Art deco France: A complete guide

From stylish cafés to grand hotels, from Paris to Nice, Natasha Edwards returns to an elegant age of cocktails and jazz in the birthplace of the signature style of the 1920s
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The Independent Travel

Art Deco was born in France. Art Deco style - though not called that at the time - had an international showcase at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. All the big names participated: Pierre Partout designed the Maison du Collectionneur furnished by Ruhlmann, Robert Mallet-Stevens the Maison du Tourisme; there were pavilions for the Paris department stores, and 12 portals designed by Pierre Patout and René Lalique, among others. Although there were 21 international pavilions, France was chief arbiter of style and elegance.

The Exposition had originally been planned for 1915, but the First World War intervened, and when the show was finally held, it was during the euphoria of les années folles. Art Deco soon spread beyond Paris, from New York skyscrapers to Indian palaces, but it was in France that it really made its mark. There's still plenty left today, from modest public housing and cafés to the classical revival and grandiose spaces of the Palais de Chaillot, built for the 1937 World Fair. More than just a decorative style, Art Deco went with a lifestyle of cocktails, jazz, tango, ocean liners and cinema.

PICTURE PALACES?

The booming film industry fed Parisians' escapist fantasies, with glamorous picture palaces to match. Le Louxor cinema (170 boulevard Magenta) had a neo-Egyptian façade, reflecting the excitement surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922. (Long closed, it is due to reopen in 2009.) On boulevard de Strasbourg, L'Eldorado (now the Théâtre Comédia) opened in 1932 with a glazed roof in the foyer, wrought-iron balconies and stucco decor. Near the Champs-Elysées, the Balzac took an ocean-liner theme, with balustrading and porthole windows. Best of all was the Grand Rex (www.legrandrex.com), a temple to cinema on boulevard Poissonnière, with its illuminated crown standing out like a beacon against the sky. One of Europe's largest venues, inaugurated in front of 3,300 guests in 1932, its grande salle, now used for rock concerts as well as films, has a fantasy decor of Moorish minarets, palm trees, arcades and classical pediments under a starry sky.

TIME FOR A MEAL

Paris's quintessential Art Deco brasserie, La Coupole (102 boulevard du Montparnasse, 00 33 1 43 20 14 20) opened in 1927 in artistic Montparnasse. It had oceans of space perfect for people-watching, square columns painted by different artists, and geometric mosaic floors. Its decorators, the Solvet brothers, also designed the interior of Le Vaudeville (29 rue Vivienne, 00 33 1 4020 0462), a stockbroker favourite opposite the Bourse, with its mirrors, mosaics, marble and etched-glass panels. The seafood restaurant Maison Prunier (16 avenue Victor-Hugo, 00 33 1 44 17 35 85) is a feast of onyx, mosaic and marble, inside and out. It was opened in 1925 by Emile Prunier, who produced caviar in the Gironde, hence the sturgeon engraved on the glass. You can still taste Prunier's caviar (now farmed in the Dordogne) at the bar.

Outside Paris, there's more fish at L'Huitrière (00 33 3 20 55 43 41), Lille's smartest restaurant. Downstairs it has a delicatessen and fishmonger. On the façade, mosaics by the Breton artist Mathurin Meheut depict fish, shellfish and seaweed; inside, Desvres faience-tiled scenes of fishermen look down on the counters of gleaming fresh fish.

The Brasserie Georges (00 33 4 72 56 54 54) in Lyon makes La Coupole look small. Founded in 1836, it has long been a Lyon institution and was given a makeover in 1925, which is still intact, with leather banquettes stretching as far as the eye can see, polished wood, angular chandeliers, mirrors and painted ceilings. The place for shellfish and choucroute, it also holds the world record for the longest omelette norvégienne (baked Alaska).

WHERE CAN I SEE ART DECO ON SHOW?

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is being refurbished until September next year, though there is Art Deco jewellery on view in the Galerie des Bijoux (107 rue de Rivoli, 00 33 1 44 55 57 50, www.ucad.fr, Tues-Fri 11am-6pm, Sat-Sun 10am-6pm, €6/£4.30). Until then, look to the west of Paris.

Home to the Renault car factory, the aviation industry and the Boulogne film studios, the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt was moulded by the 1930s. That heritage is now traced in the "Parcours des années 30" (pick up a leaflet from the Musée des Années 30, see below, or look out for information panels around the town). At its centre was the Hôtel de Ville (town hall) designed by the Lyonnais architect Tony Garnier. Behind a severe façade, the massive central hall with glazed atrium has three ship-like decks with chrome railings, a frieze of La Danse by Joseph Bernard and furniture by Mallet-Stevens and René Herbst. Luxury villas, public housing, schools, the post office, synagogue and the red brick-and-concrete Eglise Ste-Thérèse also went up. Occupying a narrow corner wedge, Georges-Henri Pingusson's apartment block at 5 rue Denfert-Rochereau epitomises le style paquebot. Nearby are artists' studios and houses designed by the architects Le Corbusier, Mallet-Stevens, Fischer, Perret, Courrèges, Lurçat and Patout.

The Musée des Années 30 (Espace Landowski, 28 avenue André Morizet, 00 33 1 55 18 46 42), next to the town hall, is a good place to pull together all the different threads of Art Deco because it pays tribute to the countless artists, designers, potters and architects who lived in the suburb. Here you'll find monumental sculptures, paintings of the Ecole de Paris, including society portraits by Tamara de Lempicka, Cubist gouaches by Juan Gris, ceramics, architectural maquettes and precious cigarette cases by the jeweller Raymond Templier. Ruhlmann's Apollo buffet in wood and ivory inlay and a remarkable drinks cabinet by Herbst are highlights of a superb Deco furniture collection. Open Tues-Sun 11am-5.45pm, entrance €4.20/£3.

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR

Everyone knows about Reims's Gothic cathedral and great champagne. Fewer know that, after the devastating First World War bombardment, while the cathedral was meticulously restored, large parts of town had to be built from scratch. More than 300 architects flocked to Reims to participate in the reconstruction, endowing the city with some splendid Art Deco glazing and ironwork, from shopping arcades and apartments to the Waïda salon de thé and patisserie on place Drouet d'Erlon. Particularly emblematic is the Bibliothèque Carnegie (00 33 3 26 77 81 41), on place Carnegie, financed through a $200,000 gift by the American pacifist millionaire Andrew Carnegie as a gesture against the barbarity of war. It was inaugurated in 1928, and has just been restored so that Max Sainsaulieu's design, combining mahogany, marble and etched glass with a modern, functional use of space, can be fully appreciated. Its pared-back, pedimented façade won a prize at the 1925 Exposition. Open Tues-Sat 10am-1pm, 2-7pm, closed Thursday morning. Next year, Reims celebrates its Art Deco heritage with a programme of exhibitions, guided visits, film screenings and concerts. Details on 00 33 3 26 77 45 00, www.reims-tourisme.com.

SEASIDE AND SPA TOWNS

The new entertainment mood also hit seaside towns, where the pleasures of gaming joined those of bathing. At Biarritz, the Casino Municipal (www.lucienbarriere.com) sweeps along the Grande Plage, with its café, surfing shops, indoor swimming-pool below and palatial gaming rooms above. Nearby, at St-Jean-de-Luz, Mallet-Stevens built the massive Casino La Pergola, a huge reinforced concrete structure with shops and casino opened in 1928. But there was also a neo-Basque variant of Art Deco found in gabled villas, curvaceous lighthouses and the Chantaco golf club.

Spa towns also breathed the air of modernity, with hotels, casinos and theatres to amuse those taking the waters. In the Alpine spa of Aix-les-Bains, the Thermes Nationaux (www.aixlesbains.com, open May to mid-November), built in the 18th century around ruined Roman baths, gained an Art Deco hallway, channelling the sulphur-rich waters into an elegant fountain, and two splendid tiled treatment cabins, with mosaics that evoke burbling springs.

SO WHAT BECAME OF THE OCEAN LINERS?

The luxurious liners that carried both Hollywood stars and emigrants to the United States were superseded by air traffic after the wars. The steamships Ile-de-France and Normandie no longer exist, but in Cherbourg, the disused Gare Maritime Transatlantique is now part of the enormously successful Cité de la Mer (www.citedelamer.com) aquarium and maritime complex. With the construction of a deepwater dock in the 1920s, even the biggest liners could moor here. The new quayside railway terminus could receive four trains at once on its 225m platforms. The Salle des Bagages boasted mechanised luggage carousels, and nine doorways that opened directly on to the ships' gangways. While the station will remain open, your last chance to see the passenger halls before they close for restoration until 2007 is at an auction of ocean-liner furniture and memorabilia on 12 November (00 33 2 33 20 26 26, viewing from today to 11 November, 2-6pm, entrance €3/£2.10).

Another clever conversion is the La Piscine Musée d'Art et d'Industrie (00 33 3 20 69 23 60) in the northern town of Roubaix, originally an Art Deco swimming pool with stained-glass sunburst windows. It has been brilliantly transformed into a museum of 19th- and 20th-century fine art, ceramics and textiles. The building is as much of an attraction as its contents, keeping the pool as centrepiece with sculptures displayed on either side of a strip of water. Open Tues-Thurs 11am-6pm, Fri 11am-8pm, weekends 1-6pm, entrance €7/£5.

ANY OTHER SURPRISES?

At the Château de Candé, near Tours, the mix of Renaissance and pseudo-Gothic is nothing compared to the splendours of the 1930s Art Deco-tiled bathroom inside, just one of the improvements made by the millionaire Charles Bedaux, along with a telephone exchange, an organ and running water, and no doubt used by the château's most celebrated guests, the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, who were married here in 1937. Open Fri-Sun, April to October, or by reservation for groups at weekends (00 33 2 47 34 03 70, www.cg37.fr).

WHERE CAN I STAY?

The ultimate Art Deco experience is the Hôtel Martinez (00 33 4 92 98 73 00; www.hotel-martinez.com), built in Cannes in 1927 by Emmanuel Martinez, who modestly put his own name on the front. When it opened, it was France's largest hotel, boasting 476 master bedrooms and 56 bedrooms for guests' staff. A facelift in 2003 saw the creation of two rooftop suites and the Givenchy spa, and the renovation of the façade, grand staircase and hall. Doubles from €260/£186.

Opened in 1931, the Grand Hôtel (00 33 4 50 40 34 34, www.domaine-de-divonne.com) at Divonne-les-Bains, a spa near the Swiss border that was fashionable with both the aristocracy and industrialists, was a manifesto for modernity, with its streamlined white façades, balconies with views of Mont Blanc, and magnificent Art Deco lobby. It is now part of a complex that includes a spa, golf course, restaurant, theatre and casino. Doubles from €260/£186.

A more modest Art Deco hotel is to be found in the spa town of Dax, in south-west France. The Hôtel Mercure Splendid (00 33 5 58 56 70 70, www.accorhotels.com), with its striking pergola, has bedrooms still with their Art Deco furniture. But the pièce de résistance is the lobby, where a cascade of illuminated glass welcomes guests. Doubles from €107/£76.

Another Art Deco gem is the Hôtel Mercure in Biarritz (00 33 5 59 24 74 00, www.groupe-segeric.com). Built in 1928 by Louis-Hippolyte Boileau, one of the architects of the Palais de Chaillot, the hotel has a fine geometric façade, a mosaic porch, and Art Deco walnut furniture. Doubles from €110/£78.

STORY OF THE STYLE

Art Deco was a reaction against the overblown mishmash of the Beaux-Arts style, and followed on from the organic fluidity of Art Nouveau, but rejected the latter's excess of decoration. It was a meeting of rationalist visions and the French decorative arts tradition, the industrial era and a last gasp of handmade luxury.

Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, African art, modern dance and the machine age all provided inspiration. In the decorative arts, this meant the use of lacquer, exotic woods, glass, wrought iron, and tubular steel, and sharkskin, parchment and ivory, and a love of contrasting colours and textures. In architecture, this meant floral and figurative motifs and relief friezes, vertical fluting, zigzags, streamlining, stylised geometrics, and, above all, the privileging of light and space, exploiting the potential of reinforced concrete, large windows and skylit atriums.

Long before the term Art Deco was coined, it was known as le style paquebot. Many of the leading architects and designers, such as Patout and Ruhlmann, worked on the interiors of La Normandie and the Ile-de-France, a style that they transposed on to dry land with prow-like forms, porthole windows and funnel turrets.

Originally, there was no clear divide from Modernism. Both looked to modernity, but Le Corbusier's Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouvel at the 1925 Exposition forecast the break to come. If Modernism was rationalist and functional, Art Deco was more about surface. While Modernism was favoured for schools, town halls and petrol stations, Art Deco was perfect for cinemas, hotels and entertainment.

Robert Mallet-Stevens is the architect who best bridges the two movements. A participant in the 1925 Exposition and founding president of the breakaway Union des Artistes Modernes in 1929, his masterpiece is the Villa Noailles (00 33 4 94 08 01 98, www.villanoailles-hyeres.com), built for Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles at Hyères, in the South of France, and restored in the 1990s for exhibitions. Extended over the years and decorated by Eileen Gray, Pierre Chareau, Francis Jourdan and Theo van Doesburg, it boasts sea views, terraces, wrought-iron verrières and a Cubist garden. A stream of guests, including Buñuel, Giacometti, Stravinsky and Poulenc, bathed and tried out new exercises in the pool and on the roof terrace. Man Ray filmed part of Mystère du Château de Dé here. Open for exhibitions (Olivier Amsellem, 23 Oct-11 Dec), Wed-Sun 10am-noon, 2-5pm, free.

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