With its curvaceous black façade, The St. Regis Istanbul is a hymn to the style of art deco: a reflection of Istanbul’s golden 1920s, splendid in a palette of black and silvery gray, and standing in a prime location in the city’s most celebrated neighborhood, Nisantasi.
But in Turkish architect Emre Arolat’s hands, the hotel, which opened last year, doesn’t represent a backward step. For art deco – the sleek, streamlined style associated with the interwar era – has once again become a popular taste in the luxury domain: part of a new spirit of urban glamour. “We tried for the aura of the 1920s,” Arolat said, “but with the feel of a contemporary building in style-conscious contemporary Istanbul.”
Art deco is having a moment: amazing for a decorative style that celebrates its 90th birthday this year. Well, more or less. The term was coined in 1926, following an agenda-setting exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris the year before, and became shorthand for a style that celebrated streamlined luxury. Once again it’s back: both as a historical style and as a muse to new designers. For example, at London’s Pavilion of Art & Design (PAD) fair last autumn, Parisian gallerist Jean-Jacques Dutko showed striking art deco pieces, including new work by sculptor Eric Schmitt, amid other new designers channeling the deco essence.
Meanwhile, the energy of the early work sings anew. Coming between the wars, art deco proposed an optimistic new world despite (or possibly because of) the economic woes of the 1920s and ‘30s. Not only pleasingly muscular, those clean lines and strong curves combined with new materials such as concrete, chrome and bakelite to herald the new sense of progress, optimism and mobility, both social and physical. Art deco became well represented in the exciting new world of travel and leisure, plentifully applied in cinemas, restaurants and lidos – not to mention ocean liners and hotels where it made an enduring mark: indeed, other St. Regis hotels channeling the art deco idiom include The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, with sumptuous interiors by Yabu Pushelberg, and The St. Regis Singapore, which has softer deco-accented rooms. As Bevis Hillier, the historian and great post-war popularizer of art deco, put it in the 1960s, art deco was the “last total style”: scalable from pepper pots to skyscrapers.
It’s had some ups and downs along the way of course. Following a 1970s flourish, deco disappeared from view. But expert Mark Oliver of Bonhams auction house, which holds four art deco sales a year, has seen the style return in popularity and a new generation embrace its sleek lines. “Interest is really growing and 25- to 55-year-olds seem to be particularly interested,” he says. “They like its stylish glamour and the fact that it’s a more sensual alternative to mid-century modern.”
Other influences may have been bought to bear. In 2013, Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic romp The Great Gatsby showed the style to a new generation, just as Ken Russell’s 1920s-themed The Boy Friend had in 1971. But it’s also true that our era shares a sense of opulence with the 1920s and 1930s, and that a generation of renowned interior designers, including Candy & Candy in the U.K. and Geoffrey Bradfield in the U.S., have re-imagined art deco as an imprint of modish new living.
The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, with interiors by Yabu Pushelberg,
channels the art deco aesthetic
Art deco architecture was known for its graceful, sweeping staircases
Meanwhile, there’s also been an explosion of interest in the architecture of deco and as Mark Oliver notes, a global network of enthusiasts has emerged. “Art deco is associated with Europe and the U.S., but you can also find it in Russia, South America – anywhere that has ever wanted to appear aspirational and stylish,” he says. “Fortunately you’ll now find a great eagerness to restore rather than demolish.” Thus, you’ll find art deco gems in Asmara in Eritrea, Casablanca in Morocco, Melbourne in Australia and Napier in New Zealand, which has a deco festival each year. Of course, many readers will have visited the wonderful art deco strand of South Beach Miami: a necklace of sub-tropical pastel-colored edifices along the oceanfront. It’s incredible to remember that many were run-down in the 1980s and came close to being demolished.
What the renewed interest in art deco means is that you’ll have to dig deeper to own classic deco antiques. As Jean-Jacques Dutko says, “Rare pieces with impeccable historic provenance are increasingly hard to find, and many good pieces are now in museums, private collections or foundations.” In the early 1980s, he adds, many collections were sold, following what he calls “the evolution of taste”. Simply, it became unfashionable – and this is when the clever money landed on it.
Anyone still interested in collecting art deco should acquaint themselves with the canon: a host of names including Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann for furniture and interiors, Edward McKnight Kauffer and Paul Colin for graphics, Paul Poiret for fashion and René Lalique for glassware and jewelry. In Paris last April, a Christie’s sale of French art deco fetched $34.3 million – including a 1929 ski-chair by Ruhlmann that took $4 million (it had previously sold in 1999 for $380,000). And art deco-style jewelry is also selling well. Chanel’s Café Society high jewelry collection, launched in 2014, is a tribute to the 1920s, while French designer Raphaele Canot’s Skinny Deco range also references classic art deco.
From the wearable to the walkable: art deco’s spirit now also imbues modern cities. There is, for example, an element of “starchitect” Zaha Hadid’s thrusting curves that evokes deco lines, while in New York, architect Mark Foster Gage is preparing to build a residential tower block with all manner of art deco-like decoration upon it – channeling the feel of that shimmering gargoyle-clad icon, the Chrysler Building. Meanwhile, in London, the art deco Battersea Power Station site is currently being refurbished as the smartest block in town. And as with The St. Regis Istanbul, something of that glitzy Hollywood excitement comes through, as an art deco building can turn anyone into a star. As Mark Oliver says of deco’s return: “It’s that sense of glamour. Nothing else is quite like it.”
Images: Getty Images, Corbis
“Stromboli” and “Fuji” pedestal tables by Eric Schmitt, as seen at PAD
A classic art deco facade
Cool elegance at The St. Regis Istanbul