Deco-dant Style

Posted by Jill Chivers in My Story

Greetings from Napier, the Art Deco capital of the world! We are up to blog #39 and thanks for reading. Napier is on the east coast of the north island of New Zealand and has a reputation the world over for ‘doing deco’. After the 1931 earthquake, the city was rebuilt by three architects (and many builders and craftsmen) who all agreed that a consistent style should be used for every new building.

Art schmart, deco schmeco? The art deco style is very distinctive. In architectural terms, two iconic buildings characterise the style, both in New York: The Rockefeller Center (now famous to a whole new generation as being the workplace of those funny folk on the TV show 30 Rock) and the Chrysler Building.

Art deco had an influence on everything during its time – architecture; car design; interiors for everything from homes to offices to ships; modes of travel; music (art deco is sometimes used interchangeably with the term the jazz age); and of course clothing. The way I think of art deco is: if you can imagine Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot wearing it, travelling on it, eating in it, dining with someone dressed like it, displaying it in his Whitehaven Mansions apartment — then its likely to be art deco.

You can read up about art deco in many places on the internet, but here’s the bits that were relevant to this blog. Art deco had three main influences:

  1. the massive progress of science, technology and automation and the effects of these on the industrialised world, like factories, car manufacture, ship building, skyscraper construction and other male-dominated and gripping areas of enterprise like that. How this showed up in the art deco style was in the use of “speed lines” and lightning flashes (the zig zag pattern)
  2. the dawning of a new era and overthrowing of old conventions. How this showed up in the art deco style was use of new-day-dawning motifs such as “sun rays” and rising sun images. They also used contemporary images of the day to embody this influence and one of these was the Egyptian motifs. King Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in 1922 and as the London Times co-sponsored the expedition, they were kind enough to publish and distribute photographs of it in their newspaper. Art deco designers the world over grasped a hold of those icons and images and wove them into their designs. In Napier, indigenous Maori designs were also integrated into the art deco styles. This was considered very avante garde at the time (and startlingly obvious to us now)
  3. the increasing independence of women. We were still a long way from Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique and Germaine Greer was yet to be born, but women were making inroads into mobilising themselves out of the Second Class Citizen car, and were achieving things that we can’t imagine having to fight for now, like getting the vote. Art deco was in its heyday after World War One as women were breaking out of the box and doing eye-brow raising things like wearing pants, especially if they had a temporary job like being a truck mechanic in the army reserve. Many of the photographs of art deco show art deco fashions, as in the drop-waist, feathered head-band, ankle-strap, opera-length tied pearls kind of fashion. But when it comes to the graphics, motifs, images and icons of the art deco style as it relates to Influence #3, it seems to come down to naked ladies in athletic poses. These are usually bronzed and either holding up lamps the size of giant beach balls, twirled around long drapey pieces of fabric in Cirque Du Soleil style, or contorted into a back-arching pose that makes you wonder if her vertebrae is perhaps made of rubber. Maybe the thinking was: if women are independent enough to wear pants and have jobs and fix carburetors and vote and drink beer, they’re independent enough to be shown nude. I don’t know. But I do find this element/influence of the art deco style to be particularly fascinating.

Art deco came to a screeching halt as style de rigeur during the Great Depression. It was considered inappropriately ostentatious, gaudy and gauche to have all those images and icons of prosperity, when people were lining up around the block to get food stamps. You can see their point, can’t you. But I’m sure glad that the places like Napier maintained this style and we get to go and look at it. As a beautiful little city, Napier is a stand out, and its because of this almost institutionalised art deco-ness.

Back to Poirot. And the pervasive presence of the art deco style is one of the things that makes watching Agatha Christie’s Poirot such a treat. The attention to detail in everything on this show (over 19 years in the running) is amazing. Everything from Poirot’s spats (these are things he wears on his shoes, and do not refer to a small altercation or something a cat does if she’s cross with you) to his cutlery is carefully considered. Although there’s nary a bronzed naked lady juggling illuminated globes to be seen. Not Poirot’s style. Right?

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