Decorating 101: Art Deco

Author: Alecia Pirulis

art deco

You love classic black-and-white movies – especially ones with legends such as Dorothy Lamour, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Cagney, and Bing Crosby. The glamor and elegance of old Hollywood intrigues you … and the architecture from that era inspires you. If this sounds familiar, then art deco is the decorating style you’ve been searching for.

So what, exactly, is art deco – and how can you bring some of that chic style into your home, apartment, or condo? Art deco became popular during the late 1920s and continued until the late 1930s. Art deco celebrated the Machine Age and stayed popular right through the Great Depression. It is luxurious and opulent, yet sparse and somewhat stark – reflective of the era it flourished in.

Art deco has some common themes: sunbursts, pointed edges, touches of black, chevrons, trapezoids and circles, feathers, mirrors and reflective surfaces, and bold contrasting colors. Think lacquer, chrome, silver, and glass mixed with brilliant reds, bright pinks, or bold greens.

Skip the floral and plaid patterns. Instead, you want solid blocks of vivid color. If you do choose a pattern, look for something with a geometric design – this is especially true for your area rugs. You want large rugs with bold patterns (preferably over black and white marble tile or a polished parquet floor).

When selecting furniture, look for sleek lines and unembellished pieces. Simple, classic furniture with high-polished wood, lacquer, chrome, plastic, and mirrored surfaces are perfect for art deco design. Look for items with gentle curves and strong symmetry – you want parallel lines and circles. When looking for artwork, think Picasso – you want modern, sophisticated, and daring. Cubist artwork, chevrons, checkerboards, circles, pyramids, and diamonds all work well in art deco style.

Apartments are ideal for art deco style, because the background (the walls and floors) should be a neutral color – such as white or cream. The color comes in bold pops – in the artwork and in vivid accent pieces. Don’t overdo it – art deco is sparse, bordering on austere. It is perfectly fine to leave the walls bare. The same applies to the floor. You want a neutral background for your area rugs that should feature bold colors and geometric designs. Marble – especially in black, white, or black-and-white checks — is classic art deco. If you can’t bring this in with floor tiles, consider adding a marble vase (perhaps filled with peacock feathers) or marble artwork.

When looking for lighting for your art deco space, keep “modern” in mind. Look for polished bronze, steel, and chrome. Look for painted glass (especially in vivid colors) and angular designs. The lamps of the art deco era, like most of the furniture, are oversized – so look for large, bold pieces that bring to mind machinery. Neon lighting is also a key art deco element.

Decorating in art deco can be done with a very small budget – due in part to the uncluttered look, but also because the era celebrated man-made materials such as plastic, glass, and chrome. Items were mass-produced rather than handmade and are still plentiful today. Also, you can cut corners by looking for clean-lined furniture and painting it in a high-gloss finish. If you can’t find (or can’t afford) art deco artwork for your walls, simply print some designs, frame, and hang. The Library of Congress offers an online catalog of prints and photographs that you can download (copyright free).

While you may automatically think “Miami” when someone mentions art deco, this glamorous style will fit your space nicely no matter where you live. It is bold, yet simple; dramatic, yet cool; opulent, yet sparse. The “Golden Era” of movies left us with a decorating style that persists in popularity – it disappeared in the 1940s only to reemerge in the 1960s, then vanished again until the 1980s – today, it is favored once again. Perhaps it is the contrasts, the symmetry, or the balance of the design – or perhaps it is the elegance that surrounded screen legends that helps art deco persist.