This assertively modern style reached its zenith in the 1930s

Wisdom on the Rockefeller Centre, New York. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
Wisdom on the Rockefeller Centre, New York. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Art Deco. Ripon has one building that can claim the title – or rather, one façade.

The former Palladium Cinema in Kirkgate has Art Deco characteristics.

Antipodean Art Deco in Hobart, Tasmania. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Antipodean Art Deco in Hobart, Tasmania. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Its frontage is largely plain, except for the typical grooved and curved lintels over the windows.

When it had a sign, that was in the style, too; it would be good to see that long vertical accent replaced; it would be better than the ugly drainpipe now marring the frontage.

We should not expect, though, a return of the ‘efficient ladies orchestra’ that the cinema boasted when first opened in 1916. It received its Art Deco front in time for the 1936 mayoral reopening after refurbishment.

But what exactly is Art Deco? Like virtually all labels for artistic movements, the name was applied later to a style that came to be recognised as characteristic of its time. Art Deco followed another names movement – Art Nouveau.

One of the typical Art Deco windows of the former Palladium Cinema, Kirkgate. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

One of the typical Art Deco windows of the former Palladium Cinema, Kirkgate. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

That’s now a useful and well-recognised term, and as easy to understand as ‘Gothic’ (another post-event label). Gothic equals pointed arches; Art Nouveau equals sinuous curves based on natural forms.

When Art Nouveau was at its height, though, around the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, it had lots of names; it was called the ‘Style Liberty’ (after Liberty’s store in London, which was particularly identified with the movement’s products) and ‘Style Morris’ (though William Morris was hardly an Art Nouveau artist).

In the Netherlands it was ‘Paling Stijl’ (the ‘eel style’), and in Germany ‘Jugendstil’ (youth style), ‘Wellenstil’ (wave style) and ‘Lilienstil’ (lily style).

In the same way, it took some time before what was recognised as the successor style settled down as Art Deco. Before that, it was sometimes called ‘Jazz Modern’, ‘Style Chanel’ (after Coco Chanel), ‘Esprit Nouveau’ and, excitingly, ‘Aztec Airways’, suggesting both modernity and Central American influence.

It was really only in the 1960s that ‘Art Deco’ was agreed upon; the term was taken from the ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes’ held in Paris in 1925, and from a series of articles by the architect Le Corbusier about it, which hew published under the title ‘1925 Expo: Arts Déco.’

The name was popularised – we might say imposed – when art historian Bevis Hillier brought out the first major academic book on the style in 1968.

He called it ‘Art Deco of the 20s and 30s’ and in 1971 he organised an Art Deco exhibition in Minneapolis.

Though he was reluctant to give an absolute definition of the style, he said it was ‘an assertively modern style, developing in the 1920s and reaching its high point in the 1930s.’

He identified its sources as Russian Ballet, American Indian and Central American art, and its characteristics as symmetry, straight lines and the use of new materials.

If you are a regular watcher of the Antiques Roadshow you will recognise Art Deco jewellery, with its lines of diamonds or sunburst emblems – the sort of bijouterie favoured by women wanting the emulate the style of Mrs Simpson.

Much of this was influenced by Aztec or Mayan decorative art. It also appeared on pottery – Clarice Cliff’s ‘Bizarre’ range, also beloved of antiques programmes, is a good example.

The style was also used in interior decoration – carpets sported zig-zag lightning motifs or parallel lines in startling colours, furniture became as streamlined as a racing car, and walls and doors were provided with marquetry patterns or dressed in black and gold shapes.

Eltham Palace in London is a fine example of the style. It was built in 1933 for Stephen and Virginia Courtauld; the top-lit entrance hall, the house’s centrepiece, was designed by a Swede, Rolf Engströmer. And at the Chrysler Building in New York the entrance has Aztec-inspired lift doors and walls of rich woods and chrome.

The exterior of the Chrysler Building is in essence a functional skyscraper – until you reach the spire, where it breaks out in a firework display of zig-zag rays of black and chrome; on the building’s corners chrome, hook-billed eagles stare outwards.

Not far away is another skyscraper, 570 Lexington Avenue.

This was built for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA); it is crowned with a terracotta extravaganza of symbols representing electricity and radio waves. The structure was built in 1931.

RCA moved from Lexington Avenue to another Art Deco complex, the Rockefeller Centre, with its typically 1930s reliefs by Lee Lawrie, including a representation of Wisdom, with dividers and flowing beard above the main entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

These New York buildings were a display of wealth and power – but such opulence can be found on a more modest scale elsewhere. Tasmania has plenty of Art Deco buildings, especially in Launceston and Hobart.

In Lisbon the Eden Theatre is an excellent example of the style, while in this country, the Midland Hotel in Morecambe has Art Deco interiors and an exterior as svelte as a 1930s liner.

There are Art-Deco-style houses throughout the country – often characterised by cubic form, roof-top balconies and glistening white walls, as well as metal-framed windows.

Such ‘Crittall’ windows also appear in 1930s semis, which have curved front windows and, frequently, a metal sunburst gate and sunbursts in stained glass in the hall.

And talking of glass, even Ripon’s own Spa Baths, despite their Edwardian date, show what we might call proto-Art-Deco features in some of the glass in the foyer – especially the small leaf-and-flower motifs in the doors.

This may, of, course, just be co-incidence, though it would be good to think that the city has some pre-eminence in the style!