Art Deco – a design style with enduring appeal

I was asked to contribute an article on an ‘art’ theme to the January 2018 edition of TopicUK magazine for Wakefield. With a deadline to meet and a free rein, it was an ideal opportunity to write about one of my personal interests – Art Deco – while also giving it a local flavour with a link to Wakefield’s history!

The term ‘Art Deco’ is something of a catch-all. It refers to a design style that really came to the fore in the 1920s, although its origins can be traced further back in time. It remains hugely popular today and there continues to be big demand for authentic pieces of the period. The Art Deco term can be applied to just about anything from architecture and decorative arts through to fashions in clothes and furniture and household wares. There were even fonts and a colour palette used in printing that came to typify the style (think of railway posters advertising streamline trains and glamourous destinations). The style persisted well into the 1930s and was revived again in the 1950s, albeit in updated forms

But I’m getting ahead of myself. World War I had changed everything and people were ready to break from the rather fusty traditions of the Edwardian era. Women had begun to find freedom, going out into the workplace and becoming self-supporting. Their skirts and hairstyles became shorter (material was expensive and the bustle didn’t really lend itself to working either in offices or on the factory floor). Corsets and stays were unfastened and discarded. Men’s fashions were changing too – the very formal tailoring (and tailcoats) of the Victorian and Edwardian periods were exchanged for a more modern line that still forms the basis of men’s suits and jackets today.

People wanted to put the memories of war behind them and those who had survived wanted to celebrate! This was the age of jazz, the age of swing: the beat grew faster, the rhythm was syncopated and folk were in the mood to party! Think Flappers, Gatsby, Josephine Baker and the Roaring Twenties!

Art Deco was originally about expensive objets, created for the very wealthy, in precious woods, metals and jewels. The name Art Deco was actually coined (although not until the 1960s) from an abbreviation of the title of the 1925 Paris exhibition, the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, intended to showcase the best of modern decorative art and international design. Art Deco took its cues from African, South American Aztec and European influences. In the USA and Western Europe, the style was developed further – the organic and naturalistic designs of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements were simplified and streamlined; unnecessary curls and twirls were replaced by more geometric motifs.

Meanwhile, Hollywood films such as the Busby Berkeley musicals were helping to spread this new style moderne around the globe, creating a demand from cinema audiences wanting to have some of the Art Deco magic in their own homes. That demand was met by mass manufacturers whose factories had turned from producing weapons and the machinery of war to creating household wares and goods for the popular market. They used chrome, glass and new materials such as Bakelite plastic to produce less expensive artefacts intended for everyday use.

I guess I fell in love with Art Deco long before I knew what the term meant: indeed, I can trace my fascination with the design style back to when I was a child in the 1950s. On my mother’s dressing table sat a dish, made in amber coloured glass, about 12 inches across and in the shape of a butterfly. There was something about the shape, the style and the colour that just appealed to me. I don’t know how my mother came by it but I later inherited it and for nearly 30 years it sat on a chest of drawers in my guest bedroom. Remarkably, although it must be somewhere approaching 70 years old, if not older, it’s still in perfect condition.

It was a trip to the opening of a new exhibition at Pontefract Museum a few years ago that made me re-evaluate the dish. The museum had a new display dedicated to Bagley Glass, a Knottingley bottle works originally established in 1871 by cousins William Bagley (1842-1924) and John William Bagley (1838-1897) and whose fathers were also glass makers from Yorkshire. The company used coal to fire the furnaces in which their glass was produced – following in the footsteps of an emerging glass-making industry: there had been a glass works in the Knottingley area since the 17th century and so much glass was produced in the area that the nearby village of Houghton acquired the name of Glasshoughton!

Bagleys, as Bagley Glass was to be known, went on to make decorative household glassware and, by the middle of the 20th century, they had become the biggest manufacturer of pressed glass in England, exporting their products all over the world, adapting their styles to meet the demands and expectations of their customers.* (Glass making continues in Knottingley to this day although the company is now part of Stölzle Flaconnage Ltd. under whose name the factory now trades.)

Anyway, back to the museum. On display that day was a butterfly dish, identical to mine but in green glass. My interest was kindled! In fact, on closer examination back home, quite a few pieces of glassware that I’d inherited from my parents turned out to be Bagley glassware; none of it particularly valuable (sadly): you can pick pieces up for around £12-£15 at antiques shops without trying too hard simply because it was so mass-produced and just about every home in the area would probably have had some in everyday use. Nonetheless, my butterfly dish has now been moved to the relative safety of a display cabinet!

A quick internet search revealed that other companies such as Davidson’s and Sowerby’s, both of Gateshead, and Jobling, of Sunderland, as well as European manufacturers such as Walther and Sohne of Germany were also turning out pressed glassware for the domestic market, again keeping up to date with the trend for Art Deco designs. There products have the style, and the look, of the 1920s and 30s but without the price tag of more illustrious names such as René Lalique and they provide a much cheaper starting point for anyone interested in acquiring a few pieces of their own. Of course, you can buy modern Art Deco glassware; manufacturers today are still producing goods that reflect the public interest in the style and I have purchased some 21st century examples myself. Perhaps, one day, they will be the sought-after antiques of the future?

(*) There is an excellent book detailing the history of Bagley glass and from which some of my notes above have been taken. If you’d like to learn more, do try to get hold of a copy of Bagley Glass, by Angela Bowey with Derek and Betty Parsons. Mine is the third edition published in 2010 but a fourth edition is now available.