to experts in the leading auction houses, where the prime interest is making big money and taking fat commissions — things that are not going to happen in the case of a tinny Woolworth’s powder compact of the 1930s.
From the first sentence of Norbert Wolf’s book, you might imagine he is going bull-headed for the sociological approach: ‘In the present book Art Deco is not treated under the auspices of the art and antiquities market.’ However, as you leaf through, you will look in vain for ‘demotic’ Deco. There is not a smidgen of Clarice Cliff’s ‘Bizarre’ range of Staffordshire pottery, that mainstay of television’s Flog It! Everything is of tip-top quality, from paintings by Tamara de Lempicka depicting figures that look as if they have been carved out of tinted blancmange, to the finest New York buildings. Almost everything in the book (aside from the architecture — too big to be a ‘collectable’) would put a gleam in an auctioneer’s eye.
So I would suggest that, without necessarily setting out to do so, Wolf has achieved a compromise between the two historical approaches to Deco. Yes, he is interested in the social conditions and the artistic firmament that led to the style; but equally, he has no truck with the downmarket, not to say kitsch, end. A lot of his illustrations are of Cubist paintings which influenced Deco rather than were Deco — I have always regarded Deco as, in essence, domesticated Cubism. (Heretically, I would go further and claim that the right place for Cubism was in carpets, lino and wallpaper, not in the pomp of gilt frames in posh galleries.)
In my 1968 book, which had the same title as Wolf’s, I made it clear that I did not invent the term Art Deco — which is derived from the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels. But Wolf credits my book with popularising and establishing that name of the interwars style on both sides of the Atlantic, in spite of rearguard actions to call it ‘Jazz Age’ and ‘Modern Style’ — he might have added ‘Streamline Moderne’, the term favoured by the admirable American architectural historian David Gebhard. (Derek Clifford, father of the art historian and museum wallah Sir Timothy Clifford — he lived through the style —told me that he and his friends had called it ‘Aztec Airways’.)
Wolf’s is a massive book: a coffee table might almost need flying buttresses to support it. The publisher, Prestel, now ranks with Phaidon and Thames & Hudson in its output of gloriously produced art books. This one is a work of art in itself — with a price to match.
Wolf has already given us a similar juggernaut tome on Art Nouveau. The present book is absolutely up to the same high standard. My reservations are mostly minor. We are not told anything about him either on the jacket or inside the book but I suspect (no hint of xenophobia here) that his surname is pronounced in the German way, like that of the greatest lieder-writer, Hugo Wolf. If he is German or Austrian as I suppose, his bibliography suggests a few lacunae in his research. While it is gratifying to find my 1968 book there and the large-scale book I wrote with Stephen Escritt almost 30 years later, there is no reference to the catalogue of the huge Deco exhibition that David Ryan and I organised at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1971 – it was issued in book form as The World of Art Deco. I think it would have given Wolf some aperçus to leaven his too upper-drawer approach.
The other big gap in his reading is the catalogue of the outstanding Deco show put on by the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2003. That exhibition included part of the prismatic 1920s façade of the Strand Palace Hotel. It was insanely pulled down by J. Lyons in 1969 and most intelligently acquired by the V&A. (In the name of modernisation, Lyons replaced the stunning Deco with something that looked like fossilised nose-drippings.)
One of the great merits of Wolf’s book is its international scope. He even finds room for Nazi sculptures, which cannot all be dismissed as rebarbative because of their links to a vile ideology. But he is not wide-ranging enough in representing Deco architecture. New York is there in force; but what of Los Angeles? The 1920s and 30s were the golden age of Hollywood; and one would have liked to see more of the existing and demolished LA buildings illustrated. He shows Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House (which is more Modern Movement than Deco) and the towering Eastern Columbia Building; but missing are the Richfield Building, Bullocks Wilshire store, the El Rey Theater and (most significant of all) the aerodynamic Pan Pacific Auditorium of 1935. I was photographed in front of it in 1984: the shot has an exclusivity to it, as four years later the superb building was destroyed by arson.
English readers will also miss some of our best Deco buildings — among them, the Adelphi Theatre, Claridge’s and the Savoy, the De La Warr Pavilion and that 3D palindrome, the Oxo Tower.
In 1968 I showed how Art Deco was already influencing contemporary design. I wish Wolf had added a section on Art Deco revival. If he had done, he would have needed to illustrate Terry Farrell’s marvellous 1994 building, the MI6 headquarters in Vauxhall. It gives me a lilt of the heart every time I pass it on my train journeys from Winchester to Waterloo.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £54, Tel: 08430 600033. Bevis Hillier is the author (with Stephen Escritt) of Art Deco Style.