From Art Deco to Sixties chic - is there a modern classic for you?

Forget Georgian villas and Victorian townhouses - the most fashionable homes come from more recent periods. Helen Brown gets to grips with the retro revival
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The Independent Online

1930s ART DECO

The art deco style appeals perfectly to Noughties post-minimalists. These living spaces were designed to worship light and space, while at the same time cherishing the traditional values of craftsmanship.

And the good news is that there's still a fair amount of it about, bringing romance to coastal towns (for city evacuees or downshifters) or a sense of the holiday spa to the inner city (north London and Glasgow have a good share of the buildings).

The spaces are neutral enough to allow modern families to install the flat-screen TVs and those bright pieces of ethnic furniture, but distinguished enough for lovers of period detail to spend dinner-parties pointing out the immaculately turned twist of a balcony rail or the smooth tessellations of a parquet floor (presumably with the wood "customised" by spilt champagne from the Wodehousian era, and then deepened by the thoughtful red wines of generations of intellectuals).

There is a subtle difference between the Modernist buildings of that age (more right angles) and the feminine swoops of true art deco - so ensure that your estate agent knows exactly what you're looking for.

With their sweeping curves of classical white, the art deco buildings of the 1930s manage simultaneously to be timeless and utterly of their era.

Inspired by the "primitive" arts of Africa, Egypt, Aztec Mexico and Japan, and streamlined by the breezy grandeur of the aviation/cruise liner era, this architecture perfectly mirrors the aspirations of our current cosmopolitan and technologically fast-moving age.


These are landmark buildings - one-offs. Their white stucco stands out amid the concrete, brick and stone of any street.

Because art deco is from a more formal time, these properties embrace light and space while still acknowledging the need for privacy. These homes predate open plan, which makes them ideal for young families. Doors can be shut on teenagers' messes or home offices.

The buildings were so beautifully made that you're unlikely to find structural problems. Buyers will also have endless fun shopping for original furnishings in chrome and bakelite. And the views tend to be spectacular.


Art deco buildings are hard to find and not always easy to maintain. Buyers might struggle to track down craftsmen able to renovate that beautiful white stucco on curved walls.


Forget the psychedelic spirals and all that tie-dye - Lego-effect architecture with lots of right angles is where Sixties nostalgia is at now. And not just among a few urban trendies; late last year, the Royal Institute of British Architects mounted the first exhibition comprehensively to explore the ground-breaking work of Eric Lyons and his Merseybeat-era Span Housing dream.

Given the demand for new homes today, Lyons' experiments in efficient, compact community living - with the emphasis on landscaping, shared open spaces and management by residents - are having something of a renaissance.

Villages of flats and terraced housing, like the Span development in New Ash Green in Kent, were customised to cater for democratic new social groupings of young professionals. The teenagers of the 1950s were not going to carry on living at the parental home until they got married. They wanted groovy spaces of their own, man, with neighbours to visit and slouch about with on bean bags in split-level, open-plan interiors .

These were playpens for democratic socialising, record swapping and inter-compound flirtations. Architects such as the Archigram group were proposing pod living, the Blow-out Village and the Cushicle personalised enclosure. Films of the decade, such as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, characterised the space-ship idea of self-contained, toy-hued living, often deeply indebted to the Scandinavian style of design simplifiers such as Arne Jacobsen.

Windows were coffee-shop wide and sometimes a bit off-centre as architects drew on the Bauhaus for inspiration. Net curtains hit the bins and bedroom doors were exchanged for beaded curtains - for the first time in mainstream British living, guests got a glimpse of their hosts' bed linen.


"Classic" 1960s flats went up everywhere, particularly in suburbs and in new towns such as Milton Keynes and Stevenage. They're easy to find and relatively cheap unless you're going for the work of an iconic designer like Lyons, which will put a "landmark" premium on the price. The flats are simple, easy to maintain and perfect for young urban professionals.


Not all of these were terribly well built, and many now suffer from structural problems such as rising damp or dodgy cladding. Some were fitted with a now-useless underfloor heating system. Those resident-run maintenance schemes that have survived the decades can also lead to some very un-Sixties bickering.


It's not for everybody, the architecture of the 1970s. Certainly, it wasn't very "cool" in its time - those humble, nineto-five homes with their regimented, Reggie Perrin dark red bricks and interiors dingy with dark wood and the scent of lemon-polished teak doors.

But, for a small but growing clique of househunters, the architecture of the suburban sitcom is making a comeback. You may think you hear the sound of canned laughter, but you'd have sniggered at the thought of the recent dark wood revival before it happened. Now, folk across the country are busy ebony-staining their Ikea pine.

There are some things to be said for the period. For a start, building methods and materials were more solid and dependable than they had been in the 1960s. These were the houses Sixties swingers moved into when they got jobs and began to reproduce.

There was a oddly domestic masculinity to their design: sturdy but cosy, these were the types of places to which Jerry returned after a hard day kowtowing to "sir" to ease on the slippers and pour a resigned G&T, and which Margo showed off to her neighbours.

These were the homes in which punks came of age, piercing their noses in their nicely appointed bedrooms before vomiting over avocado bathroom suites. The appeal may, for now, lie with the ironists who love the party kitsch and the idea of Penelope Keith floating about in chiffon. But you never know.


The properties are solidly built, no-nonsense homes, great for families and boasting a heavy dose of retro period chic for those who really like their teak.


Although some - like the property above - can be light and spacious, most 1970s homes impose their era rather heavily on their occupants. You have to go with it all the way.


Are the 1990s too recent to be retro? It was certainly a decade of minimalism. The conspicuous consumption of the glossy 1980s was behind us, and it was a time to get serious about raw materials. We chucked out the chintz and, like Zen meditators, studied the textures of unvarnished wood and stripped brick. We took architecture back to its bones to ponder pipework and plumbing.

Yet this modest exposure of the machinery of modern living was a double bluff on the part of a number of highly aspirational architects. The 1990s saw the rise of a dazzling clutch of big names. Norman Foster and egos of his ilk were establishing themselves. It was a time of bold juxtapositions: the London Eye and Foster's "gherkin" threw up a skyline challenge to the venerable dome of St Paul's, strange glass homes slotted into the middles of ancient streets, and hip practices gained ground fast.

As Jeremy Melvin argues in his 2000 book Young British Architects, the 1990s opened the way for modern architecture to engage, for the first time in Britain, in a meaningful dialogue with the existing urban fabric. In the residential market, Melvin also notes the importance of a new breed of client, one whose interest lay between social obligation and self-promotion.

The public engaged in the dialogue, too. Channel 4 began screening Grand Designs and newspapers such as this one began running articles just like this one. It was essential to have an opinion on the subject.


Nineties homes at the "designer" end of the scale are always going to be talking points. As they wear their structural planning on their sleeves, there are likely to be few nasty surprises. You may even be able to invite the architect to your housewarming for interior tips.


You may have trouble establishing retro kudos, and many of these homes are still as controversial as they were when they were built. So your local Victorian heritage preservation society may blacklist you. These properties appeal more to the head than to the heart but then, maybe we just haven't yet lived with them long enough.