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Allure of the exotic

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Art Deco 1910-1939 At the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7, until 20 July

Art Deco, explain Charlotte and Tim Benton in the scholarly and sumptuous catalogue to this sumptuous (and definitely unmissable) exhibition, 'is the name given to the 'modern', but not Modernist, 20th-century style that came to worldwide prominence in the inter-war years and left its mark on nearly every visual medium, from fine art, architecture and interior design, to fashion and textiles, film and photography'.

As definitions go, this is probably as good as you'll get. In truth, Deco was not so much a style as a way of life, the essence of an age characterised, in the industrial societies of the West, by the rise of consumerism, mass production, mass democracy and a new spirit of self-indulgence and enjoyment, which social conservatives deplored as mere hedonism. It was frowned on in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany and found its fullest expression in the United States, where Deco and 'streamlining' pervaded every area of design and industrial production, from railway locomotives and skyscrapers to coffee pots and meat slicers.

The response of British critics to the Deco phenomenon was frequently as hostile as that of their predecessors to Art Nouveau - this was 'the decoration of a civilisation without dignity, a civilisation ostentatious and capricious'. For the apostles of the Modern Movement, Deco was morally, as well as visually, contemptible. Pevsner described the 1925 Paris Exhibition, usually seen as the launching pad for the international spread of the style, as an 'inexhaustible source of sham splendour', and its decorative consequences as 'freakish' and 'sickening'. (His strident condemnation of the Hoover factory on London's Great West Road is often quoted, but would have been endorsed by most progressive thinkers of the period. ) Traditionalists were equally scathing. The Classicist Hubert Worthington, speaking as president of the RIBA, condemned the 'modernistic' look as effeminate and 'un-English'.

Its decorative exuberance and shameless acceptance of facadism were anathema in a country where the moralism of Arts and Crafts reinforced the purism of the Modern Movement.

'Jazz', applied to issues of design and decoration, became a term of abuse.

For most people, however, vivid colour, exotic forms - often derived from a study of ethnic art - and the unbridled use of new materials, such as chrome-plating, tubular steel, plate glass and Bakelite, were the ingredients of a richer and more enjoyable way of life. As Gillian Naylor points out in a fine contribution to the accompanying book (a bargain at £24.95), strict Modernist and Deco influences frequently fused together. Wells Coates would surely have rejected the Deco label, but his famous Ekco radios are now widely considered Deco classics. Raymond McGrath, an architect given the seal of approval by inclusion in FRS Yorke's The Modern House, praised the (undisputably Deco) foyer of London's Savoy Theatre and was responsible for some unashamedly decorative restaurant interiors.

A prominent contemporary architect, who would at one time have been described as a Post-Modernist, told me that Deco was 'the only acceptable style of the 20th century'. That may have been the effect of the V&A's potent, private view cocktails, but this exhibition, beautifully designed by Casson Mann, should disarm even the most ingrained moralists.

Of course, there are some exhibits that are frankly hideous - I cannot share the widespread enthusiasm for Clarice Cliff - alongside things of wondrous beauty. The lacquer screen, made in about 1928, which Eileen Gray had in her Paris flat to the time of her death is a star item from the V&A's own collections. Oliver Bernard's foyer for the Strand Palace Hotel, rescued by the V&A 30 years ago, is a stunner - and should be reinstated in its original setting.

The public, certain to visit this show in huge numbers, will welcome the inclusive approach of its curators - I doubt that Gray would have seen her work as Deco. In the past 30 years, Deco has become hugely popular and it is still collectable by those of relatively modest means. Architects such as Robert Venturi and Michael Graves (and in Britain, Terry Farrell and Piers Gough) were pioneers in the revival of interest in the style, endorsing its populism as wholeheartedly as the Modernist pioneers deplored it. Deco societies in the USA, Australasia and South Africa campaign to preserve buildings and interiors with the same fervour that Docomomo applies to the legacy of the Bauhaus.

Architecture is never an easy art to show in galleries and it is perhaps an understated element in this vast assembly of objects from around the globe. (For the wonders of 'Indo Deco' see Amin Jaffer's essay in the exhibition book. ) Deco was, in any case, only one strand in the diverse architectural culture of the 1920s and 30s - progressive Classicism, as practised in the USA, Italy, Scandinavia and Britain, was arguably the dominant style of the age, decisively succumbing to Modernism only after 1945. The single greatest achievement of the Deco age remains the skyline of Manhattan, where architects such as William van Alen, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon and Raymond Hood created an architecture of dramatic form and rich decoration that still resonates today.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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