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What is Art Deco?

Art Deco – What is it?
The origins of the new style which replaced the elaborate Art Nouveau or Liberty from the 1890’s began before the lst World War. Some buildings and furniture in Europe were very futuristic in design, but for obvious reasons, the war interrupted the movement and things took some time post war to recover economically.
The term Art Deco was first used by Hilary Gelson in an article in ‘The Times’ in November, 1966, which derived from the great Paris Exhibition of 1925 – L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industrials Modernes. It was a developing style which attained its most complete and even extravagant expression in the thirties. It drew inspiration from various sources, including the more austere side of Art Nouveau, Cubism, the Russian Ballet, American Indian and Egyption art and the Bauhaus, and ran to symmetry rather than asymmetry. It responded to the demands of the machine and of new materials such as plastic, chrome, ferro-concrete and vita-glass. (Bevis Hillier ” Art Deco” page 11-18)
In 1906 Henri van de Velde founded the Weimar Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) and was succeeded in 1915 by Walter Gropius who, together with the Glasgow school of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his wife Margaret MacDonald and Herbert and Frances McNair, are the true pioneers of Art Deco who successfully reconciled art and industry.
Art Deco is usually thought of as a backdrop to the luxurious and stylish lives of the of the wealthy in the 1920s and 1930s – huge ocean liners, jazz or big band music, the shaking of cocktails, sumptuously decorated buildings from ballrooms to cinemas, sleek cars and smooth bars. It was the first truly twentieth- century style and was international.(Colin Hines p9) Its emphasis on streamlining suited fast trains, luxury cars and chic ‘moderne’ homes. Its angular regularity suited smaller items, from cutlery to cheap brush and mirror vanity sets. Tableware, furniture, radios, fashion and cars all reflected the style. In America it inspired the Empire State and Chrysler buildings which to this day are magnificent New York icons.
In New Zealand two towns, Napier and Hastings, destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 were reconstructed in the Art Deco style because it was felt to be safer due to many deaths from the falling decorations off the facades of the Victorian buildings.

Art Deco Western Australia (Perth)
After the discovery of gold in W.A. in the 1890s there was a greatly increased population and prosperity in Perth which was displayed in a building boom that continued until the outbreak of WW l in 1914. Buildings such as the Public Library, the Art Gallery, the Museum and the Mint were built in this period by architects who had been educated in the U.K. or the Eastern states, so the buildings were in the classical style or showing the influence of the Chicago style made famous by Louis Sullivan.(V. Davies Creating the Public Realm Library Board of WA 1994 p13)

Perth and Fremantle also had many buildings of Edwardian design which were later renovated by the architects of the 1930s, for example the Ocean Beach Hotel and the Mosman Park Memorial Hall. (V Geneve Early 20th Century Preservation in America Comparison with Western Australia The Architect(WA) vol28 no 1 1988 p31)

During the war Australian architects were exposed to the Modern Movement taking place in Europe and brought back their new ideas in the 1920s. Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Miles van der Rohe, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Willem Dudok in Europe and Frank Lloyd Wright in America, were changing the face of architecture with their ideas of ‘function and form’. (V. Davies op cit p6) These innovations also reached Australia by way of Architectural magazines and Home journals. However, these styles which represented the clean lines and efficiency of design, with large areas of glass and little decoration were not initially in demand.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégés Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahoney, came to Australia in 1914 but the country was slow to accept their style of ‘organic architecture’. (R Apperly, R. Irving P. Reynolds) Identifying Australian Architecture  – Angus and Robertson NZ 1989 pg 49)  Australians were conservative and slow to accept change in the 1920s.

The period from 1908 until the late 1920s saw the construction of many suburban Californian or Federation bungalows in areas such as South Perth, Kensington,  Applecross, East Fremantle, Floreat, Maylands, Claremont, Nedlands, Mt. Hawthorn, Mt. Lawley, Wembley, Daglish and Subiaco. These houses were recognisable by their leadlight windows, front porches, limestone base and low set limestone fences.
Inside, decorated ceilings were common, particularly with ship, fountain and wave motifs, fireplaces with tapestry brick and geometric-shape mirrors.
California has a similar history to W.A. with the discovery of gold being a major factor on the economy and also having a Mediterranean climate and relaxed life style. These houses were single story, free standing with a verandah and columns supporting the roof, and followed the design of the English Arts and Crafts movement which became extremely popular in America. (P. Cuffley Australian Houses of the Twenties and Thirties 1993 p51) ‘Bangla’ means a Bengali house and originates with the British Raj in India for a house built for a relaxed lifestyle on the commodious verandahs with easy access to the outdoors(R. Apperly R. Irving P Reynolds op cit pg 44) – an example of this style with a combination of Tudor Revival is to be seen in the Horace Costello (a designer builder of the period) house in Coode St, Como, built in 1930 just as the Depression saw a dramatic decline in building which lasted several years.

The careful conservatism and studied unoriginality referred to is most clearly demonstrated in Sir Bernard Evan’s London Court, running between Hay St and St George’s Terrace in the city, constructed in 1937 and financed by Claude de Bernales who had made his money on the Goldfields in the post Depression boom. This strongly demonstrated our English roots and our nostalgic attachment to the ‘homeland’ which was prevalent at the time, especially in W.A., probably due to our isolation from the rest of Australia. The style of Tudor Revival or ‘Stockbroker’s Tudor’ as it was disparagingly referred to, manifested itself in domestic architecture and there are still examples to be seen in areas such as South Perth (Karoo St) and Dalkeith. The Stockbroker style was a reference to the nouveau riche element commissioning many of the houses.( (C.Hamann Lecture on Australian Architecture 30/4/99) The Tudor detailing proclaimed the prosperity which followed the Great Depression and under-lined our Anglo-Saxon origins. The strong visual imagery was a feature of the 1930s and the theme is continued through the arcade. The houses in this style had imposing fireplaces, panelled wainscoating, beamed ceilings, wide picture rails, leadlight windows and follows on from the elaborate interiors of the Arts and Crafts style, (P. Cuffley op cit p48)

After the Depression and towards the late 1930s the Moderne or Functionalist style was looked upon as an antidote to the depression blues and the style we know today as Art Deco was widely used for cinemas and theatres to celebrate the Jazz Age albeit a little later than the rest of the world.
Architects such as Marshall Clifton, William Leighton, Ossie Chisolm, Harold Krantz and others utilised black glass, horizontal stripes and chrome plated steel. Waterfall, zigzag and sunburst motifs, exotic veneers and porthole windows gave Perth a celebration of Modernism. (J.White and M. Pitt Morison Western Towns and Buildings UWA Press Perth p 31) There were only a few houses built in this style as resistance was strong. Examples can be seen in Jutland Parade, Dalkeith, and Strickland/Ridge St, South Perth, where William Leighton built his home. ‘Blue Waters’ on Canning Highway is a copy of this style and was built in the 1950s. New materials and Modern art movements such as Cubism,Futurism and Constructivism with geometric lines, stylized and distinctive bold lettering, patterned brickwork, low relief ornament, polished granite, marble or terrazzo, vitrolite glass and the emphasis on the machine and speed contributed to these new ideas.
J.M. Richards commented in 1971 that “When the public was confronted in the 1930s with an architecture that looked so different from anything that had gone before, it began to understand that a real revolution was taking place – not just a change in fashion but a fresh start.”
The Como (Cygnet) theatre which remains today very much as it was when built and has a distinctly nautical appearance, had curved balustrading around the upper balcony and stairs, and wave motifs on the walls of the auditoriums and in the carpet pattern, was symbolic of the optimism which swept Perth and country centres at this time. (V. Geneve Versions of Modernism in WA 1930-40 MA Thesis UWA 1991 p 119) ‘Progressive’ was a key word – cinemas, hotels, apartments, hospitals, schools, houses, child health centres, Masonic halls all embraced the new architecture and projected the image of modernity.

Buildings such as the Lawson Flats, The First Church of Christ Scientist in St George’s Terrace and Perth Girls High School now the Police Department in East Perth were synonymous with the new look, although more symmetrical and less flamboyant than their counterparts. The Gleddon Building in Hay St was the highest skyscraper at this time and was similar in style to the Woolworth building in New York (1913) with its strong verticals, stepped tower and its Inter-war Skyscraper Gothic appearance. (R. Apperly R. Irving P. Reynolds op cit p92). There were height limits imposed and it had to have a light on its tower to prevent aeroplanes flying into it at night. Now it is totally dwarfed by the Bankwest tower.

Another style which was popular in this period of 1937-38 was Spanish Mission or the Mediterranean Spanish. The Spanish Mission theme came from America and one example is St. Columba’s Church in South Perth which has a replica in Hollywood L.A.
The Captain Stirling Hotel in Stirling Highway by Marshall Clifton in 1935, has stuccoed arches and a terracotta tiled roof which gives it a strong Mediterranean character, and he designed flats and houses, including his own, in this manner. (B. Chapman D Richards Marshall Clifton Architect and Artist Fremantle Arts Centre press, Fremantle, 1989 p58) This was a definite break with English tradition and much more suited to our lifestyle and was a romantic style which evoked the glamour of the movies which were a major influence at the time. He followed the view that  “In Western Australia it is possible to live much of our lives outdoors and it is desirable to bring out-of-doors into our homes wherever possible.”
Monsignor Cyril Hawes also used the Spanish Mission design for his churches and school buildings at Geraldton and Mullewa.( M and I Stapleton Australian House Styles The Flannel Flower Press, Sydney 1997, p76)

Although the period of ‘quiet revolution’ in such a variety of architectural styles was extremely short-lived, lasting only four years and ending with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, it was a period of renewed prosperity and optimism and brought to Western Australia its own distinctive style of Modernism and paved the way for the future.