The international Art Deco movement started in the 1920s, rising from the ashes of the Arts and Crafts movement which had juddered to a halt when World War I broke out. Art Deco was a modernist style that rejected much that had gone before in European design and was inspired by variety of sources including archaeological finds in Egypt, art movements like Cubism and Far Eastern art.
Art Deco influenced many areas in the modern world including architecture, graphic design and fashion. Art Deco furniture has many similarities to Art Deco architecture, with the same sweep of clean lines, a certain nautical flavour and the use of modern materials.
The French were highly influential on the development of the Art Deco style in Britain, but in typically British style, it was transformed from a luxury and somewhat elite Parisian style to a much more utilitarian and affordable one by the British.
The Waring & Gillow department store on London’s Oxford Street mounted a highly influential exhibition in 1928. Modern Art in French and English Furniture and Decoration met with critical acclaim and the designer Serge Chermayeff was put in charge of the store’s new Department of Modern Art. Popular pieces on sale included cabinets with ebony veneer, hexagonal coffee tables and armchairs upholstered in fabrics with geometric patterns. Another shop that embraced the Art Deco style was Heal’s, which started to sell furniture made with laminated wood, glass and chrome.
As the 1930s rolled by, Art Deco furniture became increasingly accessible in Britain, even to people of quite modest means, a kind of mass movement of decorative art. Mirrored cocktail cabinets, rugs with geometric patterns and coffee tables all entered the everyday lives of the British. Art Deco also had its wealthier followers, with designer Betty Joel creating Art Deco interiors for Lord Louis Mountbatten.
Much of the furniture was innovative not only in design but also in materials and function. Modular storage units were built to fit into the small spaces of modern homes, sometimes around fireplaces, veneered plywood was a common material for cheaper pieces and coloured glass and mirrors were much used. To see outstanding examples of Art Deco furniture today, visit the Victoria and Albert Museum.